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Writing about the power of individuals and meeting Kofi Annan

Kofi Annan

New York, April 2004 Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan once said “Sustainable consumption is about the power of individuals”. He spoke at the occasion of the launch of the World Watch Institute State of the World report, 2004, devoted to the Consumer Society. Our Paris SC team was proud to get proper coverage in the report with our various initiatives. Kofi Annan was late for his speech, which forced Klaus Toepfer – my UNEP boss at the time – and speaking before him … to use 100% of my speech and more. Kofi Annan entered the meeting room just when Klaus was really running out of his joke repertoire.  He gave an impressive presentation, seemingly improvised, and then mingled with the crowd, including Viveka Bohn, Helen Agren and many other SC fans.

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Two years later I built on his quote in my preface for the Creative Communities report by writing “The choices of everyone determine consumption patterns, production patterns, the degradation of natural resources, pollution and social progress. The sum total of trillions of individual choices in millions of life cycles of products and services is what we are talking about when reflecting on sustainable development.

People are surely doing their bit. Many want to make a difference, be it only by buying organic apples or fair trade coffee in the supermarket. People join waste recycling and energy saving schemes. Others take to the street or organize mass gatherings in an effort to wake up society. Some individuals are starting to explore new systems to work and live together. They organize their own lives differently. They act. They show by doing that there are other ways to live a good life without at the same time threatening nature, other people or their own inner peace.

Earlier work of UNEP has revealed that the Global Consumer Class (including the Global South) increasingly shares the same consumption patterns around the world. “All I wanna do is have some fun. I got a feeling I’m not the only one” (Sheryl Crow) can be heard in MP3-players in Tokyo, Sao Paulo, Sydney, Paris, Cape Town and New York. The consumer society is here to stay. But these consumers also have similar ideals. They want to get rid of pollution and stop violence and they really hold that everyone is equal and deserves the same chances.

Creative communities exist everywhere, and may not differ greatly, hence offering plenty of scope for learning from each other. The vast majority of the world’s population has to struggle to survive on a daily basis. Klaus Toepfer said: “We should not be afraid to wish that everyone in the world became a consumer. The poor need more than food and shelter. They ultimately need to be able to make choices for their material and immaterial well being.” Connecting the poor to the world’s grid of creative communities is certainly part of that enormous task. They should become consumers and they should become producers.

This book shows cases, tells stories, and formulates visions and the beginning of theories. It is about individuals, it is about working together, and it will lead to new markets and tools. Let it be a rich source of inspiration for those readers who are willing to open their heart, to be curious and to think differently.”

(Excerpts preface of Creative Communities by Bas de Leeuw, UNEP. The “Creative Communities: People inventing sustainable ways of living” publication was edited by Anna Meroni and was a book resulting from the EMUDE project, financed by the European Commission. Also see Sustainable Everyday project, by Ezio Manzini.

Download Creative Communities (PDF), foreword “The Power of Individuals Working Together” on page 5.

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