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The time has come for sustainability to get off the ground: a report on sustainability

Maria Rita Villela

 is an anthropologist, researcher at ISER's Environment and Development Program.

ISER has sought to participate in events that deal with sustainable development due to the interest of its researchers in monitoring how this concept has been appropriated by different actors and sectors of civil society. Born from a practically ideological and theoretical cradle, today the concept of sustainable development is acquiring a more action-oriented tone. It is no coincidence that the last Sustainable 2009 had the theme “Sustainability in practice: global trends, innovation and education” and the motto “The time has come for sustainability to get off the ground”.

The meeting promoted by the Brazilian Business Council for Sustainable Development (CEBDS) began on 8/4 in a very hopeful tone and different from what is usually seen in the business sector, starting with the choice of masters of ceremonies: the Doutores da Alegria. Seeing the top executives from different companies, in suits, throwing an inflatable globe around the auditorium and then greeting their neighbors, dedicating their welcome, it seemed that the meeting could even bring something new, inspiring. But the next table composed by the hosts of the event printed another tone of flat speeches, although the speakers belonged to different sectors – university, business, civil society, government and NGOs.

The table “Innovation for global changes: perspectives and challenges” featured a lecture given by Achim Steiner, director of UNDP in Brazil. He painted an optimistic picture proven by numbers illustrating the current socio-environmental situation in the world, focusing on climate change as the driving force behind the change we need. He cited research that indicates that green technologies, that is, those that contribute to a low-carbon society, contrary to what many think, can generate much more jobs than traditional ones, and proved: the oil and gas market in the world every 1 million dollars invested generates 4 jobs and that linked to renewable energies, for the same amount invested, has the potential to generate 18 jobs. This is very significant given the fear that investment in low-carbon technologies will prevent job creation in times of financial crisis.

The speech by the Secretary for Institutional Articulation and Environmental Citizenship, Samyra Crespo, encouraged the participation of other sectors of the government, and not just the Ministry of the Environment, in the new editions of the meeting, to which Fernando Almeida, president of CEBDS, replied that many were called, but that mobilization for this issue has been difficult. Samyra concluded with a historical assessment of the theme, stating that there has already been an evolution in the environmental paradigm since 1992, resulting from Eco-92, and suggests holding a commemorative event for the 20th anniversary of the meeting in 2012 to pave the way for the coming decades.

Responding to a question from the audience on how to mobilize society for action in the face of climate change, Dr. José Goldemberg, who sat at the same table, suggested that religious leaders be mobilized for the issue. According to him, these leaders have an unrivaled capillarity in society and therefore would have a significant impact on the dissemination of knowledge and practices towards a low-carbon society.

On the morning of the second day of the meeting, in the plenary session “Innovation in sustainable processes and products”, with the presence of all exhibitors, only two presentations stood out: that of the representative of GlaxoSmithKline, an English pharmaceutical company that has been investing a large part of its resources in the distribution of medicines and vaccines for the population at the bottom of the pyramid that does not have access to medicines, and that of UMICORE, a former mining company that changed its vision, strategy and values, demonstrating that it is possible to do business in the current scenario of climate change. This industry started by analyzing the company's concept: to produce metal materials. This resulted in the new “materials for a better life” logo. It also defined what sustainable development is for them: what can be done forever. Based on this new vision and redefinition of the company's scope, the entire production process built over the company's 150 years was modified, starting a new cycle of sustainable production. The company now works with the recycling of used metals and with that from a mining company it has become a recycler, by improving logistics, transport and recycling technologies. Today its biggest challenge is to restore the damage done in the past, especially in African countries, where civil war still reigns, which prevents access to the old mines.

Business representatives from Shell and the Santo Antonio Hydroelectric Power Plant, São Paulo Secretary of Green, Eduardo Jorge, and a representative of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) ). The presentations of the two companies were regrettable, since they did not even present any outline of answers to the question that constituted the topic of the table. The representative of the municipal government of São Paulo was surprisingly the most informative and provocative, showing the actions that his secretary has been implementing in the State. A light at the end of the tunnel.

Shell restricted itself to presenting its program regarding climate change and all its research, but at no point did it question the perpetuity of fossil fuels or mention investments in alternative energies.

The presentation by the representative of UHE Santo Antonio did not address the theme “low-carbon society” or mention information regarding the comparative advantage of using hydroelectric plants in relation to the fossil matrix, in the context of climate change. In a merely descriptive presentation of the enterprise and not very consistent, it left much to be desired.

On the third and final day, the frustration with the previous day gave way to an injection of energy at the table “Leadership and socio-environmental entrepreneurship”, moderated by Thais Corral, active in the theme of climate change at the Global Leadership Network. The first presentation by the young Stef van Dongen, director of ENVIU, showed how the new generation that will break the current paradigm is like. At just 33 years old and born into a family of entrepreneurs, this young and friendly guy is the inventor of green discotheques that, among other things, generate their own energy from the dancing of their patrons. Innovation, daring, excitement and effectiveness, Stef showed us, are the secret for the business of the future.

Equally thought-provoking was the presentation by the president of the Dabawalla Foundation, from Mumbai. In a relaxed and lively way, the speaker showed how a social technology of hundreds of years, whose only objective is to transport the “lunchbox” of Mumbai workers to the workplace and return the empty pot to their home at the end of the afternoon, which it has 80% of workers with no schooling, it works, is efficient and does not emit carbon, as the dabawallas (the “lunchbox” transporters) use trains and bicycles. Such social technology is also responsible for the well-being of those who use it, as they eat homemade food daily, at a low cost of about 7 dollars a month.

Finally, the leadership workshop “The sustainable leader creating the new world order” defined what a sustainable leader would be, but not what a “new world order” would be. Despite having quoted Einstein's famous phrase that says that today's problems cannot be solved with the same conscience that created them, it was not clear that they understood the need to change the paradigm. When presenting their conceptualization of leadership competencies, the facilitators pointed out one of the eight attributes of a sustainable leader as having to be 'focus on results', and, in their definition, results should be understood as profit. The priority of the “shareholders' pocket” was never questioned by the participants and neither was the culture of maximization and exacerbation. Nothing against profit, essential for reinvestment and business development, but to state that profit purely and simply must be the final and primary goal of companies, nowadays, when we face climatic, social and paradigm crises, is certainly not enough. It's high time to change that.