2013 – Reasons to be Cheerful

Posted on January 8, 2013

It’s a New Year and the curmudgeons are out.

The litany of complaints is endless. “In 2012 governments turned their backs on the living planet” according to George Monbiot. “If you don’t feel despair, in times like these, you are not fully alive” according to Paul Kingsnorth. And on it goes.

Yes, the world, our politicians and many individuals all have many issues to deal with – and not only environmental ones. But, as we enter 2013 there are many reasons to celebrate what has been achieved.

2012 has been a very tough year for many, in Europe and elsewhere. We are far from being out of the woods in economic terms but we enter 2013 having seemingly avoided many of the predicted catastrophes. At a more macro scale, people’s lives seem to be getting better. By certain measures, world poverty has more than halved since 1990. Improvements in health and longevity continue. While conflict zones remain widespread, both the number of wars and deaths from wars worldwide have fallen dramatically. The world has become more connected bringing us all closer to each other and giving a voice to people who never had one before.

What of the environment? The curmudgeons will tell us that it remains an unmitigated disaster. Not true.

It is quite remarkable what has been achieved in the environmental world over the past decades. The level of public awareness of environmental issues has never been higher. Environmental concerns have started to become embedded in everyday parlance, values and social norms. Investment in alternative energy has grown from nothing to $54bn in 2004 to $280bn last year – and with little sign of any long term abatement in investment. The amount of money invested in species and ecosystem conservation has reached a scale that was, I am sure, unimaginable in the mid-1970s. Projects are underway to ‘re-wild’ Europe. Increasingly ambitious conservation projects are being mounted – part of what has been termed a conservation revolution. At the 2012 World Conservation Congress, IUCN, the world’s largest conservation network, adopted “Nature Based Solutions” as a central part of the framework for its four year program – a framework that shifts the focus from the amorphous ‘nature conservation’ to a more practical and valuable, outcomes-based perspective.

In the business world, there is no long term business plan written today that does not have a significant environmental component. Germany is pushing forward, not without challenges, a massive revolution in its energy policies. The UK railway system has just set itself a target of reducing CO2 emissions per passenger by 37%. The luxury goods company PPR led the way by publishing an environmental profit and loss account - the first of its kind and widely acclaimed. Some are exploring how to take the idea of ‘sustainability’ beyond just minimizing environmental damage to having a ‘net positive’ impact on the environment.

Sure there have been setbacks and mis-steps. All to be expected. Maybe more could have been done. Maybe not. But the overall trajectory is positive and the level of commitment increasing.

None of this will ever be enough for the curmudgeons. As a friend wrote to me recently: “The ‘gloom and doom’ crowd bores me and, frankly, I don’t think they help the cause of environmentalism by blaming everyone else.”

As we enter 2013, there is much to celebrate and much to look forward to. Challenges remain – and they are not insignificant. But it will be those with positive energy and an optimistic outlook that we need to look to for new approaches, new trajectories and positive contributions to our lives and those of future generations.