The 5-Year Global Sustainability Olympics: A Vision From the Future
by Rasmus Reinvang
Rasmus Reinvang (Danish, born 1970) is an indologist who has lived and worked in China. He has a PhD from the University of Oslo (Norway), has previously taught at Copenhagen University (Denmark) and the University of Gdansk (Poland), and has more than ten years’ experience with nonprofit and consultancy work elated to sustainable development in an international context.
The idea was triggered by a text written by the Czech writer-dissident and president Vaclav Havel, published in 1986 when then Czechoslovakia was still under Soviet-backed Communist one party rule. Possibly it reflects thoughts developed under his imprisonment during the period 1979-1983. The fact that it is quoted here is an example of the power and potential effect of cultural expressions – the exact power we would like to harness in the ‘5-Year Global Sustainability Olympics’.
At one point in Central Europe in the mid 1980s, the dissident sat down and wrote by hand, or maybe on one of those mechanic typewriters of yesteryear, with a cigarette burning in the ashtray beside him on the table (Havel was a heavy smoker):
‘A change will have to derive from human existence, from the fundamental reconstitution of the position of people in the world, their relationship to themselves and to each other, and to the universe. If a better economic and political model is to be created, then perhaps more than ever before it must derive from profound existential and moral changes in society.’
Sustainable and equitable global development is not impossible today. It is not waiting for some new technology to be invented, developed and/or commercialized. It is simply a management challenge; a question of leveraging proper understanding, will and skills. Fundamentally, the world we create is an extension of our understanding of ourselves and the culture we create to express ourselves. So let’s nourish a culture of sustainability. Here is how the vision might unfold.
In 2015 an idea spread across the globe: the idea that an increasingly globalized economy, coupled with increasing and global environmental challenges, has to be met by cultural approaches that enable fundamental change towards sustainability. In short, the world’s populations need to leverage the elements of their unique cultural traditions that support sustainable ways of existing on this planet – and to discard traditions, incentive structures and practices enabling and promoting excessiveness and unsustainability.
At the UN General Assembly in 2015, a Commission was mandated to start and facilitate a global creative process to explore, document and celebrate how the world’s different cultural and religious traditions in various ways meet the need for a ‘culture of sustainability’. Using methodologies from the social sciences, the Commission defined 10 broad criteria of sustainability, based on universalism, which would have to be met.
The Commission coined the term ‘Sustainability Memes’, meaning a consistent set of ideas or cultural practises that embody a sustainable way of operating in the world. A Sustainability Meme can be on different levels and of different types; for instance Buddhist ethics, the farmer’s credo to pass the farm on in a better condition than it was when he/she received it, clever and fair policies for redistribution of wealth, or cultural traditions and expressions that nourish a deep understanding and feeling of connectedness and joint responsibilities.
The Commission also launched the concept of ‘Sustainability Spectacles’, stressing that sustainability needs to move from the technical and scientific to the cultural and emotional sphere. Sustainability Memes should be identified and celebrated in Sustainability Spectacles involving the general public, such as shows, exhibitions and competitions at all levels. Sustainability Memes should thereby be recognized and become a source of pride and identification, for a multi-faceted cultural sustainability revolution to roll out across the planet. Technologies enabling participation of the general public in this process should be employed.
Finally, the Commission challenged all the world’s governments and social groups to identify, document and present selected Sustainability Memes at the first ‘Global Sustainability Olympics’ in 2020 – to be held every 5 years.
The Commission’s framework triggered a spontaneous bottom-up process across the globe. In all countries, governments set out to document their country’s unique contributions to a global culture of sustainability, as did religious organizations, professional communities and all kinds of organizations. In many areas competitions were launched where the public could vote for their favourites via mobile phones or the internet, first at national levels and then at regional levels, and for different professions even at global levels. This spurred a ‘race to the top’ in a wide array of fields and generated enthusiasm and new local, national and regional celebrities.
In 2017, the Commission presented the rules for the Global Sustainability Olympics in 2020. 100 disciplines of competition were identified, covering a wide array of fields, from ethics to public transportation systems and sustainable recreation practises. Each region had a certain number of spots, for which representatives from that region would compete in regional competitions. Within the framework of the Sustainability Criteria, each region was free to choose their winners according to local preference and argumentation.
The 2020 Global Sustainability Olympics was the first virtual and participatory global event, with the competitors being linked-up from their own countries and a global audience voting for their favourites via mobile phones or the Internet. In each category the participants would present their meme in a form of their own choice during five minutes. The three Sustainability Memes with the most votes in each category became Olympic Sustainability Ambassadors (OSAs). After being granted a 1 million dollar budget each, 300 OSAs toured the world, promoting their Sustainability Meme until the next Olympics.
The Global Sustainability Olympics spurred a positive, participatory and dynamic integration of the wonders of mankind’s cultural traditions leading to ‘profound existential and moral changes in [the global] society’. Of-course, identifying Sustainability Memes and creating Sustainability Spectacles can be done by anyone, anywhere – now.
 Vaclav Havel: Living in Truth, 1986.