Opinionista Camille Meyer 6 November 2019

Time for something completely different?

Faced with widening inequality and accelerating climate breakdown, can we reclaim and reframe economic models to be more sustainable?

The City of Cape Town will soon be getting a glittering new addition to its skyline. The R14-billion Harbour Arch development, recently approved by the City, has been welcomed by some and reviled by others. In many ways, this is symptomatic of the deep fault lines in our society.

Those for the 24-story mixed-use residential development argue it will deliver a world-class commercial asset for the City and create 13,000 jobs during the building phase. Those against point to the fact that while it includes about 2,000 residential units in its six towers, not one of these will be affordable to poorer (mostly black and coloured) Capetonians. Despite the City’s policies around spatial justice, this development will merely entrench racial and economic segregation.

It is an unavoidable and uncomfortable fact that inequality in the City of Cape Town is everywhere, from who is eating in the top restaurants to where people are living. Such divisions point to the limitations of the neo-liberal agenda: blind pursuit of economic growth in a “free market” that prioritises private financial gain over public community interests.

Wherever you look in the world, the limitations of this approach are increasingly clear. Inequality is getting worse, wealth is concentrating in the hands of a privileged oligarchy and the planet is being polluted and stripped of resources at unsustainable levels. By 29 July we had already used up all the natural resources the planet could sustainably supply in 2019. Known as “Earth Overshoot Day, it is arriving earlier each year.

Climate change puts further stress on limited resources; South Africa is warming faster than many places on the planet and the people of this country know the value of life-sustaining resources like water better than many.

Politicians are increasingly trying to address sustainability and inequality hand-in-hand; the Green New Deal presented by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other left-leaning Democrats in the US, or the Green Industrial Revolution from the UK’s Labour Party, for example. But this is not a challenge that will be solved merely by swinging the pendulum back to the left – communism has been equally unsuccessful in solving these issues.

The science is telling us – ever more clearly – that what we are talking about is the very survival of our species. Digging ourselves out of this hole will demand collective action on a scale we’ve not seen before. It will require the involvement of all stakeholders: public, private, non-profit and community movements alike. What is required is a complete reimagining of our economic system where political divisions are put aside.

This week the Club of Rome, a leading international think-tank, is meeting in Stellenbosch for its annual conference and global summit to discuss what this might look like. Can we reclaim and reframe economic models to be more sustainable? The theme is “lessons from Africa”, and here there is much that they can draw on – specifically the concept of ubuntu, which translates roughly as “I am because we are”.

Author and Club of Rome academic David Korten – who will also give two public lectures in Cape Town and Johannesburg – points out that in common with concepts of vivir bien and sumak kawsay (good living) in Latin America, ubuntu offers us a pathway to a new economic system, based on different values. A system that is not a reaction to either capitalism or communism – but an entirely new way of living, in harmony with one another and with nature.

Valuing “we” above “me” will automatically address some of the fundamental failings of capitalism. The current system treats everything from housing and water to education as commodities to be regulated by market forces rather than precious resources essential to human development – and happiness. A new system will need to value people, communities and the Earth above money.

In such a system how differently might the Harbour Arch development have been approached? A new economic model would force us to relook the entire notion of private property. How do we weigh individual property rights against the inherent social value of land and housing?

The business will have a key role to play in bringing about this radical transformation. Already, companies are trying to reimagine what sustainable business models could look like in their sector, but we will need to do more than just tinker at the edges of a broken model, we need to fix the model itself.

We’ll need a new type of business leader too and business schools need to develop people who can lead in a world we are only starting to imagine. The type of values-based, Afrocentric leadership being championed by the likes of the UCT GSB will be relevant beyond the continent.

Instead of making decisions based on the narrow lens of financial returns and GDP growth, Korten believes “21st-century economics will feature boldly transdisciplinary instruction in ethics, institutions, culture, biology, politics, and much more”.

His vision of “a global society that meets the essential material needs of all people while restoring and enhancing the health and productivity of Earth’s natural systems” might sound to some unrealistic, even impossible. People will say a country like South Africa, battling a stagnating economy, can’t really afford to question an injection of capital and jobs that the likes of the Harbour Arch offer.

But the real question should be: in the longer term, can we afford the fallout of an increasingly polarised and unbalanced society and the environment? DM

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