The real failure in Copenhagen to get firm, legal commitments to cut greenhouse gases to slow global warming is a failure of paradigm and process. It is time to end the guilt-tripping, finger-wagging, top-down, United Nations-based regulation-and-punishment paradigm and shift to a more positive, bottoms-up, individual-behavior, incentive-based model. It is time to design a positive, glowing picture of a better possible life for Asians, Americans, Europeans, poor and rich alike by presenting positive pathways of behavior to a sustainable future. Innovation to create incentives to change individual and CEO behaviors will ultimately prove better than negotiations among 197 national politicians. If ever there was a job for innovators and design thinkers, this is it.
I just came back from an international design conference in Singapore that basically had European and American post-consumerist innovation/design consultants presenting to a pro-consumerist Asian audience. They offered a strident hair-shirt message of cutting back, saving, and sobriety. In short, moving to a limited-growth kind of economy to stop the planet from dying. The Asian audience wouldn’t buy it. In fact, it infuriated many in the audience who saw the message as a new form of Western imperialism.
I have seen the same thing happen at the World Economic Forum in Davos and at conferences in China and India. Western preaching on cutting back, Asian anger at limiting economic growth. The inevitable response to the West is “you have a great way of life, we want it too. Don’t you dare tell us to stop growing and lifting our people out of poverty.”
This is not entirely an Asian point of view either. China isn’t the only country with deep poverty. Global warming isn’t at the top of the priority list among the unemployed in Michigan, Florida or the Navajo reservation in Arizona. It is no accident that in the US, “green” is quickly becoming viewed as the “new communism” by the political right
afraid of big government, lower economic growth and higher unemployment. In a weird way, it parallels the perception of green as the "new imperialism" by the left in India, China, Africa and other poorer countries fearful of the West imposing limits to their growth.
What struck me in Asia was how advanced the discussion on sustainability already is and how similar it is to the conversation in the US. Actually, I believe there is less "denialism" going on in China on climate change than in the US. Chinese parents in Shanghai know that the filthy air isn't good for their children. Copenhagen shows that we need to design innovative systems that allow strong economic growth while changing the way we achieve it.
We need to design new personal status systems that emphasize services over stuff, renting/sharing as well as owning (ZipCar), reuse and open source over throw-away and closed, non-carbon over carbon. We need tech platforms and tools that provide us with the information on how to build our own low-carbon lives.
And yes, we need government help in generating these incentives-- serious tax and capital incentives to get us to a high-growth, low pollution future. China has 100 million all-electric scooters on the road, tens of millions of hot water solar heaters on roofs and millions of electric space heaters replacing coal stoves in homes because the government offers individual incentives. It has the fastest growing solar panel and electric car industries in the world because the government offers business strong financial incentives.
It's time to shift the perception of green from the "new communism" and "new imperialism" to the "new individualism" and make better choices and behaviors the driving force of a high-growth, low-carbon future.