Global Research Forum on Sustainable Production and Consumption

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 14. June 2014 - 0:20

Second Global Research Forum on Sustainable Production and Consumption

Fudan University, Shanghai, People's Republic of China
8-11 June 2014

The 2014 Global Research Forum Sustainable Production and Consumption Conference: Global Transitions to Sustainable Production and Consumption Systems, was held at Fudan University, Shanghai, People's Republic of China, on 8-11 June 2014. About a hundred participants from around the world gathered to explore the challenges and research opportunities in trying to move the world towards sustainability. IEF President Arthur Dahl participated in the conference, as several IEF members did in the previous GRF-SPaC in Rio de Janeiro in 2012. SInce there were numerous parallel sessions of papers, this report emphasizes the values dimension. More information on GRF-SPaC is at

After the opening welcomes from Prof. Lin Shangli, Vice-President of Fudan University, Prof. Philip Vergragt, Coordinator of GRF-SPac, and Prof. Trevor Davies, Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of East Anglia (UK) and Director of the Fudan Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, the first keynote talk was given by the distinguished diplomat John Ashton, CBE, founder of Third Generation Environmentalism and former Special Representative for Climate Change for the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

In a remarkable talk, partly in Chinese and partly in English, on "The Politics and Diplomacy of Climate Change" which was really his "Chinese dream", Mr. Ashton said we must break with our belief in separation from and dominion over nature, which cannot be exploited freely and will take revenge. After referring to the four elements of a good, not sour earth, containing fire and controlling our passions, water as a bridge not a barrier, and air, he cited the Confucian values of benevolent virtue and harmony. In the political struggle to control climate change, he referred to three battles. The first is for climate security linked to food, water and energy security. With the risk of an early catastrophic collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet and a 2 meter rise in sea level in this century (putting Shanghai and many other cities under water), we risk losing the capacity to choose our own destiny, but do we have the will? The second battle is to make the market our steward, not our master. The market has no goal and produces extremes of wealth, so it cannot take us there. We must intervene in the market with top-down as well as bottom-up solutions, as there is no time for bottom-up approaches alone. The third battle is to decide who we are, how we define ourselves, our souls. We are drunken with market-driven consumerism. This requires a political and moral choice to abandon the consumer society. Youth have so little confidence in their parent's generation that the bridge between generations is broken, and we must repair it. The world of knowledge must reach out to the world of choice that is politics. We must win these three battles, but it depends on our will, and breaking down the barriers between disciplines.

The second keynote by Ashish Kothari, founder of the Indian environmental group Kalpavriksh, advisor to the Government of India and IUCN on biodiversity and indigenous peoples' issues, and widely-published author, was on "Sustainable Consumption and Radical Ecological Democracy". He noted that the corporation-dominated democracies have breached ecological limits while continuing inequalities and human depravation, with an alienation of nature that has become a spiritual crisis. He proposed a "sustainable consumption line" that people should not go over like the "poverty line" that people should not drop below. Over-consumption equals someone else's depravation. Consumption is deeply cultural, with market mechanisms that enrich the rich, who can eat organic, while the poor can only afford junk food. He defined radical ecological democracy as achieving human well-being through participation in decision-making with an equitable distribution of wealth. We need a new economics with ecological limits as core, production and consumption locally for basic needs, and well-being indicators. There should be a new culture of knowledge and knowledge of culture founded in values and principles, relinking with nature and learning through doing, with a mix of tradition and modernity and a diversity of approaches in a free exchange of ideas between global and local. He anticipated further collapse over the next decades, with people looking desperately for solutions, until we reach a transition point.

Professor William Rees, an ecologist, a founder of the field of ecological economics, Professor Emeritus at the University of British Comunbia, and co-creator of the ecological footprint, gave the third keynote talk on "Overcoming Denial: Toward an 'Ecological Civilization'." He started by showing that the social construction of our economic "reality" based on endless growth is a circular system with no relationship to anything outside itself like human relationships or the environment. Its globalization is oriented to maximize consumption and production, and unsustainability is an inevitable emergent property of such a system. This is a fatal model, and we are in denial. Indeed, the "environment" was a creation by economists to connect marginally with "nature" with little real connection so that the economy could grow forever. This is a misunderstanding of reality and does not match the biophysical reality. Our present economy is parasitic on the rest of nature, so that growth makes us poorer rather than richer, destroying $20 trillion in ecological goods and services annually. In the USA, 1% of the population captures 90% of the new wealth, but people are socially engineered to deny reality in an "age of unreason". The increasing income gap is breaking down any residual social trust. Full systems failure is possible when the first critical resource runs out, and in a globalized economy it will take the whole world down together. He called for a paradigm shift in beliefs, values and assumptions with a different representation of reality. If the purpose is to satisfy the biophysical needs of the people within the limits of the planet's biocapacity, emphasizing material sufficiency, regional self-reliance, economic security, relative equity, community resilience and ecological stability, then sustainability will emerge.

The final keynote by Professor Dajian Zhu, Professor of Economics at Tongji University, and involved in policy research projects with the World Economic Forum, UNDP, UNEP, UNICEF, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, was on "Sustainable Production and Consumption in China's Green Transition". He cited statistics on China's expected development, with 1 billion people in urban areas by 2030, with a GDP per capita twenty times that in 2000. It was essential to develop a green agenda decoupling economic growth from environmental impact in order to stay within planetary limits. The challenge is to convince ordinary people that sustainability is better for their life.

Values were a major theme of the conference, with several papers on the values-based indicators developed with Professor Marie Harder at the University of Brighton (UK), who is now also a 1000 Talents Professor at Fudan University. Arthur Dahl presented a paper on " The Ethics of Hope: Values as Positive Drivers for a Sustainable Future" (available on this web site). He also took part in a panel discussion on "Human Values and the Future of Sustainable Consumption and Production", and chaired a session on sustainable lifestyles (see below).

A session on "Sustainable Lifestyles" provided three distinctive and complementary perspectives. Wenling Liu discussed "Sustainable Consumption in China: a conceptual framework and research agenda". Sustainability of consumption and production is not yet visible in China, with its focus on a rise in consumption. It is a complex issue to understand and research, combining as it does individual intentions, the provision of infrastructure, and social practices, and covering domains such as food, energy and transport. There is a lack of links between technical and behavioral considerations, and consumption itself is undergoing a dynamic transition. Integrated frameworks are needed that are specific to China. The second presentation by Shilpa Iyanna on "Everyday sustainable behavior practices of individuals in the UAE" described the challenges of moving towards sustainability in the world's least sustainable country according to its global footprint, the United Arab Emirates. She explained the political issues with sustainable consumption, such as not accepting any drop in consumption or the lack of available choices, so the focus has to be on personal responsibility. This contrasted with the perspective in Japan, presented by Midori Aoyagi in her paper "How people perceive their future lifestyles: the results of our focus group interviews on sustainable lifestyles". Using innovative scenario development of lifestyle trends, she explored how people live their lives and consume in Japan in the context of a decreasing population, a widening gap in income and education with a shrinking middle class and an expanding lower class. She observed shifting values with respect to careers and self-realization, an erosion of the family system with increasing vulnerability to external risks, and shrinking consumption.

Some of the issues raised in the session included how the different cases of expanding consumption, overconsumption and declining consumption illustrated how dynamic the issue is over time. How is it possible to determine a sustainable level of consumption? It is important to distinguish the consumption of the rich who can choose a sustainable lifestyle but do not, and the poor who have little choice and are vulnerable to the lifestyles imposed on them. This highlighted the need to change social systems, not just consumption.

The conference closed with a panel discussing the "Long-term Transition to Sustainable Production and Consumption Systems". Bill Rees noted that wars and catastrophes can cause rapid change, but social learning for a new narrative takes decades. How can we speed up social learning? Knowledge can prepare the way for legislation and regulation to lay the foundations for a new civilization. John Ashton said that this was a question of power, who has it and how it is used. The system resists change in the growth model, as in the case of a university economics department that refused to teach about the crash of 2008. Individual action is simply displacement and will not solve the problem, which requires getting out of fantasy economics into real economics. Maurie Cohen, one of the conference organizers, noted that Japan was ahead of the pack, with its youth moving away from conventional values towards post-consumerism. Philip Vergragt highlighted the need for cultural change, not just values, with learning processes to offer better visions of the future, and deep democracy to legitimate the new directions. He referred to the wisdom of indigenous knowledge systems, and the need to listen to children. Lars Mortensen of the European Environment Agency concluded that business could be a partner in the transition, recognizing the need for new business models, and governments could help to enable this process.

The next GRF-SPaC will be held in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, in 2016.

Last updated 13 June 2014