In many fields there are ‘leading lights’, that guide us in our journeys in figuring out sustainable futures. One of these in the world today is SEKEM, north of Cairo, in Egypt. For thirty five years, it is an extraordinary story of vision, entrepreneurship, reclamation of desert through biodynamic farming, connection with a spiritual source of inspiration that guides all action and commitment – SEKEM is the Ancient Egyptian hieroglyph meaning ‘vitality’.
South African Mathematical Society: 55th Annual Congress
Mathematicians are also interested in sustainability. The 55th Annual Conference of the South African Mathematical Society was devoted to the theme Mathematics of Planet Earth. The opening session was addressed by John Baez from University of California, Riverside, and Mark Swilling. John Baez spoke about a new mathematics of nature that he argued could inspire a new generation of technologies that could foster a sustainability transition. Mark Swilling talked about the second Copernican Revolution and the importance of transdisciplinary research methods.
Award Ceremony in Cologne, Germany
Phetang Mabeba, a staff member at the SI and resident of the Lynedoch EcoVillage, won one of the 50 Young Environmental Enjoy Awards awarded each year by Bayer. The 50 award winners were selected from 1400 applicants from 19 countries. The photo depicts all 50 winners who are now on a one-week study tour of the North Rhine-Westphalia region in Germany. The trip is co-organized by Bayer and UNEP. The week began with a symposium on the Green Economy.
Plenary talk by Mark Swilling
An event that described itself as the Sustain Our Africa summit took place at the V&A Waterfront, Cape Town, on 24-26 October. Sponsored by a significant number of South African companies, the event brought together over one hundred people that the organisers branded as 'thought leaders' in the sustainability field. While the main event was opened by Premier Zille, Minister Hanekom addressed the pre-event dinner held at Moyo, Kirstenbosch. The organisers, skilled operators with many years of experience in the marketing world, published a conference booklet called Change Agent and released what they called the 'Change Manifesto'. In essence, the event was a power networking event for Cape Town's increasingly influential albeit insurgent community of sustainability activists, many of them with strong links to the business community.
Mark Swilling delivered a short plenary address that drew on themes from Just Transitions. After noting how fashionable it is to say "we are all for sustainability now", he questioned whether in reality there is a real consensus. He suggested we face a blocked transition arising from the fact that short-termism within the financial markets has not been reversed and the mineral-energy complex remains dominant. However, a green-tech revolution may well be starting to break out. But for this to mature, short-termism will need to be broken.
time for a new initiative?
At the Rio + 20 conference that took place in the middle of 2012 an initiative known as Future Earth was launched (www.icsu.org/future-earth). This brings together some of the largest social and natural science formations to stimulate sustainability research. Fortunately, the agenda is not limited to climate change and carbon. Although dominated by Europe-based institutions, there is clearly a commitment to incorporate all global regions. A Transition Team has been established to facilitate integration. One of the first actions has been to hold consultative workshops in different regions with people who seem to be drawn from various sustainability research initiatives. The Africa region workshop took place in Cape Town from 31 October to 2 November 2012. Mark Swilling was invited to participate in a public panel at UCT in the evening on 1 November and contributed to a round table discussion on the way forward at the end of the workshop. There was strong agreement at the workshop that a pan-African platform for coordinating sustainability research was required to engage with the global Future Earth programme.
On 31 October 2012, the Cape Higher Education Consortium (CHEC) hosted a workshop on climate change and the green economy. It was attended by high level representatives from the four Western Cape Universities - Universities of the Western Cape (where the event took place), Cape Town and Stellenbosch, plus Cape Peninsula University of Technology. It was also attended by senior officials from the Western Cape Provincial Government and the City of Cape Town. The opening talk was by former academic Jim Petrie who is now employed by the Western Cape Provincial Government's (WCPG) Department of Economic Development. The focus was on how the Western Cape can transition to a low carbon resource efficiency green economy that grows economically, builds the human skills base and reduces poverty. References to moving away from an extractive to a knowledge innovation-driven economy were frequent. All four Universities made presentations, with Mark Swilling presenting on behalf of Stellenbosch University
What was most interesting is how much emphasis was placed by the WCPG on investments in research and innovation, and the importance of partnerships. Very interesting to see how embedded sustainability thinking has become across the various branches of the WCPG and, to some extent, the City of Cape Town (CCT). What was also very interesting is the vast range of research and teaching initiatives related to sustainability across the four Universities. Clearly, UCT excels when it comes to climate change research. UWC has a wide range of relatively small initiatives scattered across many departments and centres. In general, sustainability-oriented solutions is clearly the focus at Stellenbosch University. CPUT has a strong technology solutions focus
The workshop ended up identifying five joint projects that will involve the four Universities, WCPG and the CCT. Some of these are as follows: major iconic urban development projects; capacity for systems thinking; greening campuses and facilities; a 'muddling through' process approach for long-term knowledge partnerships.
Humanity currently faces one of its greatest challenges in history - the ever increasingly complex task of dealing with unsustainable social, economic and technocratic development in a globalized world. The last decades of dialogue pertaining to the concept of sustainable development have amounted to mere surface attempts at changing global political and economic systems that are clearly unjust, unstable and unsustainable. More than ever the responsibility rests upon thought leadership institutions, such as the International Sustainable Development Research Society, to rise to the challenge of informing policy and decision makers and social practitioners on how to deal with the core issues of unsustainability. A fundamental understanding of the barriers and mechanisms for rapid transitions to a more just, resilient and sustainable world is the urgent task.