Sustainability: Two Irreconcilable Perspectives

SLC logo6I spent today with four different groups of business executives. Much of the discussion of these meetings was on the subject of ‘sustainability’ — both in the environmental sense (companies’ environmental impact, and the impact of possible environmental catastrophes on companies) and in the business continuity and resilience sense.

David Suzuki’s (“Sustainability Within a Generation“) presentation to one of the four groups went surprisingly badly. He took a somewhat adversarial position towards self-proclaimed “green” events (such as today’s) — saying that by now they should be just the way companies do business and need no longer be labeled “green”. He was also unimpressed by the lack of gender, age and ethnic diversity among the executives in attendance.
I detected six consistent messages from these executives:
  1. Business believes that adaptation, innovation and technology are absolutely essential (and some would even say, sufficient) to address current and emerging social and environmental problems. They want incentives for investment in R&D and in innovative technologies, and believe these are ‘win-win’ propositions for business and the public alike. Generally they are very optimistic that these problems will be solved, and that we will emerge healthier and better as a society once they are.
  2. Business is not interested in hearing criticism about what they are or are not doing with respect to social and environmental issues. They are open to constructive suggestions and creative ideas. But they know that their primary responsibility is to their shareholders and they will not shirk that. What’s more, they don’t believe (as Suzuki does, and as I do) that sustainable growth is an oxymoron. “Smart growth”, by which clean, socially responsible activities are encouraged in lieu of those that are harmful, can allow businesses to grow, profitably, more or less forever, they believe — keeping both shareholders and the public happy.
  3. Business sees enormous opportunity in sustainability initiatives, rather than risk. Programs that enhance corporate sustainability, they say, also enhance productivity and efficiency, and investment in renewable energy, renewable resources, innovation and recycling/waste reduction/reuse programs is good for profits, at least in the mid-to-long term. A surprising number of the corporations at these meetings volunteered information on sustainability programs they have developed, and some of these are very imaginative, well-thought-out programs that could have applicability in many companies in many industries. If only business knew what business knows.
  4. Business appreciates the necessity for government regulation — provided it is equitably applied and enforced, and provided it doesn’t put them at competitive disadvantage relative to companies in less regulated jurisdictions (a big ‘if’). They appreciate that business will not voluntarily self-regulate or voluntarily institute programs that increase costs, and that government has a responsibility to step in and mandate such regulations and programs. While many have voluntary social responsibility and environmental sustainability programs, these are generally modest-impact programs they acknowledge to be insufficient to meet major social and environmental challenges like global warming.
  5. Business believes that government regulations will be insufficient, once the impacts of some emerging social and environmental crises become more pronounced, to satisfy the public, and especially public activists. They expect that NGOs will play an increasingly important role, therefore, in embarrassing polluters and socially irresponsible companies (through attack ads and negative websites), to the point these attacks on business’ reputation will start to have impact on sales. Smart companies, they say, should be working in partnership with NGOs now (NGOs like ZeroFootprint) to pre-empt such criticism and mitigate reputation risk, instead of relying on greenwashing ads and PR.
  6. Experts in climate change who hosted one of these meetings were very pessimistic (even more than I am!) that calamitous climate change can be averted. They also believe the impacts of climate change in the next 10-20 years will be severe, where only a year ago they thought they could be as much as 50-75 years off. In particular, the rate of glacial and ice melting is occurring so rapidly that some of them are alarmed to the point of panic.
There is a clear disconnect between those who are highly informed about, and up to date on, social and environmental issues (who are astonishingly pessimistic) versus the astonishingly optimistic (or hopeful) political and business leaders whose actions and behaviours, more than individuals’, will have to change rapidly and radically if we are to mitigate or avert these pessimistic prognostications. This does not bode well for our future.
That is, of course, to be expected. We do what we must, then we do what’s easy, and then we do what’s fun. Until they absolutely must act (by which time it will be too late) or unless we make it really easy for them to act, they will continue to do what they are doing now. And so will we all.

Students of history know what happens then.

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2 Responses to Sustainability: Two Irreconcilable Perspectives

  1. David Parkinson says:

    Nice timing, Dave. Here in Powell River, our city government has declared that we will be developing a “sustainability charter” as a high-level statement of policy (they have gone out of their way to stress that it will be non-binding). This Saturday is a day-long public consultation meeting (speakers, pseudo-Open Space breakout ‘n’ brainstorming… the usual), and the transition planning group that is just getting up on its feet is trying to figure out how best to engage the public, without on the one hand being so mushy and non-threatening as to have no oomph and on the other hand being all Chicken-Little and scaring people away.The wide dichotomy you’re describing between the pessimism of the well-informed and the optimism of the less-informed is what we’re up against. Sharon at Casaubon’s Book has a couple of good recent posts about some aspects of bridging these gaps by making it easier or more fun… that’ll have to do until we hit “must”.

  2. Meryn Stol says:

    I don’t know when I can consider myself “highly informed and up to date” on the (unspecified) issues, so could you please argue why you are pessimistic? At the moment, our systems are running really, really well. It’s clear that we can’t use oil forever, but it’s far from certain we can’t adequately move to other energy sources, combined with reduced consumption, which will be forced by (much?) higher prices. Actually, if you’d be *moderately* informed about all trends in renewable energy, you’d think we might just make it. Almost every week you see announcements of new energy technology. What’s the BIG problem you see? What are we gonna die from? Why won’t there be food or health care in the future? I’m just guessing… Please be more specific. Or is this blog just for forever convinced pessimists?

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