Since the dawn of man, environmental resources have played a pivotal role in the architecture of social systems. Earth’s natural wealth has dominated everything from how government and media shape society – to the reasons for waging war.
The Agrarian or Agricultural Age saw a predominance of feudal systems with their strict division into social classes. Its economy, reliant on farming, disappeared with the advent of the Industrial Era, which in turn ushered in a spate of new ‘innovation waves.’ Along with this Era came capitalism, laissez faire markets and the dawn of ‘democracy’, a system of government which in itself has not been able to narrow the gap between rich and poor.
An example contributing to this dichotomy occurred in the 19th and early 20th centuries where consumption (tuberculosis) caused widespread public concern as an endemic disease of the urban poor. In 1815 it was the cause of one in four deaths in England alone. Toward the end of the 1940’s, a cure was found, but humanity already began a different type of consumption: one brought on by consumer-driven attempts to achieve the ever-elusive instant status and satisfaction promised by media advertisements and marketing campaigns.
The result of this economic ‘growth’ has snowballed unchecked over 6 decades, challenging the availability of Earth’s agricultural, marine, forest and mineral-based raw materials to match the needs of what essentially became ‘induced consumerism’.
It is undoubtedly becoming more difficult to ignore the fundamental role natural resources play in our basic survival. Maslow’s hierarchy of basic human needs illustrates the list of requirements for safety and psychology.
Its foundational rungs include: breathing; food; water; resources; health and property, material needs without which man would not be able to survive, let alone trade stocks, buy yachts, build empires or debate the validity of climate change.
It is for this reason that continued efforts to sustain ‘growth by industrial standards’ must first address the current disconnect between resource availability and adaptation.
During the presidency of Richard Nixon in 1968, the Earth’s population was approximately half of what it is today. Economies are still however driven by the same resource-plenty Industrial age growth mind-set, which safely sustained these global numbers half-way through the last century. We transitioned to the Information Age approximately 30 years ago, yet the meaning of ‘growth’ has not yet been revisited: ‘Developed’ insinuates successful global economic positioning yet disregards the unsustainable origins of this ‘growth’. ‘Developing’, however, still suggests that a country needs to convert as much of its natural resources as fast as possible to prove an impressive GDP.
According to Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, professor of economics at Columbia University, ‘…chasing GDP growth results in lower living standards. Better indicators are needed to capture well-being and sustainability.’
There are number factors which assisted to uphold these myths. For one, Africa’s weak media infrastructure has not offered much support by way of representing its vastly different set of needs to Western counterparts. A New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) peer review mechanism proved in 2007 that there is more to poor governance than meets the eye. Until Al Jazeera arrived on the media scene, Africa lacked the global network weight required to afford fair lobbying and positing in the global consciousness, leaving third forces unchecked to derail plans for Africa’s mineral wealth to reflect on the face of its people.
This is one of the reasons that developing countries are dominated to some extent by the Western concept of environmentalism: allocation of resources to preserving national parks and endangered species; instead of fighting poverty, hunger and inequality. As a result, the environment is viewed as a luxury, enjoyed by the rich and middle class who have running water and light switches to flip off during Earth Hour. Westernised media further links the green agenda to driving hybrid cars, buying solar panels, eating expensive meat-free products and recycling waste.
While waste is a derivative of consumerism, those living in at the other end of the spectrum experience the flip-side of environmental degradation. Erosion due to logging, killing bush meat (gorillas, monkeys) for basic sustenance and chopping down indigenous trees for firewood are among many by-products of corporate resource exploitation. The resource curse has touched those who live in the vicinity of the Angola’s oil, DRC’s uranium and diamond deposits, among other, sparking unrest which lead to genocide and various other undocumented inhumanities.
Westernised media, however, does not always connect logging with erosion, or the bottom line with poverty and South Africa is no stranger to harbouring those who flee from the conditions that have arisen from this kind of exploitation. According to a leading migration researcher at the Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), 200 million to 1 billion people will migrate due to climate change by 2050. The source of the bottom line is one thing, plummeting resource availability another and these connections will become more prevalent as the next innovation wave roots firmly.
According to the current 5th and 6th waves of innovation (1990 – 2020) information technology, digital networks, whole system design and sustainable technologies dominate the agenda and as a result, this trend of misinformation will continue to slowly erode as the 6th wave becomes more economically prevalent. In short, the 6th wave of innovation is about resources – natural resources, human resources and information.
Whole system design will reveal the connection between resources and their availability, ushering in a global economic shift to accommodate and adapt to these innovations. This also presents an opportunity for countries such as Africa which are not yet considered ‘developed’, to embrace the present and future in developmental plans, thus profiting from being early movers. In view of this changing market, companies looking at how to reach new consumers should focus on the communications-based product lines that will become prevalent over the next 2 decades.
Lifting the resource curse
The 6th innovation wave will assist to make connections between climate change and poverty alleviation. This can be seen in South Africa’s National Climate Change Response Strategy White Paper. The paper emphasises the need for cross sector and trans-disciplinarity in solution to the socio-economic challenges that have arisen from its developing/developed conundrum. South Africa sees things from both perspectives; its active global role in corporate social investment and voluntary reporting reflects this.
Companies are beginning to understand the meaning of adaptation as encouraged by the Carbon Disclosure Project’s Water Disclosure Report, aimed at catalyse the global movement towards sustainable corporate water management, one of the most significant challenges facing the global economy.
The 6th innovation wave will see the tables turning for developing countries, placing them in favourable positions to review consumerism through various market-based mechanisms for behavioural change such as carbon tax, carbon budgets and offset mechanisms. These in turn can be harnessed to address the green, resource aware development required to foster equity for all.
According the book THE SIXTH WAVE, ‘for a prediction to be useful, you need to know how to act on it. The second half of the book outlines what we call ‘sixth-wave thinking’, and explains how investors, businesses, communities and governments can create more opportunity, wealth and competitive advantage by embracing this way of thinking. One of the keys to creating value and succeeding in the sixth wave will be to better understand our natural, social and financial resources.
Making predictions about the future is a dangerous game, particularly when that future has never looked more uncertain. Natural resources are dwindling and we are wasting the resources we do have at an unparalleled rate. Climate change threatens our way of life and digital technology is advancing at such a rate as to leave many of us baffled. But far from being all ”doom and gloom”, these signs point to the emergence of an exciting new wave of innovation. Throughout modern history, the tide of innovation and progress has ebbed and flowed but a clear pattern exists – five waves of innovation, beginning with the Industrial Revolution, have each transformed society, economies and industry.
The fifth wave was dominated by information and communications technology but its peak is beginning to fade and a new, brighter star is emerging. With the challenge of a planet running out of essential supplies and a population staring down the barrel of Malthus’ dire predictions, the sixth wave will see humanity finally make the break away from resource-dependence. Economic growth will no longer be tied to resource consumption or waste production (such as carbon) and industry will no longer think in terms of products but in terms of services…
Everything, from the smallest leaf and light switch to the largest cities and online communities, will have a value that can be measured, so nothing is ever wasted. Driving this will be a spectacular boom in technologies ranging from clean technology to digital mapping to online collaboration. Traditional physical and geographical boundaries will mean nothing in a world where everything and everyone is online.’
South Africa is a developed/developing hybrid which positions the country to harness the coming innovation wave in favour of socio-economic development, by way of integrated legislative approaches such as the New Development Path and Climate Response White Paper. These lessons position SA to blaze global economic trails uniquely different to industry-driven China and the US. Time and awareness through education will dictate how this opportunity can set a world-class example for wave-surfing.
Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture, 2007
UNDP: Human Development Index
UNESCO-IHE: A Quantification of Virtual Water Flows Between Nations in Relation to International Crop Trade, 2002
FAO: The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2009
UN-Water: GLAAS, 2010nt Report, 2006
Juanique Pretorius is founder of Equilibrium Africa, sustainability partnership platform. She champions whole systems thinking and is currently an advocate of legislative and corporate policies which consider global resource availability.