December 22, 2009


Key Steps to Sustainability -- Junko Edahiro's Message to Young Student Reporters (Davos, Sept. 2009)

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.87 (November 2009)

From September 15 to 16, 2009, JFS co-founder Junko Edahiro attended the First World Resources Forum (WRF) in Davos, Switzerland. Through the Student Reporter program, the forum's foundation supported ten international students, who reported on the forum by live blogs on the Web. The WRF Student Reporters Blog covered workshop sessions, interviews with speakers and panelists.

Junko was invited to present a speech for these student reporters at a dinner on the evening before the forum. She spoke about what she believes everyone must do for the future of the world. Here, Junko shares her message, especially for younger readers of the JFS newsletter. But really, this message is for everyone!



Thank you for this invitation. I am truly honored to have this chance to be with you tonight.

My major at university was psychology, studying how people learn and change -- or do not change -- their minds and behaviors. I had no idea at that time about promoting change for a sustainable future in Japan and abroad, or that I would be working as head of an NGO and two small companies, as an independent environmental journalist, a translator of Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" and Dennis Meadows' "Limits to Growth 30 Year Update" and other books.

But one thing is clear to me: As I carry out my activities today, I rely very much on what I learned and studied at university. So I encourage you to study hard even if you may not yet know exactly how your current efforts will help you in the future!

Now I have a question: Have you heard the idea of "backcasting"?

Backcasting is one way of creating a vision. Actually you might say there are two ways to create a vision.

The other is forecasting. Forecasting is based on what we can do now. The thinking goes that if we continue what we know now we can do, we can reach a certain point in the future. So that future point can become our vision. Easy, right? Well, actually, forecasting-based visions are useful when the future is basically an extension of the past, with little -- or predictable -- change.

But this is not the case for us living today. Our future will not be an extension of the past, and we are likely to see unexpected changes happen on a massive scale.

For our times, a vision should be created using the backcasting approach. We need to put aside our current circumstances and limitations, and instead envision the ideal future state. We must use our full imagination and not be afraid to dream dreams.

Someone may tell you, "You can't set a goal unless you know it's feasible." But my answer would be, "If we only aimed for what we know for certain that we can do now, no human would have ever landed on the moon."

You may recall that in 1961, President Kennedy declared the goal of sending humans to the moon within a decade. That declaration was in fact a "backcasting"-based vision, since the required technologies did not yet exist.

But because of that vision, in 1969, the United States successfully sent people to the moon and brought them back safely. As you can see, backcasting offers us a way to make the impossible become possible.

What happens if we apply this backcasting approach to our current climate crisis? To stop the global warming, CO2 emissions from human activities must drop below the CO2 absorption capacity of the Earth. The IPCC says we are emitting 7.2 billion tons of carbon into our atmosphere each year. Meanwhile, the Earth absorbs 3.1 billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere, of which 0.9 billion tons goes into forests and land and 2.2 billion tons into our oceans. This means that we must start by reducing our annual emissions from 7.2 billion to 3.1 billion tons.

That means a 60 to 80% reduction. This is the goal we should attain in the long-run. But within 2 months, people will gather at the Copenhagen climate negotiations to discuss how to reach that long-term goal. Amid all the chatter you hear in the media, I urge you to listen carefully to what people say. You can now detect who is taking the backcasting approach, aware of what humanity must ultimately do, and who is taking the forecasting approach, perhaps to protect their own vested interests.

Climate change is a huge challenge, but it is not the real issue. Climate change is just a symptom of a deeper problem -- one that we have to tackle, at the same time as we work to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

The fundamental challenge is that we cannot continue having infinite growth on a finite planet. The size of the Earth has not increased since it was formed some 4.6 billion years ago. The resources on our planet have not increased. The only major input has been the continuous flow of sunlight from our Sun.

But our impacts on the Earth -- our human population, our resource consumption, and our waste emissions -- these have all increased dramatically, particularly in the past 50 years. We are now living well beyond the carrying capacity of the Earth. According to the latest ecological footprint indicator, we now need 1.4 globes to sustain our activities, although, of course, we have only one to live on.

So our challenge is to figure out how we can reduce our impacts below the carrying capacity of the Earth, and to take action to achieve this. To return below the limits of the Earth, I believe we need three things.

The first is technological innovation. We need to develop technologies to enhance efficiency so that we can reduce our resource consumption, energy consumption, and emissions of GHGs and solid waste. But technological innovation is not the only thing needed.

So second, we need social innovation. This means reforming and creating social and economic systems, rolling out energy- and resource-saving technologies, and also living lifestyles with a lighter impact on the Earth. Environmental taxes and other incentives and disincentives play an important role in social innovation.

Here at the World Resources Forum, I am looking forward to learning a lot about technological and social innovations. But I truly believe that we need to go deeper than that.

The third thing humanity needs to do is create a new civilization that takes sustainability into account. I want to emphasize that point. We need a civilization with a focus on sufficiency, rather than just efficiency, in our economic activities. We need to foster human wisdom, and the mindset that says, "I have enough."

In order to do this, we need to redefine our ultimate purpose of working and living. Ask yourself this: Do we work and live to increase the GDP of our country? Or do we work and live to enhance our happiness? I believe the ultimate purpose of our lives and our society is to enhance our happiness. GDP and economic growth are simply means to that end.

That brings me to another point. We need the wisdom to make a distinction between ends and means. During the World Resources Forum and many other discussions, you will hear about both of these. I encourage you to listen very carefully and make the distinction between them. This is one of the most important duties of a reporter, and an excellent way of training yourself to see and to seek what really matters.

So that's it. All we have to do is make distinction between ends and means, and seek a vision based on where we want to go, rather than where we think we can go based on current technologies and mindsets.

Tomorrow, at Workshop 5 on "Towards a New Economic Framework," I will talk about new paradigms and cases from Japan and other Asian countries. I hope that such examples will be of interest for people wishing to look at their own mental models and to start changing them.

I am very much looking forward to the Forum, to exchange views, share visions, and to learn how I too can be more effective in fostering change in my country as well as in the world as a whole. I am also looking forward to chatting with young reporters during the conference. We have a youth team at our NGO, so maybe we can do some projects together. Please feel free to talk to me when you see me!

Thank you, and let's start backcasting!

Written by Junko Edahiro