Apr 052010

Aligning economic value with currently unpriced things—in nature and society—could be the ticket to global sustainability.

The week started off on a dark note. From São Paulo to Seoul, Moscow to Delhi, Toronto to Beijing, a record 4,000 cities, towns, and municipalities dimmed their lights for Earth Hour 2010—a project kicked off three years ago by drought-addled Australians in an effort to draw attention to the effects of global climate change.

This year, by the time lights had twinkled off first in Sydney and then in Samoa 26 hours later (due to a kink in the International Date Line), the World Wildlife Fund estimated that approximately 1 billion people in 125 countries participated. And as is fast becoming de rigeur for all such grassroots events, those people were blogging, webcasting, and tweeting in force, explaining what a dark Eiffel tower looks like and how a Sphinx in the shadows appears.

Even the city that never sleeps got in on the action, with a darkened Empire State Building and Times Square. Not quite as impressive, perhaps, as Toronto’s city-wide eclipse, but it was enough to at least answer the challenge of Dr. Johan Rockström, who a few days earlier had told an audience of New Yorkers, “I know Stockholm will participate; I don’t know about New York.” Rockström, the director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, was in town for the State of the Planet 2010 summit, hosted by Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

The event, at which yours truly was also in attendance, was billed as an attempt to bring leading thinkers from academia, business, and international governance to address four pressing challenges: climate change, poverty, economic recovery, and ineffective international systems. Events of this ilk have the tendency to go either of two ways: One is the epic gloom-and-doom archetype, where attendees are assailed with terrifying statistics on dark topics like extinction, malaria, and sea-level rise, and where afterwards, one feels compelled to curl up in a fetal position, or perhaps to crawl into the cold, unlit apartment of No Impact Man. The other is a techno-optimistic archetype—where speakers assail you with “Buy our green gadgets, our biofuels, our PHEVs, and the world will become a happier place.” This conference, marbling anti-poverty gurus like Jeffrey Sachs with the CEO of PepsiCo India, managed to eschew those stereotypes, making for a more nuanced discussion of economic development in the age of the Anthropocene.

“All the science shows that technology is not a silver bullet. We’ll have to see lifestyle changes as well,” said Rockström, in the day’s first panel on global warming. Yet speakers also emphasized the potential of technology to realize dramatic changes, particularly in the developing world. In Africa, Professor of Professional Practice Glenn Denning told the audience, when agriculture expands, people start saving. And the first they do is buy mobile phones. Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg spoke of great opportunities to link cell-phone usage to delivery of healthcare and education in poor areas. “We’ve seen that health workers can register information with mobile. We’ve seen rising school attendance. They do things with mobile phones that we in the West could never imagine.”

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