The global population clock is predicted to reach 9.5 billion people by the middle of this century. Will all of these 9.5 billion people have a sustainable future? Based on our current path, the projections are less than hopeful.
Global wealth inequality has increased exponentially in recent years to the extent where the richest 1% of people now own nearly half of the global wealth. Many people often greet these statistics with a sense of gloomy inevitability – as if it has always been this way. But such extreme wealth inequality is actually a relatively recent phenomenon. As an optimist and a humanitarian I would argue that it doesn’t have to be this way. There are avenues we haven’t yet explored and avenues we must explore, because the alternative is too awful; where maybe 8 billion of those 9.5 billion do not survive.
How can we ensure that wealth is distributed more evenly? Leadership has a huge part to play.
Leadership is important because good leaders (from all walks of life) are the ones who ensure there is an alternative vision to the status quo – and good leaders are instrumental in working with others to bring about the change. 20th Century communism has since turned any conversation about wealth distribution into something of a hot potato. However, much more positive, alternative visions of a fair society do exist. It takes good leaders to articulate what that society might look like, and it takes good leaders working with others to ensure that the vision is carried out.
An example I sometimes use is Viktor Frankl and his book Man's Search for Meaning, in which he identifies that all human beings need a purpose, and that from that purpose ensues happiness and fulfilment. This is a choice we can all make, to have a fulfilling purpose. For many of the world’s super rich, that purpose is very likely to be: ‘to make money to make more money to make more money’. What if those people could be persuaded to change their purpose - to one of only reasonable wealth, philanthropy, social responsibility or global sustainability?
At least in theory I genuinely believe most people would be open and empathetic to this idea, but can we realistically expect anyone to redefine their purpose without persuasion, encouragement or inspiration? And without some vision of a new possibility. I would say this is far less likely. Leaders need to take on the task of articulating and advocating for these alternative ways by which we can achieve a fairer society.
Success stories are not unprecedented. I work for a wonderful company called Arup. In the 1970s, the then Arup leaders gifted their equity in the firm to all past and future generations of the firm. At the time this seemed unthinkable but they answered their doubters by stating that they had a vision; the sorts of things Arup was doing as a company needed to be continued. They had redefined their purpose. They had reasonable prosperity and sacrificed greater wealth for an alternative purpose of sustainability and succession. They had enough wealth and chose a different possibility. Forty years on that ideal remains as strong as ever.
In the social sphere, one might look to multi-billionaires like Bill and Melinda Gates. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has so far donated enormous amounts of money to charity and the pair hope to eventually donate 95% percent of their personal wealth. Again, it’s an example of people who redefined their purpose from wealth generation to something else – in this case, social responsibility.
So what about the rest? I would argue that we need to stop viewing wealth inequality (or any other problem for that matter) as an inevitable by-product of human nature. However, at the same time, it is naive to expect anything to change without trying something new (I think Einstein had something to say about that). Leadership can be the catalyst for this change; by taking what seems impossible and turning it into something which is possible, desirable even. It might not be up to leaders to create these visions or even lead them from the front – the true task of the leader is ensuring what is necessary becomes reality. And in my view, finding a way where all 9.5 billion people can live on this planet sustainably and with the right purpose, happily, is one such necessity.