'Sustainability is like a dorky, spotty adolescent'

Sustainable Transformation

Wayne Visser social

'The sustainability discourse all too often still suffers from a pedantic raised finger. Instead of focusing on everything we will no longer be allowed to do, it would be better to focus on what the ideal world would look like and how we can create it, says professor Wayne Visser, chair holder of the BASF-Port of Antwerp-Randstad Chair in Sustainable Transformation.

In his book Sustainable Frontiers Wayne Visser compares sustainability to a dorky adolescent who did come to the party but turns off the music and tells everyone that we would all be much happier if we did not have so much fun. The key to having fun, according to our party-pooper, is self-control. 

A completely incorrect approach, according to you. So what is the right approach?

‘The sustainability movement has failed in the area of storytelling. Instead of listing what will no longer be possible, we have to explain how we will improve our quality of life in the future. We have to depict future scenarios that focus on living in a world that is smart, safe, sharing, sustainable and satisfying.’ 

What exactly do you mean by that?

‘In a smart world, we are all connected in a way that makes us stronger and enables us to share what we believe is important, gives us a voice and provides us with an opportunity to actively help decide on how we are governed. It has to be a safe world in which we take control over the risk of destruction, a world that is resilient in times of crisis. Where we are armed against all forms of disruption, whether it is climate change or other changes. A sharing and sustainable society is an inclusive society, where nobody is left out, where diversity prevails and discrimination is not tolerated, and where we make a smarter use of limited natural resources, knowing that it is better to share them than to own everything. We get a satisfying life by focusing on physical health and mental well-being, and by ensuring our existence is meaningful. Only very few people will deny that these are the outlines of an ideal society.’

How do we overcome obstacles between the world as we know it and the world as it could be?

‘It starts with recognizing there is a gap between the current reality and this dream: there is a lot of disruption, disconnection, inequality, destruction and dissatisfaction. Very familiar feelings and also proof that society as we know it is falling apart. It is important to emphasize that this is not a personal impression; these are scientifically identifiable issues that also have a solution.’

How do we get to that better world?

‘It requires clear goals. Goals that people can believe in and be enthusiastic about. You have to be ambitious. You won't inspire anyone with a goal of reducing waste by five percent. But those ambitious goals can only be reached by taking small steps. Fortunately, we live in a time where lots of innovations fit in with that vision of the future, and they work. It is a matter of up-scaling.’ 

How do we turn change into a bigger and wider transformation?

‘It requires a sense of urgency, like we are currently seeing with social movements such as Youth For Climate. That is essential, because we need to build awareness that we can no longer continue the way we are doing now. Not as individuals, not as companies and not as governments.’ 

At the same time, there is still a majority of people who are afraid of change and the loss of things we are used to.

‘Change comes from a few forerunners, but at some stage you reach a tipping point, where the majority of people change their behavior to comply with the new standard. It is important to know that you do not need 50% of the population to reach that tipping point. It goes much faster. Although it is also typically human to wait until it is almost too late to take action.’ 

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