4 years ago today, I gave a keynote speech at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Soon after, a section of the talk was featured by the campaign group Extinction Rebellion (before they became famous).
Here is a transcript of a section of that speech:
“The Sustainable Development Goals offer one framework on public need. And we will hear of a range of efforts on different SDGs from our panellists. But I’d like to invite us to consider something bolder, more urgent. Although climate change is included in the SDGs, the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change invites a reprioritisation. It implies that climate change is now a planetary emergency posing an existential threat to humanity. The artist who made this ceiling said he was inspired by a mirage in the Sahel where trees, donkeys and people all appeared to be melting up into the sky. We could take that a dramatic metaphor, in this human rights room, of the human face of climate change. So as our climate spirals away from one friendly to our civilisation, we need to face up to why we have been so incapable of changing our ways, collectively, at scale.
Despite decades of deliberation and initiative, carbon emissions continue to rise. One reason we have not stopped that is because action has always been an add on, not a starting point for our systems of economic organisation. So although it is typical for conversations like ours today to focus on how to improve the current global system, I want to ask us to consider something far bolder. That is the need to transform our economic system – and fast.
So here is the critique – and it’s not a shy one. Currently, stock markets incentivise the maximisation of company growth and profitability. That can encourage firms to manipulate people to consume more, while externalising costs onto society and the environment. But a deeper driver of humanity hitting natural limits is our monetary system, which is based on privately-issued debt. Nearly all electronic deposits are created by banks as interest-bearing loans. For the system to function normally, more of our Earth’s resources must be consumed to generate yields to service those debts. Otherwise, when existing loans are paid off, our money supply would dry up.
This system was OK for a time, and OK in some places. But not now. The climate chaos we face is nature’s answer to our hubris that we could expand forever.
A systemic redesign of our banking and corporate systems is long overdue. Until now, people in senior roles have preferred less awkward explanations of our problems. But now that complacency has become a grave threat to life on Earth. We now know that many self-reinforcing feedbacks have begun to further warm the planet, threatening to take the future out of our hands. So if we don’t wake up from our delusions of what is pragmatic and appropriate, then shame on us.“
Some people want us to think we have made progress since then. But if you don’t think we have, then please take that as your invitation to re-engage, without compromise, to bring greater effort to bear on making the best of a bad situation in the years to come.
Also, take a moment to see some of the talks I have done over the last 4 years.