This open and greatest question of all, was what I was confronted with after a one-day seminar in Buenos Aires in September. The real title of the event was, “Redefining the good life”, arranged by Sustainable Brands, a global organization hosting events to discuss sustainability, marketing and commerce in major cities around the world.
Walking back from the seminar, a river of thoughts flooded my sustainable skull, among these, pictures from the last of the mighty Monty Python’s movies, The Meaning of Life.
It struck me, despite the obvious difference between the controversial and rather sarcastic English film from the 80’s and the serious sustainable seminar in Argentina, that the themes of the two were almost identical.
So, I thought, perhaps we people of the planet and generations apart are not that different, and there might be some bright future ahead. Well, there are contrasts - and huge ones, still, so therefore I have decided to comment on some of the themes and will try my best to handle the impossible question: what is the meaning of the good life seen through sustainable glasses?
Of the themes the Monty Pythons and the seminar had in common were management, education and technology. Key factors, not only to understand, but also to thrive in a modern and sustainable world. A lot of good, long term, quality solutions serving to improve our lives are often a result, or a mixture, of exactly good management, education and smart technological ideas. So far so good. If you try to analyze life and sustainability in e.g. South America, it won’t take you long to spot some important cultural contrasts - seen from a European view - affecting these three areas. I sensed a cultural gap during the seminar, and as the day and the, by the way, very good and well organized program went on, the differences became quite visible.
Recycling and consumption
A good sustainable viewpoint I saw and heard repeatedly during the day was recycling. In the lobby sponsors of the event, among these Coca Cola and Nespresso, told you how to recycle the cans and capsules. At the end of the day, I felt as if the event was about recycling the good life. Of course, recycling is an issue you can’t or should ignore, wherever on earth you are. And unfortunately, we still see many attempts to ditch the work of recycling, among these a compatriot of mine, Bjorn Lomborg, who did his best to undermine recycling ideas due to unprofitable argumentation strategies throughout the 00’s. This said, to me recycling is just one (and very important) tool of many in our struggle of turning to a greener and more sustainable world.
Because there is a time before recycling. We could actually reduce recycling by minimizing our consumption or purchasing goods behavior in the first place. This point was also mentioned by the CEO and founder of Sustainable Brands, KoAnn Skrzyniarz in the presentation speech, where she reminded us that consumption not necessarily is equal to happiness. She and many of the following speakers also commented on how the American way of thinking – and especially spending, which has dominated the last half of the 20th century, is about to be replaced by more minimalistic ways of looking at life, a decade and a half into the new century. Not only as a result of old self-righteous “holy” sustainability hippies who knows better, but also by a new generation; the so-called millennials (sorry, I know you perhaps already are tired of this term, but I have to mention it). Some, in my generation, I’m 50, might claim that exactly this group, now teenagers or in their 20’s, were born into a luxurious life, spoiled with access to much more than we were in our childhood. Might be so, but they also care and reflect whether quality is more worth pursuing than quantity. A survey made by Nielsen in 2015 shows that 72 procent of young people between 15-20 years were willing to pay more for products from companies committed to social or environmental issues. Talks with some of our Danish friends confirm that their teenage kids demand organic products over conventional for dinner.
Add that several of the huge malls and former huge brands like J.C. Penny and Sears around the USA are struggling these days, which In parenthesis - I know - also is caused by the influence of online businesses.
Recycling is an all-time relevant tool and subject to care for, but our consumption patterns are at least as important an issue to address too, especially if to discuss how we define a good life, because it includes many other themes relevant to pollution, nature, Co2 emissions, etc.
Education, is another shared element of what both the event in Buenos Aires and the Monty Pythons considered important. Having worked 10 years as a teacher, it is still something that calls my attention, to use a typical Argentine expression. And one difference you can’t neglect, is our different view on how to lecture children. What skills are needed and how you obtain these to be able to manage in society are questions I consider importantisimos!
And it is extra interesting due to there is an abysmal difference here, between European and Latin American countries that means we interact and coexist on different terms when we talk education. There are even big differences within Europe, but let’s stick to the great lines.
One shocking experience during the day, was when the young Finnish teacher, Eevamaija Vuollo revealed that the basic school design in Chile (where she worked on a project) had not changed from the 1930’s until today. I have the similar experience from both Bolivia and Argentina. One thing is the physical interior, another is the general modern thoughts of how to look at individuals, authority and how to plan the teaching. The (didactical) methods I received as I child, and later learned at teacher’s college, seem to have never trespassed the door to the classroom of these southern regions. And what is worse; in many occasions, I feel this “old school” way of driving school in the long run turns unsustainable and unprofitable, because the students later on in life as full citizen will not be suited the same way as we are to meet modern challenges.
This is actually why I wanted to write exactly this blog. Because I felt when the designer and innovator Nick Udall, from the company Nowhere (Now + Here), gave us a very constructive and inspiring lecture on leadership, I started to spot the differences. I am not sure the people participating saw or heard the same as I did. I felt I was “in sync” with almost everything what the (European) contribution speakers had said, but I also sat with my Latin American mindset and thought how good it might sound, I would have difficulties to see much of these thoughts put into action. I come from a school system based on projects, critical thinking, where subjects also include physical activities as cooking, carpentry and out-of –the classroom activities. Add to this a very informal, but cozy way of speaking, addressing authorities or other people in general. Words said or written, e.g. agreements, are also what we expect to see fulfilled in real life. And I tend to think that is the reason why not only Denmark, but the Scandinavian countries and Finland often are mentioned when talking about good life styles and being role models for a lot of things from sustainability over design to democracy.
Of course, education and schools have many faces, and I am not that naïve to admit problems do not exist around schools in the OECD countries. But, a good sustainable life needs definitely a minimum of structured and well organized education paired with creative and open minded environments to support our dearest resource: future generation of people. I should say it is perhaps even more important than ever to brace education much more and address it to what is needed. Joan Antoni Mele, director of Banca Etica, stressed in his contribution how important it is remembering that we are human beings, not animals, and to support skills like poetry and ethics, and not only focusing on math and numbers. He addressed a problem with an excessive use of testing, which by the way is another Finnish (but actually also former very Danish) view, that testing not necessarily leads to better schools. Hopefully, more countries will learn from the Finns and their relaxed, but at the same time constructive way of looking at education.
I recommend a future school, besides having a good solid and healthy inspirational mixture of life relevant subjects, add resources to focus a lot more on technology learning, if we want to prepare us and our kids for the future. And it is not only a matter for South Americans. As mentioned a couple of times at this blog site, we need a strong sustainable society to survive the threat from irrational, popular leadership with short term ideas who seem to pop up in Europe and USA as well.
To get there, we need to inject more creativity and openness through the key holes of today’s class room, from primary schools to universities, both in regions stuck in the past, and countries who have lost their way educationally.
To draw a line to the meaning of the good life and avoid any misinterpretation, my point is not to tell that life is not good in South America. A lot of people would say it is at least as peaceful, not so stressful, much more relaxed and you still have strong family bonds. And that’s absolutely true, I for one enjoy living under - and with these conditions. But, let us not try to believe we are at same speed or level when it comes to technology, education and business models. And to obtain a good sustainable and reasonable life, I think it is important to strive for the best.
So, as important it is to have events like the Sustainable Brands event in Buenos Aires, it is as important that the ideas from this kind of seminar are taken in and trickle out to other schools and institutions.
Phew, well even the Pythons got a little lost on their way too, and I’m not even halfway through what I intended to say. But if we start with the educational part, it will surely be a small step in the right direction for sustainability and a giant leap for humanity.