The solutions generation

International Year of Forests
Single-minded pursuit of economic growth has caused problems of a global scope, such as climate change [EPA]

The Arab Spring, and now the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, are indications of growing unhappiness with the state of the world, especially in the younger generation.

As Paul Krugman has pointed out, Americans are finally getting angry at the right people – the financial and corporate elites that currently govern the United States, and who have caused the ongoing economic crisis. Anger and protests can be effective at bringing the current system into question. But they do little, by themselves, to lead the way to a better future – for that we need a compelling shared vision and a focus on solutions.

In 1776, a group of rebels had such a vision – a government of, by and for the people. Notwithstanding the rather narrow definition of “the people” they had in mind, this shared vision had profound implications and helped to solve some fundamental problems of human well-being; by spreading participation in governance to the population and rewarding intelligence, hard work and innovation.

In 1945, the fundamental problems had to do with rebuilding the nations devastated by the depression and World War II. The vision that emerged from the baby boom generation involved a focus on built capital, economic production and consumption, full employment and an expanded middle class.

The “great acceleration” that occurred starting then, largely driven by the consumption of oil and other fossil fuels, had profound implications and helped to solve some fundamental problems of the time. But single-minded pursuit of this vision also created a new set of problems.

In 2011, the fundamental problems have to do with the vast gap in incomes within and between nations, the planetary boundaries we are bumping into (climate change and biodiversity loss, among others), the peaking of global oil production, the deterioration of natural and social capital, and the consequent threats to human well-being and sustainability that these all imply.

What we need now is a new vision and a generational commitment to finding real solutions.

The “solutions generation” needs to think outside the box to create a vision of a better, more sustainable world for themselves and their children. They will have to design new technologies, new institutions and new societal norms in order to get there. This includes new political and economic systems that can create shared prosperity without growing demands on a finite environment.

A shared vision

This cannot be a top-down corporate or government vision. It must be built and it must be shared. If anything, it will be “bottom-up” decision making – an approach that reflects the needs of the vast majority of the people, not just the economic elites.

Probably the most important element of the new vision is a refocus on sustainable human well-being as the goal, rather than maximising conventional economic production and consumption.

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In 1945, gross domestic product – the amount of goods and services being exchanged – was the limiting factor to improving well-being. Now we know that continued global growth in production and consumption in developed countries is not sustainable. This kind of growth is also not desirable, in that it provides only marginal improvements to societal well-being in countries that are already rich.

As many have noted, including the Sarkozy Commission headed by Joseph Stiglitz, and the environmental economist Tim Jackson, GDP is fatally flawed as a measure of progress. We desperately need new measures of well-being. We know from both ancient wisdom and the latest psychological research that well-being and happiness depend on the appropriate balance of assets and opportunities. These include those supplied by marketed goods and services, but also those supplied by social and natural capital.

It is clear, for example, from the work of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett that countries with big income gaps have higher rates of a whole range of social problems, from crime rates to imprisonment to shorter life spans. Higher income gaps make building social capital harder, and that ultimately leads to lower societal well-being.

Likewise, it is clear that natural capital provides a range of ecosystem services that are hugely important, but largely unrecognised contributors to sustainable human well-being. These include everything from maintaining a stable climate to producing soil and water to providing spectacular and inspiring views.

A new vision of societal goals and the technical and institutional solutions necessary to get there will thus have to created. It will involve a better understanding of what actually contributes to human well-being and its sustainability. It is a huge challenge that will require a generation to accomplish – the solutions generation.

There are many groups and communities around the world already involved in building this vision and working out real solutions. There are far too many to list, but some include The Transition Town Movement, The Great Transition Initiative, Wiser Earth, and The Center for a New American Dream.

It might be worth pointing out in closing that nature operates with a subtle dynamic between competition and cooperation. In “empty world” times of resource abundance, competition was favoured. The “great acceleration” period in which fossil fuels were abundant favoured individualism, competition, and greed-based capitalism.

The coming “full world” favours cooperation and networking. We can now, as a global society, communicate, network and cooperate as never before in the history of the planet. It will be the great work of the solutions generation – Gen S – to use this new capacity to envision and build a better, more sustainable, just and prosperous society within the planetary boundaries of earth.

Robert Costanza is a Professor of Sustainability and the Director for the Institute for Sustainable Solutions (ISS) at Portland State University.

A version of this article was originally published in the Solutions Journal.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.