The Rio+20 conference last week was framed under the banner of ‘A Future We Want’. The organisers had obviously been reading their sustainability communication thought leadership. For anyone taking an interest in how to promote sustainability over the last five years we’ve learned that dire scientific warnings are not enough, that we need a new vocabulary, that we need a vision of a positive future. The one phrase rolled out time and again to illustrate this learning is - ‘Martin Luther King did not have a nightmare, he had a dream.’
And yet, despite many efforts, an enticing vision for a sustainable future is glaringly absent. What we find instead are images of windmills; windmills at dawn, windmills at sunset, windmills on a mountaintop. Always the windmills. We seem unable to go beyond the technology and infrastructure of a low-carbon future.
It is clear to me that we have misinterpreted what a vision is all about.
A powerful positive vision for the future is one where our values are put into practice, where our society has been recreated in the image of our best selves. MLK’s vision of little black boys and girls joining hands with little white boys and girls as sisters and brothers isn’t about education policy, or the practicalities of segregation – it is about equality, social justice and freedom. He paints pictures to bring these values to life.
“Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!”
So when we try in vain to paint pictures of environmental flourishing by talking about clean energy and fuel-efficient cars, we are missing the central ingredient of any compelling vision - the values that give the image life. A sustainable future is built as much on everyday compassion and kindness as it is on a new food system. (In fact, I would argue we can’t create a local, seasonal food system without these very values.)
We cannot hope to call forth the commitment and courage needed by swathes of people to repurpose or replace our corrupt, short-termist and failing institutions unless we speak to the greater truths of fairness, freedom and our innate unity with nature. Let me put it this way – nobody is going to give his or her life for a carbon budget. But history is littered with examples for everyday women and men standing up, at great personal risk, for what is right.