by Jack Sim
This post originally appeared on April 1, 2015, in the Huffington Post. Used with permission of the author with minimal editing. This is part 1 of two Jack Sim-related posts. Part 2 will appear on March 19.
I was at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, among some of the world’s most influential political and business leaders, when it was announced that the wealth of the 85 richest people in the world now equals that of 3.5 billion people — the poorest half of the world’s population. Oxfam also estimated that by next year, the wealth accumulated by the richest one percent of the world’s population would exceed that of the other 99 percent. It struck me: if 99 percent of the players can’t win in this money game, isn’t it time to change the game entirely?
The recent Occupy Wall Street movement in New York, the global Occupy movement, and the Arab Spring have exposed a massive meltdown of trust between people and governments. With the slogan “We are the 99%” the Occupy movement protested against a financial system that unfairly benefits a wealthy minority of the population. And the wave of protest sweeping across the Arab world exposed populations who see little relevance of the actions of their governments to their lives.
Growing inequality has been fueled by the capitalist system and a society that values material wealth above all else. And global poverty has been spurred on by the inefficient and inequitable distribution of opportunities in this current system. We have been seduced by advertisements and mainstream media to attain instant gratification by buying things we don’t need, with money we don’t have to impress the people we don’t like.
The growth of a consumer lifestyle and obsession with ‘having stuff’ has created a wasteful throw-away society that is generating unsustainable levels of waste: in 2013 it was estimated that if business continues as usual, we’re on track to double global waste generation by 2025, and to triple waste generation by 2100 to exceed 11 million tonnes per day. Extreme consumption has led to the rapid depletion of natural resources both above and below-ground, deforestation of the Amazon, the burning of forests in Indonesia, over-exploitation of our seas, and had an irreversible impact on the planet’s climate.
Reaching saturation point
The addiction of consumerism has today reached several saturation points that are clearly unsustainable.
- Saturation of storage space: the clutter in our wardrobes and storage spaces show us clear signs of over-consumption.
- Saturation of our body capacity: we are breaching the maximum capacity of nutrition input that our body can accept at a healthy level.
- Saturation of waste to landfill: our thruway lifestyle is creating unsustainable levels of waste.
- Saturation of the environment’s capacity: we are in ecological overshoot, currently using the earth’s resources at a rate that would require 5 planets to sustain.
- Saturation of time: we sell time to make money, leaving little or no time for anything else that matters in our lives.
Yet in Davos at the World Economic Forum, the discussion was how to stimulate more consumption so as to generate the economic multipliers through further borrowing and spending. We know more of the same will simply delay the search of better solutions. Surely now is the time to reflect and ask ourselves what is the meaning the mission statement “improving the state of world.”
Relevance: redefining success
Our society cannot continue with this system that lauds selfishness and rewards arrogance. In our search for a better world order, we need to design a system of recognition that motivates people to take actions with a positive impact on those around them.
I propose that we redefine the meaning of success based on relevance rather than the amassing of money. A billionaire would then be someone that is relevant to the lives of a billion people, or whose actions positively impact on the lives of many. In this system someone who hoards their money in a bank would not be as successful as a relatively penniless activist like Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai who has touched the lives of billions. Malala would be considered a “billionaire” as her efforts are relevant to the lives of billions — as a champion for human rights and girls’ education; at the age of 17 she has already had an impact on the lives of billions now and in years to come. And Donald Trump would not be considered a billionaire. He might have “seven billion **** dollars in the bank,” as he once put it, but he’s notoriously stingy when it comes to parting with his wealth for the benefit of society.
From “egosystem” to ecosystem
The current model is a zero sum game that rewards “winners” and punishes “losers.” This “egosystem” driven by the selfish accrual of wealth is unfair: not least for the four billion people living at the bottom of the economic pyramid (BoP) that are excluded from the formal economy. And it’s wasteful: just look at current unemployment rates across much of Europe. To facilitate an inclusive world and mobilize all resources, we need to move from this “egosystem” to an ecosystem approach. There is a long proven sustainable model we can learn from for this: in nature’s ecosystem there is zero waste.
Similarly by taking an ecosystem approach in human society, we could eradicate waste, and set up an inclusive society that works for the whole population, and accepts diversity as a necessity for our survival — just like in nature’s ecosystem. It is time to reflect on what is relevant to us as people and as a society, and just as importantly what is no longer relevant so that we can find a better way of life going forward.
Let’s improve the state of the world in a way that’s relevant to all of the citizens of the world.
Champion of ChangeU Jack Sim is the founder of World Toilet Organization, the Restroom Association of Singapore, the World Toilet College, and the BoP Hub. Jack has been awarded the following: Ashoka Global Fellow, Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur, and Synergos Senior Fellow. He is also a member of the World Economic Forum serving on the Global Agenda Council on Water & the Global Agenda Council for Social Innovation.