Five years ago, when I started working on this book, I had a surprisingly simplistic idea about my endeavour. I would draw together what I learned from about 30 years of professional experience and distil it into advice for ICSOs on how to prepare for and manage their future. In one of the earliest drafts I quoted my grandfather who said: “The only way we have to find out about the future is to look at the past, identify trends and think about where these trends may lead us in times to come.” Today I would advise against trusting such an approach. I would argue that the changes we have to expect will not bring a continuation of trends, but rather an interruption of past habits and routines. For all of its existence, humanity has learned from past mistakes. With climate change, sea level rise, ocean acidification, chemical pollution, weapons of mass destruction and so many other fatal skills and tools we have acquired, learning from past mistakes is meeting its limits: the most serious mistakes we are able to make today will have such an enormous negative impact that we should not even make them once. We need to avoid them, rather than hoping to learn from them.
When I understood that looking at the future as a continuation of where we are today would not provide me with a realistic basis on which to base my advice, my project gained a totally new dimension. I had to first explore, what kind of a future we may have to expect before I could come back to my original focus on ICSOs. What I found threatened to derail my entire project. When digging through literature on climate change, eradication of species and self-destruction of ancient civilisations, I found that all of these calamities had happened many times before. Climate had changed frequently between rather unpleasant extremes but, other than the last ice age, most of it had happened before humans appeared. In fact, human development was probably only possible in an exceptionally moderate and stable climate. We are in the process of destroying this stability, and thus the very basis of our emergence. The extinction of species has also been part of earth’s history: at least five major extinctions have been recorded, together with a large number of smaller ones. Up to 95% of all life disappeared in the course of major disasters such as climate change, oxygen deficiency of the seas and meteorite impact. Scientists still debate whether at present we are observing the sixth major extinction of species, this time a manmade one. And reviewing the demise of the Vikings in Greenland, the inhabitants of Easter Island, the Mayas and others, I understood that in most cases these civilisations had overexploited the available resources which lead to starvation, war and, in the best case, emigration. For our global community emigration will not be an option: there is no other planet waiting for seven, nine or eleven billion people to arrive and make it their new home.
The future will unavoidably bring major change, and whether there are predominantly good or overwhelmingly bad things to come depends very much on how soon we understand the new dimension of change, and how rigorously we change course. Such a revolution will have to come from the people who are worried about the earth they create for themselves and the legacy they leave to their children and grandchildren. People as voters, as consumers and producers, as citizens who shape their local, national and global communities must demand change, set examples and chart the new course. As one of the most influential parts of civil society, ICSOs could and should play a part in this transition. Whether they will be able to play a positive role or not hinges on their own ambitions and on their pre-paredness to go through major changes themselves.
A just and safe world for all humanity depends on a dramatic paradigm change which replaces the dominant model of civilisation. In a world of limited resources the equation ‘more consumption = more happiness’ is untenable. It needs to be replaced by a set of other foundations for happiness: more time, better quality of life, a better environment, a well-functioning community, etc. – a lot of values humans have been striving for since the very beginning. Today we are able to fulfil these dreams. We just need to dare doing so. One of the most encouraging stories I was told lately in this respect came from banking: a senior executive complained that he had recently lost three of his best people in unrelated developments. He had tried to keep them at all costs but failed. Not even offering bags of money did the trick. All three wanted to work for causes they believed in, have more time for the family or be more flexible in how they approached their work. In all likelihood these ex-bankers will earn much less, consume less, cause less environmental damage and live happier lives. All of us need to take similar decisions regarding our own lives. Living within the doughnut is not only the one remaining option we have, it is also much more fun than living outside it. The world on the other side of the transition will deliver less material wealth but more happiness and better lives for all.
This book is based on the assumption that ICSOs can see the enormous changes we all have to go through and that they are willing and able to play an important role in the transition. Originally the working title of this book was ‘The future of ICSOs’, but as I dug deeper into the need for fundamental change I dropped the word ‘of’. ‘The future ICSOs’ will be significantly different from the ones we have today. It remains to be seen whether the existing ICSOs will be able to change themselves so fundamentally, or whether completely new ones will arise. Quite possibly we will have a mix of both: new, more agile, more effective and truly global ICSOs will emerge and some of the existing ones will be courageous and bold enough to reinvent themselves and become drivers of the transition.
Others of today’s major ICSOs may continue to grow financially, becoming multi-billion dollar rescue operations, saving millions of victims of ever more dramatic humanitarian disasters caused by progressing climate change as long as humanity cannot find the determination to act. They will have to find ways to justify curing the symptoms of a continuously aggravating global crisis while not addressing its causes. A third group of ICSOs may fall victim to disruption, being unable, under pressure, to keep their federations together and eventually disintegrating into separate national organisations.
I place my trust and confidence in those ICSOs that are prepared to step onto the path of courageous change, aiming to deliver a crucial contribution to the paradigm change in human civilisation. Consumption can’t buy us happiness, and eternal growth is impossible, but we can imagine a better world on the other side of the transition: just, peaceful and sustainable. Let’s learn from the hedgehog: this is not the time to roll up in a defensive position – this is the time to run. So let’s get up and move.