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Interview with Geneviève Ferone

Posted by Geneviève Ferone on 26 April 2011

Are we witnessing a paradigm shift concerning economic and social development?

Yes. Particularly since 2008 and in recent months, with the devastating economic crisis, because issues of instability, social alienation, vulnerability, and loss of purchasing power have gained such importance. Even in developed countries, considered more robust. De facto, the need to restore purchasing power, to accelerate the transfer of technology to create growth and jobs, especially in emerging countries, takes center stage.

Has this been taken into account by experts and governments?

Yes, they have changed foci, placing greater emphasis on social programs. The question that then arises acutely concerns the creation of wealth: we do create wealth but how and to whom will it be redistributed? How can we prevent exclusion? How can we create “buffers” to protect the poor? In emerging countries, food, energy, rent are pressing questions. Issues relating to housing, food, energy, mobility, have become pervasively present. On the consumer side, these concerns unfold in a continuous loop ; you need only consider the content of blogs and the aspects of political agendas.

The Fondation Chirac educates purchasing advisors for construction lumber and wood products. Is this project in tune with apprehending the “sobriety” you mention in your book, Krach écologique? What other everyday examples can you give us?

If we believe that we have entered a transitional phase that focuses on issues of innovative approaches to resource consumption and aims to create virtuous circles around recycling, optimization, reduction and reuse, we must start considering what must be done in sectors such as construction, for example. The subject deals with the recycling industry in its broadest definition. We throw too much away, compared to what could be recycled, re-injected into the manufacturing process, into a circular economy. “My waste can become someone else’s resource,” provided there are channels to reclaim, develop, recycle… This implies a logistics chain, possibly the “remanufacturing” of the resource in order to correspond to precise specifications, so that it may be reused in terms of equivalent quality and safety standards.

Can we learn from Nature?

This entire chain needs to be invented, following Nature’s example, which offers us this wisdom on a daily basis. Nature only produces bio-nourishing waste. Ultimately, man is the only species that produces waste that does not feed the environment. However, cutting skills-expertise-innovations, called “bio-mimicry” allow us to imitate nature. We can also lengthen the shelf-life of products; or find more “virtuous” products containing fewer chemical inputs, which allow for carbon storage, such as wood, and capable of being used in a multitude of ways. The condition for all of this though is to carefully measure our environmental footprint and the savings achieved.

But are we not currently subject to contradictory summons: preserving on the one hand and consuming ever more on the other?

Nowadays, two seemingly contradictory messages have collided. Beyond the moral level, we can see that more ephemeral, disposable products are being manufactured. Generations of these products are renewed with little added value. In opposition, we advocate to increase the shelf life of certain products, which refutes certain industries that, through their marketing strategies, are focused on shortening the length of usage. And at the same time, many messages fall in line with the concept of a circular and functional economy. They urge consumers to buy products or goods in order to make them last or to share the use of goods or services. It is a form of “dematerialization”; we no longer “own” things and entrust someone else to maintain the stock of objects. However, by doing this, we move economy’s chain of values. It is, by its very essence, learning a form of “lightness”, which implies a level of “maturity” of behalf of the different actors who share the goods or services. A single grain of sand can jam the system… It is still a very fragile model, as still very experimental.

What do you think of the introduction of the National Sustainable Development Week, (from April 1 to 7). It appears to highlight the responsibility of each one of us in particular while you give more prominence to a new global governance…. How do you conceive of this new governance?

First, the existing global governance is not yet homogeneous. And when we think of “new governance”, we see there already exist “bricks”…; but they exist within an extremely slow process. Between Rio, in 1992, and the upcoming Rio +20, there have been of course, the efforts of the IPCC and the Kyoto Protocol, but this is all very fragile and advancing slowly.

I think we need to imagine something else: local initiatives.

Therefore, the Sustainable Development Week is positive: it educates those involved and during one week, it posits a single theme. It helps focus attention. We can all see sustainable development “at our door” so to speak, otherwise it remains a vague and distant concept. This gives it local meaning. I think it is crucial to devise a governance at the regional, territorial, and city level. This allows citizens to become politically engaged and witness results at their local level.

Do you think the changes induced by the growing awareness of concepts such as environmental protection and preservation of biodiversity, confront us with new priorities?

Yes, the key question becomes: can we afford the luxury of developing further at the expense of the environment?

Two time arrows, heading in opposite directions, govern us.

There is the entropic arrow: we consume more wealth than we can renew or restore… We are therefore heading towards the depletion of natural resources and the destruction of the environment. We are, in addition, ever more numerous, consuming increasing amounts of energy, and producing quantities of non-recyclable waste.

But the other arrow reflects the fact that we have never been so aware, never been such stalwart holders of knowledge…. And this knowledge can help us restore the balance that we are destroying.

… Another duality?

Yes, a race against the clock. Will this knowledge allow us one day to mature and to limit or even stop our “predation” that depletes wealth? I want to be optimistic. I hope there will be a “jolt.” Because time is money, it will require substantial investments for our knowledge to be channelled into relevant topics and to be shared appropriately. Money is not the issue, it simply needs to be put in the right place.

In the most advanced, northern countries, it seems many people have begun to focus on “intangibles” (which some claim to measure with the GDH, the index of “Gross Domestic Happiness”)?

Yes, we should perhaps change our measures. The GDP, for example, is rather incomplete because it does not factor in the destruction of natural capital, our ecological debt. It is therefore possible to witness impressive growth associated with high pollution… It would be wise to abandon this idea of ​​growth in its narrowest definition, in favor of the concept of “prosperity” which also encompasses development, maintaining the quality of life, but also general well-being, immaterial riches, knowledge societies. It has a broader scope. I prefer  “prosperity” over “economic growth” because it encompasses and transcends the latter. The question thus arises concerning new measures for this “prosperity”. Many economists are debating the issue for it is a concept that can no longer be ignored. That said, GDP is a relatively simple, universal alphabet. Are we capable of finding an equally suitable measurement for “prosperity”?

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