These past days about 40 African countries have been huddling with the UN to embark on a post-Rio+20 plan for the sustainable development of the continent and its billion people, a plan they hope will be received as a model for the rest of the world to follow.
Now, think about that for a minute, or more than a minute. The sustainable development model the world needs to avoid climate and resource catastrophe is not yet in place at a large enough scale anywhere. Western markets grew long ago and did so unsustainably. The emerging markets growing today — Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America — are doing so at destructive Western-style levels of energy use, consumerism, and with the latter, massive and rapid resource depletion.
The one large-scale market left to develop is Africa. It has gotten on the path to growth, to be sure, but not yet at planet-altering levels. And so here they are launching a magnificent dialogue to agree on a common path from here.
Which brings us back to the model the world needs for the future we want, to borrow the Rio+20 slogan. The outline of such a model is in powerpoints the world over. We saw many of them at Rio. They are principles being lived successfully by multiple resilient and transition communities as I write these words, many of them in Africa itself, so this is no longer just empty theory or rhetoric. It is a model being studied by the likes of the Center for the Advancement of a Steady State Economy, the New Economics Institute and Foundation, the Post Carbon Institute, the Center for the New American Dream, the Tellus Institute, Worldwatch Institute, and many others.
One of the ultimate questions on their plate is whether and to what extent the model can be applied at a massive scale of billions of people — to the entire planet, in fact. That, I believe, is the question now facing Africa. Will the continent’s politicians and business people buckle to Western- and China-style development, or will they lead the world down a uniquely different path?
A path where low-consumption simplicity takes center stage as the “in” and celebrated way to live. A path where such high-efficiency innovations as product sharing and closed loops become ingrained in supply chains and distribution channels. A path where green buildings, green homes, mass transit, EVs, zero waste and zero carbon become part of the landscape. Where our food is organic and our agriculture sustainable. Where ecosystem services and natural capital become an integral part of our accounting systems and investments. Where the community meets in broad public spaces of conversation and learns to coexist despite our diversity and differences. Where the diversity we discover and embrace is not just the human variety but the natural one as well. And where the countless companies behind and in front of all this new development provide the jobs and livelihoods people need to live their simple and enriched lives.
Again, this is the path that must be in the thinking and at negotiating table in Africa today. It is our great and ultimate hope. Perhaps the last great, large-scale frontier. Done right, it will certainly ease the task of converting the misdirected development now raging in the rest of the world.
Africa once led the world. The time has come for it to lead again.
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