Social Entrepreneur Tariq Al-Olaimy offers inspirational insight on the potential of partnering with nature to achieve true sustainability and the need for new economic paradigms for a post-growth society.
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- As confirmed by the IPCC, economic growth as we know it is increasingly incompatible with a flourishing natural world.
- Social Entrepreneur Tariq Al-Olaimy offers inspirational insight on the potential of partnering with nature to achieve true sustainability and the need for new economic paradigms for a post-growth society.
With global sustainability deadlines edging closer, social entrepreneurs and climate activists are looking to alternative and unexpected sources for solutions. Tariq Al-Olaimy, is the founder of 'think-do' tank 3BL Associates as well as a sustainability and youth education policy advocate in the International Climate Movement. He believes that nature is our most valuable partner in the climate crisis.
An educator at heart, Al-Olaimy spoke to the World Economic Forum on why he believes economic growth is no longer conducive to a flourishing human society. He also discusses how shifting the goalpost beyond growth can benefit both humans and the other species we share our world with.
How is the World Economic Forum fighting the climate crisis?
World Economic Forum: Your work is very much centred around spearheading sustainability solutions in the Middle East. What does sustainability mean to you?
Tariq Al-Olaimy: For me, sustainability goes beyond our human constructs of the concept. My benchmark for true sustainability can be seen in the forest next to us – in nature sustainability. Nature has, after 3.8 billion years of its own research and development, and through its green chemistry and engineering and architecture, already perfected it. Sustainability is recognising that the 8 million other species that we share our planet with have achieved the SDGs we strive for today several million years ago and that our human economies need to catch up with the rest of the natural world. Essentially, sustainability means that the principles of regenerative communities and economies should be embodied in our human systems.
"What does the world look like beyond growth?”
We’re a very young species on this planet, and the natural world should be stood as a partner and collaborator who is waiting to engage with us. I don’t think we can achieve true sustainability unless we realign our human systems and economies with the natural world.
World Economic Forum: In staying with that point, how can we build a world where sustainability is top of mind for every individual who isn’t connected to sustainability in their day-to-day affairs? And what is required for that world to exist?
Tariq Al-Olaimy: Perhaps I should answer that question with another question: What does the world look like beyond growth? By reflecting on that, we touch the core and heart of sustainability. Our mode of development is so centred around economic growth, that it’s a difficult question to answer. However, we know now, as confirmed by the IPCC, that economic growth is simply incompatible with a flourishing human society, as well as a flourishing natural world.
On that account, I challenge every board leader, member, and social entrepreneur to reflect on what it would mean to their sector, industry, or enterprise if the growth imperative is taken away. When the focus is shifted to a well-being economy with well-being strategies instead, we will truly be able to serve human flourishing. A post-growth society is, I think, what a sustainable society will look like on a global scale.
World Economic Forum: It’s such a challenging idea to contemplate, of course, as the world has been driven by economic growth for so long and it is considered its most important metric. And now you're suggesting that we rethink that. What would you say to a sKeptic of that idea?
Tariq Al-Olaimy: There is economic growth, and there is uneconomic growth. The question we should ask is, which aspects of the economy aren't serving us any longer? While some industries support human flourishing, like education and healthcare, other aspects of the economy, like fast fashion and military missions, can no longer be permitted to grow exponentially. If we are to exponentially scale a global GDP growth at just 2% per year for the next 100 years, there simply won't be enough raw materials and human communities to sustain such growth for the next century.
World Economic Forum: What would you suggest as an alternative motivator to economic growth that would incite the same drive as an economic incentive?
Tariq Al-Olaimy: There is no one thing - economic models will be diverse and differ according to the local communities, culture, needs, and available resources. For example, a desert area's economic model will look quite different from that of a forest area. I think the future holds more than one economic paradigm – and each will require a far more inclusive and diverse set of alternatives. One will be rooted in the community's needs and the other in the needs of its unique natural ecosystem.
World Economic Forum: Do you have any examples of alternative approaches such as these from the work you're doing on sustainability goals, even if they are in the middle stages of development in your community?
Tariq Al-Olaimy: When we first launched our non-profit organisation, Recipes for Wellbeing, we aimed to support the well-being of changemakers. However, as we progressed, we learnt that it wasn't enough to support social entrepreneurs alone and that the communities in which they operate need support too.
A post-growth society views all things through the lens of wellbeing. The metrics are no longer based on GDP growth and contributions to each sector. The metrics prioritise compassion, empathy, and well-being in society. One in which we can collectively navigate and heal generational trauma and tend to the most basic emotional and physical human needs – and do so in a way that doesn’t destroy the very species and natural environment that we depend on.
"A post-growth society views all things through the lens of wellbeing. The metrics are no longer based on GDP growth and contributions to each sector. The metrics prioritise compassion, empathy, and well-being in society."”
World Economic Forum: You’re refreshingly optimistic about the topic. Could you share some real-world examples that fuel your hope of achieving a sustainable global economy in time to avoid the worst effects of climate change?
Tariq Al-Olaimy: I come from the small island country of Bahrain. And according to the IPCC, rising sea levels, heat stress, and unbearable conditions will make the island inhabitable by the end of the century. Conversely, science suggests otherwise. The global South possesses immense potential for climate activism, as alternative economies are still rooted in indigenous traditions. Moreover, an upswing in systemic approaches to climate issues could give rise to transformation on a macro scale. We have hope for the alternatives, and we're not shying away from these very difficult conversations.
World Economic Forum: Appreciating that this is a difficult task to tackle, how can this challenge be turned into an opportunity for sustainability through on-the-ground initiatives, and could you share some examples of similar initiatives you've worked on?
Tariq Al-Olaimy: What's interesting about the MENA region is that there's a high level of climate awareness among millennials, but a lack of young people who believe that anything can be done about it. There’s no community to unify young people in the common cause for climate action. What I find with the Global Shapers Community is that they're able to balance the grassroots work required to inform and recruit, whilst leading their communities in policy, scientific research, and beyond. While our community has been learning together and sharing wisdom on the ground, we’ve also been leading by sitting at the table of decision-making every single day – which is what is required to make the change.
World Economic Forum: We often hear about the sustainability goals and achievements in many European countries, and even Canada, but rarely hear about the wins in the U.S. Is there one remarkable project or approach you’ve seen that has given you hope, and could it perhaps be applied on a more global scale?
Tariq Al-Olaimy: We’re aware of the importance of public-private partnerships in achieving Sustainable Development Goals. Through our initiative called Public Planet Partnerships, we reflect on who the natural partners are that we should be connecting with. Just as we would create a free trade agreement between different countries, we consider what it would mean to create an agreement between a country and the natural world. What does it mean to collaborate with bees as a data partner, or ants on our food system strategies, for example?
On an economic level, of course, we know that nature provides $100 trillion in ecosystem services per year. The natural world is by far our greatest social-economic partner, but unfortunately, humans aren’t very good at partnering with other species. Just like we would in any other NGO or civil society, we should reflect on what our partner needs. If I have bees next door, what would they need to flourish? I know that every year, one single colony of bees visits over a trillion data points in the form of flowers – an invaluable collection of data for ecosystem health.
"When stuck for a solution, we can often look to other species who solved similar issues thousands of years ago. The challenge is collaborating with other species in a regenerative manner – one that champions a well-being economy and a post-growth mindset."”
World Economic Forum: Could you give us some examples of the impact this Public-Planet approach has had and what you've been able to achieve so far?
Tariq Al-Olaimy: We found many examples in London, where social engineers partnered with pigeons to monitor air pollution. Instead of static air pollution centres, air pollution data was collected through pigeons that roamed the city. Similarly, social entrepreneurs are partnering with goats to predict climate shocks more accurately. They realised that goats change their herding pattern before a natural disaster occurs and have subsequently been monitoring where herds are fleeing to. In terms of healthcare, rats were found to detect tuberculosis, and even land mines, far better than traditional methods. By tuning into the wisdom of the natural world and supporting other species in their role, both parties can benefit.
We are trying to solve food sustainability challenges and the environmental impacts on fish stocks and corals when our oceans and fish species are facing the exact problems and conditions. There is no sense in attempting to save the oceans without collaborating with the other species which inhabit the oceans themselves. Essentially, new solutions to current sustainability obstacles will require biological literacy - a process that we're very familiar with but seldom apply to other species.
I find it incredibly inspiring that when stuck for a solution, we can often look to other species who solved similar issues thousands of years ago. The challenge is collaborating with other species in a regenerative manner – one that champions a well-being economy and a post-growth mindset.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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