Thursday, June 19, 2008

Planet and People

When I hear people discussing sustainability (and that’s happening more each day), one thing jumps out: most of them stick to the environment. Carbon footprints, global warming, water shortages and the rest. Nothing wrong with that, but it isn’t enough. Sure the environment needs fast action but to shape our future we need to focus on Planet and People. We have to work on them both at the same time. It’s always good to be able to call on the support of a Nobel Prize winner for an idea. In this case I can claim five. The big five were part of a bunch of economists faced with a huge challenge. To rank a list of 30 different solutions to ten of the world's biggest problems. The problems had been worked up by 50 academics, all specialists in their fields, so a lot of heavy-weight brain power went into this project along with a good solid kicker. The economists’ rankings were dollar-based. They had to pretend they had an ‘extra’ $75 billion to spend over the next four years and work out the relative returns to get to their winning solutions.

So much for the rules. What topped the list as the best return on investing extra dollars? Global warming? No, it came in bottom as number 30. New ways to reduce fuel consumption? Wrong again. Pretty much all the top ten investments were aimed at malnutrition, disease control and education. People power. It’s a simple idea. “If an oxygen mask falls from the compartment above your head, put on your own mask first.” There is no future for a world where everyone is too exhausted, too hungry and too under-educated to help with the problems at hand. If we don’t look after our people first, we won’t have a dog’s show of looking after our world.

The top ranked solution to the world’s biggest problems? To get Vitamin A and Zinc supplements to 80 percent of the 140 million children who live in developing countries. Both Zinc and Vitamin A are essential to how kids develop physically and mentally but the problem is that Zinc is found in protein-rich foods, dairy, whole grains and Vitamin A in dairy, oily fish and veges like spinach. The kids we’re talking about get far too little of either and the effects will be felt for decades in their impaired physical and mental performance. For $60 million a year for four years, our team of economists reckoned investing in these supplements would amount to the equivalent of $1 billion worth of development investment. What a return!

This final dispatch from the 2008 Copenhagen Consensus Conference deserves to be discussed, challenged and imagined. You can read the report here. Let me know what you think.


Jim Donovan said...

$75B is not an impossible budget globally - just look at what gets spent on aid (or war) today. Let's hope someone in power picks up this ball and runs with it.

Their 2nd highest ranked recommendation was also fascinating - to implement the Doha free trade agenda, including agriculture. Sadly, that may sink it.

Josephine said...

Hello Kevin.
The people and the planet-how true. I'm replying to your post on happiness and this one too.
I've seen first hand what poverty in other parts of the world is like and the effect it has on children-the last time I went home to Ghana I realised (if I didn't before) how much I've taken for granted living in the West.
But its not just people overseas who need help to survive into the next generation. As a mother and as a mother of the diaspora I've had to raise my son without the support of my extended family who are all still in Ghana. Like many women black and non I've faced isolation and it affected me profoundly. Talking to other mothers there is a huge problem of lonely isolated women in the western world who have the responsibility of raising the next generation.
I find myself wondering, was it such a great idea for my parents to have come to the UK. My mother has passed away and my father is ill and everyone else is far away. How has this so called advanced society forgotten to take care of its main care givers-women and the worst thing of all is that the plight of the elderly is no better, lonely and isolated men and women. If this trend continues I think it will have disasterous consequences for society long term.
There is much to be done to save this planet and it's people and it's not just in the developing world.


Josephine said...

I forgot to add, I have become really interested in the fate of tribal peoples around the world. I think its because my own tribe-THe Asoona of the Akan are so far away and perhaps its having a child of my own now but suddenly I dont feel as if I belong in this western world any more because often it seems a place where kinship and community is vanishing.

Thanks for letting me post my thoughts, I found this site and its brilliant.

Nathan said...

Kevin, it is refreshing to see your thoughts on such a vastly important topic. It struck me while reading your post that hearing the message of 'people' seems to be like taking a step back 5 years, as the message of 'planet' has become the in-theme for businesses, households and individuals worldwide.

It seems that advocates for the environment (which should be all of us!) have engaged the world in a vision bigger than ourselves.

As you refer to in your June 5 post on happiness, this is a key component to happiness, especially for western societies which have become so individualistic that businesses have learnt to tailor products and services to cater this type of approach to life.

I wonder if we need to engage people with the idea of 'people' again,just as they have been engaged with 'planet', before and as we look to invest money into solutions.

I think the greatest leaps and bounds towards a responsible, sustainable existence, will be made when we are drawn into the dream of a world bigger than ourselves.

Kevin Roberts said...

Nathan, a focus on people makes these issues resonate in a much more personal way. If we can’t all agree on planet, we can at least agree on people. And it certainly does play into happiness, as you point out.

Joseph said...

It is easy to intermingle and baffle the differences between artiface and nature, hunanity and production for example. While persons are people whom are geomorphic, in other words, we control and alter our environment, we are also sometechnical, we all modify our bodies somehow. My point is this. It is important to keep clear the distinctions between nature and human- when we talk of or reflect on human nature, we are in fact considering our geomorphism and somatecnics. To be human is different to be within nature, different reponsibilites appropriate and e are inseperably responsable for both. That being said, and in response to the happiness post, money is a form of human artiface. It is how it is exchanged and why that matters. Done with the correct moral and ethical dedication, there is no reason why money and happiness cannot be associated. Though be careful. The truly priceless emotions of life are not about money. They are about how you love. Nothing is more precious than true abiding love.

Andrew Walker said...

Hello Kevin,

Thanks for your post. Interesting to see how the heavy-weight brains validate the basic concept "You can't play if you ain't here"

When we overlay this basic thinking to the brand arena we kind of see an interesting framework presenting itself.

Brands need people, people need a planet.

Brands need to be meaningful even loved. Today we live in a rapidly false paradigm of choice (Hmmm, shall I be a parasite or shall I be a benefactor to the planet and society).

When we fast forward a few years the fact is society will demand from Brands that they offer solutions that benefit, brand, people and planet.

Brands/Organizations that choose to operate/produce and communicate in the 20th century paradigm (externalize costs, interruption marketing etc.) shall swiftly render themselves irrelevant and unacceptable to humankind.
My bet is that this isn't a sound strategy for a healthy business.

Call to all creatives and business mover and shakers: Let's stop treating like sustainability is an interesting marketing angle and start to embed benefitting people and planet into our Brand, business strategies and policies.

"You can't play if you ain't here"

mark mccaffrey said...

I do agree with the notion that to save the planet (protect biodiversity, reduce/minimize the impacts of global climate change) we need to save people, and certainly addressing malnutrition and education are important. And I'm aware that, as folks like Van Jones and Adam Werbach point out, sustainability (or should we call it survivability now?) solutions look very different depending on one's rank, status and economic situation; if you are starving or trying to find a job to keep your family afloat, installing solar panels or buying a Prius to save the polar bears is not only impossible but absurd.

That said, I do see Global Warming is nestled in the middle of the list at #14: R&D in low-carbon energy technologies. We as a species are in a race against time to transition from the existing globalized supply chain that has ridden the wave of cheap fossil fuels (super-concentrated buried solar energy) to a much more regional and localized energy and supply infrastructure fueled by solar and other alt fuels. The International Energy Agency says we'll need 50% more energy than we use today by 2050....and they think we'll be able to meet that need by continuing business as usual. (But many scientists I talk with say that will push carbon emissions even further through the roof and that sooner than later, perhaps by the end of the 21st century, we'll have burned up all the easily accessible fossil fuels including coal at the rate we're going. That would be catastrophic, leaving the next generations with a much hotter world and no renewable energy infrastructure.)

But even business as usual is changing dramatically, with the world's #1 retailer, Wal-Mart, making sustainability a core component to their plans for corporate survivablity; with their global supply chain, they have to get creative in terms of energy use and greenhouse gas emissions or they'll get eaten alive by skyrocketing fuel prices and the inevitable rise of electricity costs as carbon caps/taxes kick in. After Hurricane Katrina, Wal-Mart realized global warming is like a slow motion Katrina, and that they had both the ability and responsibility to respond and take a leadership role. Which they decidedly have.

One of my modern heros, Paul Polak, who just wrote a book entitled "Out of Poverty" ( ) describes how simple tools like treddle pumps and drip irrigation can help farmers living in poverty earn that little extra money that allow education and medicine to be more accessible and affordable.

So we have a moral and ethnical duty to do both: save people, especially those most vulnerable, living on dollars or pennies a day, and save the planet by minimizing our waste (anyone see the movie Wall-E yet?) and quickly moving to a new energy economy.

If we don't develop low carbon energy alternatives and ramp them up quickly, there will be no planet as we know it for people to inhabit.

Kevin Roberts said...

Mark, great thoughts and I absolutely agree with you: it's And/And. The fact is the planet will out live us all. It's up to us to act collectively and as individuals to create the quality of life on it's fragile shell.