Revolution, Recession AND Sustainability

25/10/2011 / Kaj

Revolution and recession. For good reason, these two words have dominated headlines over the past year. Yet talk of such political and financial tumult has resulted in the neglect of a third issue, which is both critical and germane: sustainability.

In every crisis there is opportunity, and in my opinion, only through sustainable models can upheaval be turned into enduring opportunity.

Take the example of Libya: a nascent nation that has rid itself of Gaddafi, which now must attempt to overhaul his legacy of crumbling infrastructure, poor education and high unemployment, whilst nurturing a lasting peace. This second revolution, if successful, will certainly be more prosaic and protracted than the first. If it fails, however, the ensuing reality could possibly prove more fraught than life under the former tyrant.

To succeed, any newly elected Libyan leaders must utilize their country’s natural resources (both finite and renewable) and secure the future well being of their citizens. For inspiration, I suggest they look to Norway and read the story in The Financial Times.

Such a comparison may at first seem preposterous, like, say, equating deserts to fjords. But if one looks closer, it is clear that these apparently disparate nations share some essential features in common. Most importantly, both have relatively small populations (of around 5 million people) and abundant oil and gas reserves.

Resources alone do not guarantee national prosperity. Recent history is littered with instances of countries, from D.R.Congo to Venezuela, that fall victim to the so-called Paradox of Plenty phenomenon, where vast resources prove more of a curse than a blessing. Then, there is the very real threat that a ruling elite can simply embezzle any wealth, as was the case in Gaddafi’s reign.

The Norwegian model, in stark contrast, is egalitarian and sustainable. Since 1996, the Norwegian government has invested over $240 billion of its oil revenues into social welfare initiatives, on the one hand, and renewable energy projects, such as hydro and wind power, one the other. In doing so, it has comprehensively and responsibly insured it’s citizens’ futures.

In addition, Libya has one infinite advantage: the Saharan sun. Currently untapped, the lucrative potential for the solar power generated could supply much of Europe as well as the domestic market.

Sustainability breeds stability, and if the overthrow of Gaddafi is not just to be the latest in an perennial succession of coups, let’s hope Libya can emulate the achievements of its northern counterpart.

Turning to recession, sustainable development can help remedy the anemic economies of the West. Investing in the Low Carbon Economy, which is predicted to be worth over $500 billion by 2050, will provide some much needed invigoration to countries that are facing years of sluggish growth and unprecedented levels of unemployment.

As with Libya, sustainability offers the West opportunity; it is a responsible means to attain an economically desirable end. To quote Bill Clinton, in a recent interview with The Financial Times:

“For $1bn invested in a new coal plant, you get fewer than 900 jobs, for solar you get 1,900 jobs, for wind turbines 3,300 jobs and [for] retrofitting buildings, 7,000-8,000 jobs. These kinds of projects represent a process of natural co-operation between the private and public sectors. I just say,  “Here are the jobs, here is the investment. Are you really against it?”

Sustainable development must be viewed as a viable financial alternative to escape recession, rather than a simply ethically motivated luxury to be shelved whenever a state’s disposable income dries up.

I hope to have, albeit briefly, made the case for sustainable solutions, which can offer much needed stability as well as future-proof models for growth. In the era of financial uncertainty and political upheaval, what more could you want?

Kaj Embrén



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  1. Norway is the only oil-producing nation that, instead of subsidizing its citizens with cheap local oil, has reinvested it into electric vehicles and other green technologies. A good example of long-term sustainability vs. short-term pandering.

    Can Libya reinvest its oil profits into sustainable infrastructure too?

  2. Terri Lynn Sullivan

    There needs more emphasis on how the USA is so behind the 8-ball as compared to Norway….we are thinking like a 3rd World country sith sustaining our needless aggressive foreign policy, spending trillions on needless wars rather than putting the money into our infrasturcutre, clean tech/green investments, education, healthcare etc. The only ones that “benefit” are the few fat cats in corrupt empires while the more sustainable and truely “successful” people suffer

  3. Interesting title! While my ancestor helped create a revolutionary country between France and The Netherlands ( we now face a recession caused by the (ex-)politicians who run our financial institutions (they were ‘appointed’ by their elected peers without real HR-selection) and have hope for our kids with the sustainability technologies 😉
    Nicolas de Potter

  4. Kaj Embren raises an important and mostly ignored issue in the sustainability discussion: the connection between political and economic upheaval and sustainability. One can hardly dispute his recommendation of factoring in sustainability in the recovery from these events. The practical problem is however elsewhere: how can we reconcile the high short-term priorities of recovery with long-term planning for ‘sustainable development’? Governments tend to cater to the short-term, in line with the length of their legislated mandates, while paying lip service to improving the well-being of the current and future generations. One step to make the opaque concept of sustainable development more operational might be to focus on the measurable, which is the sustainability of economic performance and growth. Greened national accounts show how expanding capital investment and maintenance to include natural capital, i.e. natural resource and sink capacities, can do this. I explored this approach in my recent publications.
    Peter Bartelmus

  5. I like the statement of Kaj Embren; which is very much burning issue at globe. As a international group we have to demonstrate it so that jobless people get jobs and green economy go on. Delay may result more problems.
    Azhar Javald

  6. Kaj

    Peter raised an important issues about Greened national account and this is one of the issues that I discussed with Anders Wijkman former Member of the European Parliament and Johan Rockström, Executive Director of Stockholm Environment Institute a short time ago. See the interview at
    Kaj Embren

  7. Nicolas de Potter point is a critically important one. There is no longer any real difference between political decisions made in a cabinet and financial decisions made in a boardroom. The integration of the two, at all levels, is deeply entrenched in our kind of capitalism. Banks can be bailed out by governments, who in turn can decide whether banks write off debt. The cross-over in personnel between poltiical and corporate worlds in endemic – former politicians advise corporates on strategy, then work for corporates in influencing public policy.

    As against this corporatism, the true radicals today are those who want governments to stop being economic managers, stop bailing out banks, and insist that corporates stand or fall in the market. For cooperatives, this position is the one that holds the most promise, for it is only in cooperatives that democratic governance in economic affairs is upheld, freeing everyone from the expectation that governments should immerse themselves in the affairs of business – which for a century has resulted in the enrichment of corporates at taxpayers expense.

    Vern Hughes
    Centre for Civil Society

  8. Kai you raise intriguing comparisons between Norway & Libya. My questions relate to the level of consciousness development of the two countries. While Norway is exhibiting worldcentric values in their choices I wonder if Libya can rise above its ethnocentric values so easily as you propose?

    Another curiosity I have relates to the level of education in Libya – I understand the education is quite high for both hi-skul and undergraduate (70%+??). Along with the Libyan diaspora (returning) what effect will this have on the indigenous tribal Libyans??

    I’d be curious of your perspectives on these situations?

  9. Kaj

    You are certainly correct to point out the disparity between the outlook and social constitutions and power balances between Libya and its tribal plurality and Norway, a more traditional nation-state.

    The blog intended to outline a possible trajectory for the new born country to follow. Whether that will become anything near to reality is a far more difficult and complex question answer, and could well be undermined by the factors you point out.

    But read more about the Oil Fund in Norway ( and you will be impressed. But, I know that all development is based on the basic situation that exist but it is not forbidden to learn from best practise.

  10. Mohamed Bahi

    Excellent article, comparing Norway/Libya to reach sustainabilty – accountability acceptable levels, great comparative. Thank you Sir.

  11. Great article. The recession highlights the devastating consequences of deregulation and the OCCUPY movement clearly illustrates the revolutionary sentiments of people around the world. (At last count there were over 1000 cities being “occupied.”) The question is how to channel those sentiments into meaningful changes that will protect against destructive financial activities while helping to fuel the green economy. I am hopeful that we will see greater sustainability efforts as a consequence of the Arab Spring. There is already evidence of progress on sustainbility with massive investments in solar energy in the Arab world.

    Posted by Richard Matthews, Canada

  12. Liberty

    Kaj, this is a good paper which looks at the various links that exist in trying to revive economies ravaged by war and strife and the harsh policies by the tyrants. l share in all your views and believe that more sustainable projects can be developed that provide the current generation with wealth while also investing for future generations. I personally look forward to a follow up on this paper.


    Respected Professionals,
    I a Rosh Saji George, a Post Graduate Engineer in Health Safety and Environment,seeking a position in HSE profession.Would any one mind helping me to get a offer in Libya or any country , in HSE segment?Basically i am a Mechanical Engineer with NEBOSH IGC(distinction)and IOSH MANAGING SAFELY.

    with regards,

  14. Hello there,

    Interesting insight you have there…specifically on economic basis, yet I believe its not just about economic issue …many reasons and drives of the revolution are related to justice, freedom of speech and development.

    Have a look at the following article of similar topic and let me know what you all think:



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