What would you do to change the world with a billion dollars?

Posted on April 29, 2012


It’s been quiet on the ranch.  So quiet that I began to wonder where my blogging brain went.  But, folks, I have come out of hibernation to twirl about with you one of my favourite bored-on-Sunday-it’s-raining-outside-questions:  what would you do to change the world if you had a billion dollars?

To make it interesting, I am setting three options for us all.  Here they are:

  • Educate, educate educate!
  • Demonstrate, demonstrate, demonstrate (through a physical manifestation of your idea).
  • Lobby, lobby, lobby (and maybe a bit of strategy thrown in… ahem)!

I am sure, reader, that you also have played this game many times, possibly involving desert islands, winning the lottery, world-trips, helicopters and other fantastical but fun outcomes.  My fantasy generally involves building something but then it quickly fizzles out when I get to the adding up bit – the bit where I realise that to buy that large stretch of desert would consume all of my magical money leaving nothing to work with – a pointless exercise in other words.

So, in this fantasy, I am asking myself and therefore you, to consider what you would want to change in the world, why and by when.  The timeframe is key as it will influence your choices….

Having had a head start, I have already begun to answer my own question.  Here goes:

What would I hope to change about the world?

Our consumption of the Earth’s natural resources and our destruction of the natural environment


Because if we do not solve the resource consumption issue within the next five years we have written our own worldly demise

By when?

We must see changes to the trajectory of resource consumption within 5 years and a significant reduction in the rate of consumption within 10 years to avoid runaway climate change.  We must then continue on a downward trajectory until we have stabilised emissions and resource use more generally.  Inherent in this is the need to share resources more equitably across the globe which implies deep social and economic change in tandem to this resource-led approach.

By which means (educate, demonstrate, or lobby)?

So….this is where it gets tricky……All three options have their merits. Dollars go a long way when what you are doing is education children, while physical projects can act as powerful visual demonstrations of change, and strategy and lobbying is by its very nature deeply influential.  So what to choose?

I believe that the timing of my particular selection in the world-changing stakes requires a strategy that will be hard-hitting and fast-acting.  This leads me to go for option three – lobbying.  Hell, if the tobacco industry can lobby so effectively for so many years then why not pro-planetists like me?

So, what would I actually do?  A billion dollars is a LOT of money……a REAL LOT of money. If I really, truly did have a billion dollars I think I would sit and shake in a corner for possibly several days on end before even being able to make the first shaky phone call….

And that call would be to a ring of close friends and associates across the sustainability industry, media, government and large corporates asking for their help: could they nominate the most inspiring person that they had heard speak or read about in the past 12 months?

With, hopefully, a long list in my hand, my next hurdle would be to see if I could persuade a small group of my cohort to join me in being the engine room for this endeavour.  Who would be brave enough to leave their jobs to leap into the unknown?

And with that nascent structure in place, I would ‘ring and knock and tap’ on the doors of those list of inspiring people to see if I could bring 30 of them together into the one room for a week of intensive action – the best and brightest minds from around the planet from all different walks of life, industries and with talents to hone in on the most effective way to influence governments, industrialists and the public about resource use and climate change.   At the end of that week I would hope that a clear strategy had emerged along with a ready and willing first line of influencers primed to put into action the first step on the campaign’s trail.

Sounds easy when you say it like that……but I can already imagine the struggles for ideas within such a group. What would we want to really know after that week?

Key to the challenge is how people in general feel they can affect change and how/when/why they can effect change.  People say money talks,  one of the first discussions would no doubt focus on whether industrialists and corporate power brokers are motivated by anything other than making more of it.  The money-power nexus with all of its toxic spin-offs is surely the point at which a discussion like this starts but hopefully does not end.  Can there be found sufficient other motivators which draw people out of that particular toxic soup into a more edifying, connected, humane place? I like to think there are ways and means and certainly the advertising industry knows a thing or two about this. Sustainability communications is slowly catching up, and of course the age-old appeal to religion proves that there is a powerful driver in at least two thirds of the population to collectively draw on a perceived higher/other/divine/collective/spiritual power.  Call it what you will – beleive or disbelieve – it affects a huge proportion of the population and has been turned for both good and evil over the course of human evolution.

Next on the agenda would be who should be influenced beyond the  corporate and government networks – who are the opinion-formers of the world and why does their opinion count?  Who is making change happen now?  Are they the people who we think they are?  Are they legislators and decision-makers or are they activists, community workers, or technocrats – or are they simply the people with the most money?  Is it celebrities and personalities that make waves or is this an illusion brought about by celebrity industry?

And finally, what do we want people to do or say?  Do we want money?  Do we want personal action?  Do we want collective action?  Do we want change at all levels (and if so, where do we start?)

Once the message, the audience and the outcomes are defined, it leaves the medium and that’s where the rest of the billion dollars sees a very quick release!  With a plethora of engagement and communication methods open and available working up a strategy which will cut through the noise would be crucial.  In doing this, I would want to know the extent of influence of high profile and sustained campaigns such as Al Gore’s Climate Champions, and what has worked against their success.  The counter-lobby of climate change scepticism has been so successful – and why?  What provided the impetus for that lobby to gain so much ground and do so much damage to the credibility of instittions such as the IPCC?  Clearly the willingness to play dirty was one card-trick which that lobby has persistently used.  How does a lobbying organisation maintain its credibility without resorting to dirty tricks?  On the other hand, what ‘tricks’ are legitimate to use without besmirching credibilty?

I reckon all of this would take 6-9 months working at breakneck speed.  And with around 900 million left to spend, roll-out would need to be targeted, tangible and as I have already said – hard-hitting.  Within 18 months of inception, change would need to be in evidence for the campaign to be considered effective.  What would that change look like?  Here’s a starter for ten:

new regulations being drafted in countries not yet implementing comprehensive carbon control to do so;

collective agreement to fast-track the protection of the world’s largest rainforests – the Amazon and  – those in South-East Asia – and with some of the world’s richest individuals offering to finance on-the-ground security and protection of Indigenous peoples and their land;

changes to regulations governing the extraction of water from the world’s remaining untamed rivers and sources;

global moratorium on shale oil mining and fracking;

new trans-boundary enabling industry structures established to put renewable energy investments on a level playing field with fossil fuel and nuclear sources;

City-based initiatives to massively invest in up-cycling, re-manufacturing and waste mining, linked with harsher disincentives to dump product, generate waste or create new products with high embodied carbon;

restructuring of global financial industry to remove perverse incentives in food and resources markets, and to create new investment markets in the value of education, genuinely green industry and in sustainable innovation;

moves by early adopter countries to shift from current measures of national wealth to include health, well-being, education and also sustained value as measures of the strength of the national economy;

regulated limits on the differential between the highest and lowest paid within economies.


Just a small list then….anyone got a tenner?  I might consider crowd-sourcing – the only thing is that it might take me the five years to get there but perhaps that’s a topic for the next blog!

Anyone brave enough to post their ideas  – feel free!!