Who will drive the transition?

As we have seen, the changes humanity will have to go through are enormous and they will affect all aspects of our lives. But how will this fundamental transformation come about? If we are prepared to acknowledge the urgent need for strategic, well-orchestrated change, and if we are ready to accept that this change will not come for free, we have the chance to direct the course of the transition and mitigate its effects. However, while we frequently hear about advancing climate change we rarely hear about decisive action to change course in order to avoid the looming disaster; and while a growing number of young people start embracing sustainable lifestyles this is still very far from becoming mainstream. To date no leadership has emerged which can help us initiate and navigate the transformation of human civilisation. Where could such a leadership come from? Let us briefly look at the global actors in all three sectors: government, business and civil society.


Let us start with the most obvious and most legitimate leaders of far reaching global change: international institutions, in particular the UN and its various agencies. Created after World War II in order to secure a more peaceful coexistence of all peoples globally, the UN has sadly not been able to adapt to the requirements of a fast changing world. Neither the enormous global power shifts are reflected in the composition of the UN’s most powerful body, the Security Council, nor has globalisation been mirrored by the transfer of global powers to the UN itself. The failure of the UN process to come to grips with climate change is the most dramatic of many examples of the UN’s limitations in addressing the global challenges humanity is facing. Given the increasing urgency of decisive global action, the lack of effectiveness of the UN as the preeminent and most legitimate global actor cannot be overlooked any longer.

And in fact, this discrepancy is widely acknowledged: UN reform has been tried for many years, so far without any major breakthrough. As long as national governments are unwilling to transfer authority over global issues to the UN, appropriate global action will rarely be possible. And there is no reason to believe that in the foreseeable future the most powerful national governments will be willing to empower the UN to effectively tackle those challenges which can only be resolved by well aligned global intervention. Thus it is likely that we will remain stuck at an ‘international’ level where competing and conflicting national interests prevent agreement on the most appropriate global solutions and frequently lead to decisions based on the lowest common denominator. Such decisions rarely achieve sustainable and globally balanced solutions. Often driven by the urge to avoid open conflict between countries they tend to postpone the solution of the problem.

I do not blame the many highly qualified and deeply committed UN employees I know for the dismal failure of our global governance. On the contrary, many people inside the UN system are appalled by the paralysis of the system and try hard to deliver results against the odds. They would support any serious effort to increase the UN’s effectiveness and impact. Given their area of engagement many UN programmes and institutions, most prominently the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) experience first-hand the strain we put on our planet. Within the narrow margins they are granted by the most powerful national governments they are fighting for a just and sustainable world. The UN system harbours many individuals and organisations that are important allies on the road to in-depth change.

Globally, power is still predominantly held by national governments. Could some national governments embark on the required changes while other governments would continue pursuing their interests along the traditional route? The answer is, yes, in principle, and there are some examples of progress made in this way. For instance, the French Revolution initiated the change from absolutism to modern democracy, a process which meanwhile has occurred in many countries globally. Slavery was abolished in the UK first against strong resistance from those who feared a major disadvantage in competition with other countries that were still exploiting slaves. And without any doubt ‘competitive disadvantage’ will also be a strong argument against any country embarking on the transition process on its own. Lately the ‘Anti-Landmine Campaign’ saw a coalition of countries which were prepared to give up production, ownership and deployment of landmines even in a situation where other countries would continue producing landmines thus achieving a (minor) military advantage.

A comparison of different countries today shows that some are much more prepared than others to accept the dire facts of climate change and undertake steps to tackle the challenge. Island states and countries like Bangladesh with large coastal areas prone to flooding are rightly concerned about rising sea levels and are prepared to act. Some of the rich countries are slowly starting to understand the economic advantages they may draw in the long run from shifting early to sustainable technologies. Whether individual countries will be able to go ahead on their own and tackle climate change and address other planetary boundaries will very much depend on whether their citizens are informed about the challenges ahead and prepared to accept and actively drive the required changes. Mobilising citizens, organising collective action and developing a positive and convincing narrative for the transition are key strategic tasks in helping individual countries take the lead and set examples for building a sustainable and equitable society.


The UN’s inability to provide effective global governance has left a large power vacuum, much of which has been filled by global corporations. As a result of the dynamic globalisation of the last few decades, large banks, oil companies and other extractive industries, car companies and other producers of consumer goods, etc. have acquired massive and inappropriate global influence. When criticised, the companies often defend themselves by explaining that they are playing to the rules of the global economy. Sadly all too often there are no global rules, and, if rules exist, there is nobody who can effectively enforce compliance. Another reason, why large global companies are so powerful is their impressive mobility: they have learned to quickly move from one country to another depending on where they find lowest tax rates or the least restrictive regulations. Thus an unhealthy competition has arisen between countries about who will demand less from global companies. This ‘race to the bottom’ enables companies to maximise their profits and minimise their social and environmental contributions. Finally, global companies have quickly developed effective global governance and management approaches. While the governmental and civil society sectors are still dominated by national interests the corporate sector has not only understood that effective global decision making is the basis for maximum success but has also been able to develop decision making structures and processes and to allocate authority in such a way that global, national and local requirements are optimally balanced.

The fact that the corporate sector is the only one able to develop and implement powerful global policies does not mean that this power will be used to drive the fundamental global changes which are required. On the contrary, most of the large global companies’ interests are firmly rooted in the old way of overexploiting our global resources while externalising the costs. In their endeavour to maximise profits many of these companies will use their global power to speed up rather than slow down our advance towards and beyond the planetary boundaries. The study ‘Unburnable carbon 2013 – Wasted capital and stranded assets’45, by Carbon Tracker, a CSO, and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, points out that, in order to limit climate change to a maximum of 2°C “only 20% of total fossil fuel reserves can be burnt to 2050. (…) However, this report estimates that the top 200 oil and gas and mining companies have allocated up to $674bn in the last year (2012) for finding and developing more reserves and new ways of extracting them.” This means, while we have already much more oil available than the amount we can safely burn the industry is still investing enormous amounts in exploring even more oil. This leads The Economist to conclude in a review of the findings of the study: ‘Unburnable fuel – Either governments are not serious about climate change or fossil firms are overvalued’46 – or in our simple terms: the oil industry is betting on a failure of our governments’ climate policies and expects that they will be able to sell – and that we will be prepared to burn – all their oil with disastrous consequences for our climate.

This approach is being reinforced by the increasing focus on short-term results. About forty years ago when I developed an interest in economics, companies usually produced one annual report containing the key business data on the firm’s performance. Meanwhile quarterly reporting is the norm and internally key data to measure the success and profitability of the company are available monthly, weekly or daily and in an increasing number of companies immediately, in real time. As a consequence companies are under permanent pressure to deliver maximum results and their top management find it hard to apply long-term strategies at the expense of short-term profits. This trend is in stark contrast to the long-term perspective which is required to secure a sustainable economy within the planetary and social boundaries. On the one hand, global companies are the only entities that are able to act globally in a well-orchestrated manner and with optimal effectiveness. But on the other, most companies are driven by the urge to maximise short-term profits and to externalise the costs of environmental and social damage. Global companies benefit most from the present vacuum in global governance. Far reaching change which would endanger their privileged global position is not in their interest. Therefore the majority of global companies are more likely to resist transformation than to take a leadership role in initiating change.

However, over the last few decades a number of new sectors or subsectors have developed which contribute to and depend on a very substantial transformation of our economy: renewable energy and sustainable food production are examples of fast growing subsectors which have already reached a sizeable market segment. Eco-housing, eco-tourism, eco-clothing and innumerable other eco-products are still niche products but many boast impressive growth figures. And even some traditional sectors are starting to look at the world from a different angle: reinsurance companies were among the first ones in the corporate sector to warn of climate change. Sovereign wealth funds and other long-term investors, family owned companies which have been built to support the next few generations and farsighted business leaders who put long-term sustainability ahead of short-term gains are potential allies in the transformation we have to go through. Finding these allies, overcoming mutual prejudices and distrust and developing a joint agenda would be powerful steps towards the necessary transition.

Civil society

In their vast majority, neither national governments and their international institutions nor global business look like they will take a determined lead towards global sustainability, at least not in the foreseeable future. However, in both sectors there are a growing number of individuals, groups and structures working for change. But what about the third sector, civil society? Can we expect more global leadership from there? For over 150 years ICSOs have tried to influence global politics, sometimes with crucial success: in 1864 Henry Dunant and his organisation, the Red Cross successfully lobbied for the first Geneva Convention “for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field” and in 1924 Eglantyne Jebb and her organisation, Save the Children convinced the League of Nations to pass the first declaration on the rights of the child, the ‘World Child Welfare Charter’. The protection of the Antarctic, the ban on land mines and many other important international treaties on human rights, gender equality, children’s rights, labour rights etc. have been initiated and/or strongly influenced by ICSOs. But could ICSOs drive or even lead the transformation? The strongest argument in favour of such an option is that many of the issues at stake concern human wellbeing and thus are at the core of ICSOs’ missions. Overstepping the planetary boundaries will endanger many of civil society’s achievements of the past and will endanger key objectives such as poverty eradication, environ-mental conservation and human rights protection. If ICSOs are prepared to take note of the full picture of global challenges which are piling up at present they can no longer continue ‘business as usual’, they have to drive change.

At present, however, ICSOs are not in a position to initiate change of this magnitude. Here are a few reasons why: Like the UN and other international institutions, ICSOs are caught up in decision making systems which need to find compromises between the particular national interests of their affiliates and thus they rarely come up with the best concepts to address global challenges. Decision making often takes too much time and outcomes sometimes come too late to influence political processes. Agreeing positions between different ICSOs is even more difficult and if we add the major international CSO networks it becomes close to impossible. Finally, ICSOs are a product of the world as it is at present, which means that any major change will necessarily affect the basis of their operations. Thus, driving change in the outside world will inevitably lead to change in their own organisations – not necessarily a welcome prospect. And such change will not be limited to some minor concepts and processes, it may include reviewing the mission and finding a completely new role, conducting power shifts within the organisation, introducing new business models, and possibly all of these together.

Compared to the mainstream of the other two sectors, ICSOs are, on average, slightly more advanced on the road to transformation. But, as in the other sectors, there is a significant range of perspectives and positions and few organisations are courageous enough to seriously look at the big picture. “We are way too small to achieve a tangible impact on these existential global challenges”, is a very popular defence of the ‘business as usual’ approach. However, as all ICSOs’ missions are very directly affected by the emerging climate crisis and the increasing pressure on key resources they may eventually be forced to find appropriate global responses and to organise themselves much more effectively. Whether all of the existing ICSOs will be willing and able to change to the extent necessary or whether completely new, more agile and truly global civil society organisations will emerge and take their place remains to be seen.

Looking at the three sectors, government, business and civil society, we find that all still have to come to grips with the observation that major systemic change is on the horizon. Increasingly the understanding is sinking in that on a limited planet with a fast growing population the affluent lifestyle of the average citizen in the North is simply not possible for all people globally. However, turning this understanding into actionable concepts or even concrete strategic action is still rare. It is even rarer when one’s own interests are at stake and one’s own behaviour comes into focus. Essentially change in all three sectors depends on a shift in people’s perception and behaviour: as citizens, as voters, as consumers and producers. Helping people to come to grips with the fact that major change is unavoidable and helping them to see the positive results such change can bring is a task for all three sectors. However, well established institutions are not the most likely candidates when it comes to supporting fundamental change which may question the very basis of their own existence.

For decades, citizens’ movements around the world have been struggling to secure human rights, end poverty, protect the environment, fight corruption or secure freedom and democracy. In the ‘Arab Spring’ citizens developed new ways of mobilising people and synchronising joint action. As the global crisis deepens citizens will increasingly get together in their local, national and global communities and initiate the massive changes which are required. Whether existing organisations in the three sectors will be able to join that movement, turn themselves into agents of change and contribute to, rather than resist, the necessary transition will very much define their future.

Start the transition now

With major UN conferences on disaster risk reduction, the Post-2015 sustainable development agenda and climate change, the year 2015 will be of major importance on our way towards an equitable and sustainable global community. But hardly anybody expects that the year will bring all the major decisions we urgently need: a consistent and ambitious global agenda, which fully matches the challenges we face, binding schedules for all countries setting CO2-reduction targets and deadlines, appropriate financial commitments, etc. While we can hope for some progress I am afraid that a real breakthrough will probably take more time, more drama and more disaster.

In the past, ICSOs have all too often focussed exclusively on moving the UN, the whole global community forward, often to little effect. While we should continue to push our governments to undertake more ambitious steps we should not wait until the global community may finally agree on the changes we need: we should move ahead without waiting for the hesitant to join and the resisters to render their support. In the future, we should take a two-pronged approach of continuing our pressure for binding international agreements, and moving ahead setting examples at scale for how the transition can be conducted. Given the obvious mismatch between the growing urgency of climate change and other challenges on one side and the all too slow reaction of the international community on the other, finding ways to embark on the transition even before the international community has made up its mind is of crucial importance. By starting the transition now we can set an example, reduce fears and increase the pressure on our governments to act.

We need to bring the pioneers together in Transition Alliances to jointly produce more, bigger and better examples for an equitable and sustainable global development. Building Transition Alliances between ICSOs and, if possible, including the other sectors will increase their relevance and reach. We are all too aware that multi-stakeholder partnerships and public-private partnerships frequently have not delivered on the objectives they set for themselves. Therefore just repeating the approaches of the past is not an option. Later on we will review the lessons from successful and failing partnerships of the past and sketch Transition Alliances as an approach to avoid failures and build on successes.