On Monday 2nd April, The Prince of Wales provided a video message for a high-level meeting at the United Nations headquarters in New York. Hosted by The UN but convened by the Kingdom of Bhutan, the meeting will explore how the current global economic system could become more sustainable.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I am delighted to have been asked to say a few words at this extremely important meeting and I can only apologize for doing so in such a disembodied way – but at least it helps reduce my carbon footprint!
It is hugely encouraging that such an eminent group has come together to discuss the need for a new economic paradigm, with happiness and well-being at its core. I could not be more grateful to His Majesty the King of Bhutan and the Prime Minister of Bhutan for their bold challenge to the conventional way the world measures growth and economic success. As the Prime Minister said in February, it is hard to rock the boat, but rock it we must.
As it happens, I have been doing a spot of rocking myself for a considerable number of years, precisely because I have felt the globally accepted systems of accounting for success – whether in terms of profit, or G.D.P. – are not providing the right information for governments, businesses and other organizations to take the right decisions, given the challenges we face in the twenty-first century.
The grim reality is that our planet has reached a point of crisis. The time for us to act is rapidly running out. We are facing what could be described as a “perfect storm” – the combination of pollution and over-consumption of finite natural resources; the very real risk of catastrophic climate change; unprecedented levels of financial indebtedness, and a population of seven billion that is rising fast. The world is not even feeding its current population, let alone the nine billion expected by 2050!
It was Professor Joseph Stiglitz who said in his leading report on G.D.P., “those attempting to guide the economy and our societies are like pilots trying to steer a course without a reliable compass. We are almost blind when the metrics on which action is based are ill-designed or when they are not well understood.”
I happen to believe that, at its best, human nature strives for the good. Contrary to what may all too often appear the case, humanity is on the whole driven by a desire to do what is best for society. The trouble is that, our outlook has been profoundly conditioned by at least two centuries of an economic paradigm which tends to solve problems in isolation, one at a time. Concentrating on making life easier by maximising the output of one activity has rendered us dangerously myopic to the impact this has on everything else and, indeed, upon ourselves.
If we are to improve our vision, we must have better information about the value of the Earth’s eco-systems to the economy and society as a whole, as well as the social, environmental and economic costs of what we do – and, for that matter, what we don't do. Without this, we operate with only a tiny fraction of the information we need and this leads to the impression that we must choose between promoting economic growth, protecting the environment or developing human happiness and well-being. Such an impression would be shown as a false choice if environmental sustainability and social well-being were appropriately included in our measures of economic success.
That is why I established my Accounting for Sustainability Project back in 2004 – to ensure that we are measuring what matters and counting what counts. As a vital first step, last year the Project helped to launch proposals for an International Integrated Reporting Framework in collaboration with business, investors, the U.N…. and just about everyone else that matters! This framework reflects the linkage between decisions taken now and their consequences for the future, and the reality that, in the twenty-first century, we will increasingly feel the consequences of global environmental constraints. There is growing recognition that business will need to be done differently if we are to thrive and prosper in the future. It is no longer possible for companies or governments to act alone. By developing the right partnerships, and providing clear and measureable goals at international, national and corporate levels, we will be able to build a global approach to accounting that might just help shed a little light to guide us in the right direction.
Last month, my International Sustainability Unit convened a meeting of leading scientists, economists, institutions and government representatives to seek consensus on a programme that could assist countries to develop a broad-based economic analysis of food security, whilst at the same time taking into account the constraints of energy, water and climate change. A clear and accurate accounting framework will be vital to underpin this and similar work that will move us towards sustainable economic growth.
It is clearly a daunting task to create a measurement framework which incorporates economic growth, social equity and wealth, and environmental sustainability, while, at the same time, providing a common set of goals for action by business and governments at the local, national and international levels. But it is an essential task which cannot be ignored or shirked if we are to develop a new well-being and sustainability-based economic paradigm.
That is why I am so delighted and so full of admiration that the Kingdom of Bhutan is working to realize this vision and that so many leaders from government, the U.N., academia, civil and spiritual society are meeting to discuss these important issues today. As the Native American proverb says “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” If we are not to lock our children and grandchildren into a world with no future, and throw away the key, then inaction is not an option. I very much hope and believe that your discussions today will be an important and practical step in addressing the enormous challenges which confront us.