As Earth Day comes and goes, it is normal to feel a bit disillusioned that we must be given a designated day to appreciate our natural environment. However, if we take step back, we can see that small, yet significant, actions are taking place around the world. Silent actions are transforming our way of life, and when placed together like pieces of a puzzle, demonstrate to us that we are, in fact, experiencing a paradigm shift.
We see a shift from a narrowly focused definition of development to sustainable development and from the bottom line to the triple bottom line. It isn't just nonprofit organizations taking on environmental and social issues, we are seeing collaboration across disciplines and across stakeholder groups that leverage expertise and resources. The availability of data and an elevated demand for transparency is refining systems already in place, and new IT platforms and financing mechanisms are facilitating opportunities to innovate. This is an exciting time to look around and take note. Here are some examples of how we are beginning to think and do things a bit differently:
New UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
As the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) are set to expire in 2015, countries agreed in 2012 on developing a set of succeeding goals for the world that would focus on sustainable development. The SDGs are different than their preceding MDGs, as they include various specific environmental goals, in addition to goals to reducing poverty and inequality. These goals include "ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns," "taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts," "conserving and sustainably using the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development" and "protecting, restoring and promoting sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems."
Societal climate demands and government responses.
Dutch citizens are taking their government to court on climate change inaction, and Chinese citizens are shining the light on air pollution through individual initiatives like the "Under the Dome" documentary, while President Obama is now making climate change action his legacy. Although international negotiations have lagged, regional and bilateral agreements (including one between China and the U.S., the two largest emitters) are happening and provide momentum for talks in Paris at the end of the year. More countries are launching national level climate policies including those that utilize the power of the markets, specifically cap-and-trade systems or carbon tax. Society is asking for change and government responses are evolving in a way that would have been hard to believe just a decade ago (for instance, the U.S. was one of the only countries that didn't ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol).
Mainstreaming of the sharing economy.
The way that people interact with each other and utilize resources are both changing. Shared housing (Airbnb), cars (Zipcar, Lyft, Uber) and workspaces (Impact HUB, WeWork) are just some of the relatively new initiatives supporting a sharing economy. These initiatives aren't confined to developed countries; Airbnb has listings in 190 countries, including Cuba, Nepal and Myanmar. IDDRI, a think tank, produced a great study that puts some numbers to the environmental benefits of the sharing economy in France. The sharing economy has already redefined the possibilities of how people can work together in win-win scenarios and use resources more efficiently.
Alternative definitions of progress and profit.
The gross domestic product (GDP), which measures economic productivity, has come to be equated with overall economic well-being, although the indicator fails to incorporate the dependence of the economy on human capital and natural resources. The Social Progress Index (SPI) is an alternative to GDP that uses a smart, holistic approach to measure a country's well-being. It takes into account other variables besides production and consumption such as ecosystem viability, personal rights and water/sanitation. Business practices are also transforming: B Corporations provide a framework for individual companies to think long-term by factoring in social and environmental considerations into the way they do business.
Slimming of the gender gap in science class performance.
A recent OECD report on gender equality in education has illustrated that throughout the OECD countries, school-aged girls are performing as well as boys in science classes. Also, according to the National Girls Collaborative Project, girls in the U.S. are taking high level math and science courses at similar rates as boys in K-12 education; the percentage of girls taking precalculus, algebra II and advanced biology is actually higher than the percentage of boys taking these courses. Although a gender gap in higher education and professions still exists in STEM fields, the fact that school-aged girls are participating and performing well in these classes demonstrates a shift towards closing the gap.
Going local and sustainable (with certification systems to help).
Farmer's markets, farm-to-table and slow/local food movements are on the rise like never before. And for good reason -- how cool is it to meet the people that grow your vegetables and see on a restaurant menu where your meat or eggs are from? "Organic," "Fair Trade Certified," "Free Range," "Cage Free," are all labels that help people make informed decisions. Unfortunately, we do still live in a world where these options aren't universally accessible, and where eating healthier, locally or from companies with elevated social and environmental standards can be more expensive. But, as more weight is put on such standards and consumers choose to support these options, prices will most likely go down.
Surveys and studies show that Millennials want something different in life than previous generations. Their job, consumerism and lifestyle expectations reflect that they support companies and leaders that hold values similar to their own, i.e., social and economic equality, environmental sustainability and accountability. Millennials in the emerging markets of China, Russia, India and Brazil, where they make up a large percent of the population, feel responsible for "leaving the world in better shape for future generations" and a majority of these Millennials also felt that "there's a need to balance out the inequalities of the world", according to a survey by JWTIntelligence. In another survey, Millennials around the world prioritized "spending time with family" and "living a long and healthy life" over "being wealthy."
All about the start-ups.
Small, flexible companies with big ideas continue to emerge and are quickly moving from the idea-stage to the market. With a focus on mobility, cost and the ability to leverage open-source resources and data, old problems are being approached in new ways. Hackathons bring people with tech skills together to take on challenging projects, while venture capital companies and accelerators, such as Clean Tech Open, are there for support. Tech startups aren't limited to Silicon Valley either; the power of IT is being harnessed to propel sustainability all around the world, including African startups that provide off-grid power to rural areas and prevent blackouts, Chilean allGreenup, that created an app to track and reward prizes for individual activities to promote sustainability, and Israeli start-ups that are driving clean energy and energy independence.
Instead of resorting to a cynical stance towards Earth Day this year, look around to see the movement that is sneaking up on us and transitioning not only our attitudes, but also our global economy, towards a more holistic system.