We’ve come to Barcelona from 22 countries across the world – from Europe, Asia, the Indian sub-continent, Africa, North America, Australia and the Middle East. But not to swim and soak up the sun (although we’ll get a fair bit of that in, I suspect). Members and friends of two open, global learning communities – ebbf and the International Environment Forum – have joined forces at their annual conferences to explore to learn about, talk about, do something about co-creating sustainable wealth.
First question! What is sustainable wealth? No one is too sure. The business and world of work people in ebbf know what wealth is. The IEF people know what sustainability is. But sustainable wealth?
Arthur Dahl, a marine biologist who has for 40 years been working in the field of sustainable development and is both the president of IEF and a member of the board of ebbf, kicks off the `learn event’ by answering this question with his appropriately titled presentation `What is sustainable wealth?’
He made some simple but profound observations. Ecology – the sustainable part of sustainable wealth – is, he said, a dynamic process. The economy – the wealth part of the sustainable wealth – is also a dynamic process. Ecology is a complex planetary system; economics is a complex human system. Ecology is threatened by the economy; the economy is threatened by unsustainability.
Sustainability is a characteristic of dynamic systems that continue to function, perform essential processes, maintain dynamic balance and can change to adapt to changing conditions. Anything can be sustained: any system, organism, business, government, the human species, the biosphere, civilization, the economy. Different systems are sustained over different time frames – 100 years or more for an individual, Homo sapiens 200,000 years, planet Earth another billion years.
Dahl made a distinction between individual and collective wealth and noted that war, revolution and violence are the destruction of wealth. He examined what most people mean by wealth: money, or material wealth. The purpose of life for many people is to become rich. But does wealth equal happiness? What is happiness?
Some people, he said, see material wealth as morally suspect, and there is, he admitted, religious texts that say that wealth can be a barrier between the individual and God, or can prevent a person from attaining his or her highest self. But, he went on, there are different sorts of wealth. For example, if you consider wealth as capital, then it is a means to invest and is an essential economic component along with labour. It empowers development and provides savings for the future,
And what is the purpose of the economy if not to generate material wealth? Dahl answered by quoting a statement of the Bahá’í International Community:
The ultimate function of economic systems should be to equip the peoples and institutions of the world with the means to achieve the real purpose of development: that is, the cultivation of the limitless potentialities latent in human consciousness.
He talked about poverty – the absence of wealth, where people are unable to meet basic needs, feed or educate their children, or are homeless – and how the extremes of wealth and poverty destabilize society at all levels. He gave some examples of unsustainable wealth: fossil fuels; derivatives in financial markets; debt, growth and interest; the biggest multinationals who are beyond regulation.
Dahl drew on Eric Beinhocker’s The Origin of Wealth to describe the elements of a successful business, one that has the right social architecture and culture, values and trust. Perhaps most fascinating to this writer was Dahl’s description of different kinds of wealth. Knowledge, he said, is the true wealth. He examined social wealth: for the individual this might be the family, the community, social relationships, dignity, belonging to a group. For the collective it would include institutions of governance, laws, a system of justice. For the economy this would be businesses, structures of the economic system, banks and a financial system.
Intellectual wealth includes knowledge and the main knowledge systems of science and religion, arts, crafts and technologies. Interestingly, intellectual wealth increases the more it is shared. This concept took the imagination of the break-out group I attended afterwards, with people exploring the idea that even monetary wealth is increased, through the multiplier effect, the more it is shared = spent, and that all kinds of wealth are only wealth if they are shared with others.
`The accumulation of knowledge is the real wealth of a civilization,’ Dahl stated.
He went on to consider spiritual wealth: `You can’t it with you’ but `Maybe real wealth for the individual is what you can take with you’: love, spiritual qualities, service to others.
Dahl ended his keynote with this thought set out by the Bahá’í International Community:
. . . the pathway to sustainability will be one of empowerment, collaboration and continual processes of questioning, learning and action in all regions of the world… As the sweeping tides of consumerism, unfettered consumption, extreme poverty and marginalization recede, they will reveal the human capacities for justice, reciprocity and happiness.
You can find more information about IEF at www.iefworld.com
Click here to view some photos of this intro session on ebbf’s Facebook photo album, what is sustainable wealth?.
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