The Global Risks 2015 Report from the World Economic Forum (WEF)[1] marks 10 years of reporting by the WEF on the risks facing our global society.

In those 10 years, the risks highlighted by the WEF have shifted markedly.

Prior to 2010, economic risks represented 60 per cent of all listed risks. Since then, economic risks have fallen to 13 per cent of all risks. The marked change is in environmental and climate related risks, up from zero to 37 per cent of all risks. If societal and geopolitical risks are added to the environmental list, it could be argued that 64 per cent of the identified risks are directly related to the destruction of our natural capital, and social disruption.

As much of the ecological loss and changed climate are now considered irreversible, is it not time to seriously rethink our current reliance on economic growth (GDP) as the seemingly only indicator of national well-being? This WEF report shows that economists have at last recognised that global natural and societal systems are in serious decline, and they are calling for change.

We only have to consider the recent G20 meeting in Brisbane to see how far removed our leaders are from understanding global risks. Our Prime Minister’s insistence that climate change would not be on the agenda and that economic growth and job creation would be the prime focus of the leaders shows a seriously misguided faith in GDP.

Of course this is not new information. The notion that we simply cannot continue to grow under our current economic construct on an obviously finite planet was first introduced 1972 with the Club of Rome’s publication, Limits to Growth. That warning was, of course, ignored by economists of the time who won the day by arguing that our ingenuity (engineers and technology) would always find solutions, such as new materials and new energy sources. While that has been partly true, it is becoming clear that there are limits, and that a major rethink is now urgently needed.

Significant recent studies (CSIRO[2]) have confirmed that the Limits to Growth forecasts are on track. We can expect to hit the wall very soon unless there is a major turnaround in the way we do things and make stuff.

In his book The Great Disruption, Paul Gilding illustrates how climate change and the loss of ecosystems services will bring on “the end of shopping”[3]. With our self-imposed desire to consume ever more and more made material goods, we have passed the earth’s natural ability to provide sufficient life support and restorative services.

Global ecological footprint analysis has been showing us for the past decade that for members of western society to maintain their current consumptive lifestyles requires more than four earths, and that for the seven plus billion people on earth to continue as we are requires more than one and a half earths. This is simply impossible to maintain – we must rethink, deconstruct our current economy, and rebuild new models for our lifestyles and business paradigms.

So, how are we to pull through this impending mess? First, we must look to nature – after all, nature has had some 3.8 billion years to complete its due diligence, eliminate failures, and survive in perfect balance and harmony, at least until we humans burst onto the scene. Maybe nature is now about to eliminate the human species as one of its failures.

One place to commence this rethinking is with Natural Capitalism[4] (Amory Lovins and Paul Hawken), then swing across to Janine Benyus and Biomimicry: Innovation inspired by nature[5]. While these leading thinkers are showing new ways of designing to meet our needs with sustainability outcomes, and we are seeing amazing technology initiatives being tried, the scale of implementation may not be sufficient, nor fast enough to avoid collapse.

But we will need more than a change in how we design and build to triumph over this mess. We will have to reconstruct how we value our livelihoods. For instance, GDP is totally inappropriate for our future. It does not value life itself.  The failings of GDP were eloquently put by Robert Kennedy shortly before his life was so tragically cut short in 1968:

“(The GDP) counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs that glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the (GDP) does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”[6]

How do we value these intangible qualities? Interestingly, Australia was mentioned at COP 15 in Copenhagen back in 2009 as having completed some groundbreaking work on the valuing of natural and social capital. On returning home from that event, I discovered it was Dr Ken Henry, then Treasury Secretary, who had prepared a report on alternatives to GDP for measuring national wellness back in 2001. Unfortunately, our current accounting rules and standards prohibit innovative measurement of ecosystem services and social wellness, and nothing has changed.

What’s all this got to do with engineering and construction? While we have made an excellent start with green rating schemes, these tools and much of the business cases supporting them are still only minimising negative environmental and social impacts. They may even be instilling a false sense of “doing good.”

Every highly environmentally rated facility and development is still removing natural capital, eroding ecosystem services, and in many cases degrading social amenity. Despite this, we glorify these highly rated facilities as if they are “saving the planet” and therefore mistakenly believe we should be building many more to save the planet even faster. Think about it! The global risks are increasing. The doomsday clock has moved forward to three minutes to midnight. Degradation and the slide to collapse continue even as we pat ourselves on the back, we now work in nice surroundings, we may even be more productive, and the economy continues to grow.

If we care about long-term survival, we must be agents of change and mobilise the community through awareness building, rewarding and showcasing developments that regenerate natural capital, and add shared value for communities – true positive developments across all measures. We must change the rules that perpetuate negative outcomes.  And, we must do this in concert across all professions and callings at all levels.

[1] Global Risks 2015 – Tenth Edition, World Economic Forum, 2015, Geneva.
[3] The Great Disruption, Paul Gilding, Bloomsbury, 2011, New York.
[4] Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, Amory Lovins, Paul Hawken, & L Hunter Lovins, Little Brown and Company, 1999, London.
[5] Biomimicry: Innovation inspired by nature, Janine Benyus, HarperCollins, 1997 (reissued 2004), New York.
[6]Remarks of Robert F. Kennedy at the University of Kansas, March 18, 1968