Have we succeeded as citizens, as humans? Are we satisfied with the state of our country, of our world? Have we reached the end of our “development”?
These are the questions we must ask, not to rank each other, but to shake ourselves from the lethargy we are in.
This is not the peak of our civilisation, our work is not done just yet. We must raise the bar and challenge ourselves, once more.
Throughout history, us humans have fuelled amazing revolutions. We clubbed together to create clans that would increase our chances of survival, settled down and developed agriculture to make viable our food sources, specialised our skills within growing cities to create increasingly complex and refined objects, studied the world around us to understand its functioning and harness its powers, assembled intricate mechanisms to trade merchandise and improve the quality of our lives. We built an entire system, made from millions of subsystems, all working more or less autonomously, to better our conditions on this planet.
As we look around, we may ask ourselves: have we succeeded? Do we have the “good life” each society may rationally strive to deliver to each and every citizen?
In Switzerland, the answer might look quite optimistic for most. We are all roughly part of the globally privileged 1% that will have it less bad than others when facing the ecological and social crisis that is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.
Though, for those with families living in the global South, those who have been unemployed for a long time or repeatedly, those battling with serious diseases, the picture gets quite darker. These days, it is enough to look a few kilometers from our borders to see masses of people who have no choice but to fight the humid cold and protest in the streets, their situations having degraded to such extends that even hope is fleeting.
Have we, as a society and as humans, done a good job at life? If our collective and personal situations were to be graded by an objective observer, would we make the cut? Regardless of spiritual beliefs or potentially acceptable performance indicators, can we honestly say that we are proud of our work so far?
It is not part of the Swiss values to settle for anything short from excellence. We might not reach it right away, but we have developed the resilience throughout history to start over and improve constantly, regardless of how performant or not our neighbors and competitors were, or how low the expectations might have been. We do not strive for excellence in comparison with others, but in comparison with ourselves.
If we think that we can do better, and I truly believe we should, where do we start?
The problems to be solved are far from simple, involve a myriad of stakeholders within and beyond our country, and implicate incommensurable axes of power.
From September to December 2018, I had the chance to join a group of 25 people in a social lab called Beyond Waste: Circular Resources Lab organised jointly by the Sustainable Living Lab (Impact Hub) and the Living Lab Lausanne (EPFL). This is exactly the type of questions we tried to tackle, using an approach that was closer to introspection than brainstorming. Thanks to that process of unpacking the complexities of the challenges and sensing what needed to be achieved – instead of jumping to conclusions and quick fixes, I believe we were able to get closer to the root of the problem.
I would summarise a potential way forward with the following principles in mind:
Our first instinct is to find band-aid solutions built from what we know already, no matter how well-intentioned we might be. This has to be stopped in its tracks so no energy is lost.
- Let go
We must put aside some of what we know – beliefs, habit patterns, personal limitations – to make space for what we don’t know yet.
To ourselves, to our co-creators, to the world around us. It might be done through a very down-to-earth process or a more spiritual one, what matters is to follow what feels right.
- Let emerge
When we put the well-being of all first, new solutions come to light. These are the ones we want to look into.
- Trust the process
Questioning ourselves and our solutions is good, but it must not impair their development. If we have gone through those steps honestly, time has come to push forward and believe in our collective work.
What are these answers that we have found? Some are simple, others so complex that they mostly take the form of further questions. Here is my personal top three:
- Personal change requires the courage to be different.
We, humans, are our biggest challenge to changing the course of our destiny. We have good and bad reasons to resist our own instincts and rationales, but the bottom line is that change is difficult, especially if everyone around us behaves homogeneously. We must therefore transcend our own limitations to lead forward.
- Societal change is the work of the many, not the few.
The machine we have put together as a society is so monumental, so voracious that it cannot be steered in a new direction easily. Though, we must try and improve it from the inside, while experimenting for new systems from the outside.
- Comfort will be our toughest challenge.
The pioneers of a circular, sustainable living will be those who have already reached the point where letting go of what they own and what they know is not a sacrifice anymore, but a regular practice. Comfort is difficult to give up once it has permeated all aspects of our lives.
I often lie awake in the early hours of the morning, asking myself how we might ever untangle the mess we are in. Then I stumble upon people in the streets, in local shops, at family gatherings, on social media and they tell me about how they stopped eating meat, they stopped buying new clothes, they started doing their grocery shopping at the farmer’s market. These are not perfect solutions, they might not be suitable for everyone, but a collective shift seems to be happening and that is a very hopeful sign.
If we come together and transform these individual actions into collective ones through policies, laws, but also through the stories we tell each other, the values we decide to uphold as a society, then we might be able to raise the bar once more and pioneer a sustainable way forward, as we have done countless times in the past.
If many of us start pushing in the same direction, who knows how far we might go?
Sources and further literature to the topic:
After 4 years as a project manager in the field of technological innovation, Johann decided to go on a quest for meaning that ultimately led him to India and Nepal. Upon returning to Switzerland, he started researching the field of Circular Economy. Johann is now back to academia, studying what true sustainability might look like and how to transition to it as a society.