Sustainability is about survival. It is the understanding that we must leave this planet as we found it or improve it so those who follow us will have at least the same opportunities we have had. This is an awesome challenge given the economic, social and environmental impact of our human population that now exceeds six billion and is growing fast (a gain of nearly 9,000 people every hour). It also means that we must find replacements for finite resources that we consume.
We live on a planet soaring through space. We call this spacecraft Earth. We are a product of this tiny orb that is our world. Over billions of years, we have evolved in concert with other species of plants and animals. We, like all living things, are subject to the natural laws that enable everything to exist. Every physical thing we require and enjoy is derived from our world. Everything. Now much of life, including our own, is threatened. Life-support systems are being polluted and decimated, resources plundered, and species driven to extinction.
The severity of our impact on this planet is a recent phenomenon. With the advent of the Industrial Age in the late seventeen hundreds, our population growth accelerated. As recently as the year 1900, our population was only 1.6 billion. Something extraordinary that will never again occur happened in the twentieth century. In one hundred years, our population grew from 1.6 billion (which took millions of years to reach) to 6 billion. At our present rate of growth, we add nearly 80 million people each year. Each week we have approximately 1,538,000 more people that we must feed, clothe, house, educate, employ, transport, govern, protect, and keep healthy.
Consumption, the hallmark of our era, has evolved into a pattern of overconsumption never dreamed of a mere century ago. As a consequence, the rate and range of global environmental deterioration is unprecedented. It is driven by the relentless needs of a global population growing out of control. Parasitic-like and swarming, we are destroying our environment. With astonishing speed, we are attacking our ecosystems like businesses in liquidation. In a few short centuries, we have upset an extraordinary array of life that took billions of years and endless experiments to produce. This unprecedented onslaught of consumption, this reckless pursuit of material acquisitions and pleasure, while inequitably delivering unsustainable comfort to a small minority, now poses a threat to all of humanity.
Environmental problems cross the boundaries of nation states, political and cultural ideologies, academic disciplines, business interests, and religious theologies. They affect the affluent and the impoverished, developed and developing nations, individuals and whole societies. These problems are far more than just items on a list of major concerns. They are at the core of our existence. These issues determine not only the quality of our lives but whether we will live or die.
The total impact of our activity on this small planet is enormous and unsustainable at our current rate of consumption and related resource depletion. This is a reality that is seeping into our awareness. It has resulted in a re-evaluation of how we run our organizations and live our lives. All of this has extraordinary meaning for how we conduct our vast business enterprises. This awareness has established a new bottom line for business that incorporates not only 'profit' but also concern for people and ecological systems.
What does this mean specifically for the world of business? It means that the equation has changed forever for all stakeholders. It is true that traditional 'profit' still remains essential to sustain and drive business. If a business is not profitable it will cease to exist. Today, however, given the known constraints of our physical reality, if a business exists only to make a profit, it and we may no longer continue to exist. What is the good of profit if we destroy the conditions that sustain life?
We must distinguish between short-term gain with little concern for, or ignorance of, human and environmental costs and consequences, and long-term sustainable gain with full knowledge and respect for the complete complement of costs and consequences. As Aldo Leopold wrote, "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise." Similarly, Lester Brown noted that, "The economy operates within the boundaries of a global ecosystem with finite capacities to produce fresh water, form new topsoil, and absorb pollution. As a subset of the biosphere, the economy cannot outgrow its physical limits and still remain intact."
Just as no individual exists independently, neither does any business. There is individuality but not independence. This applies to both people and organizations. To think differently is to delude ourselves. We are dependent upon each other at every turn. The integrity of each of us affects the integrity of the whole. We are each, individuals and businesses, part of a system of relationships that embraces our families, friends, neighbors, business associates, organizations, communities, nations, and family of nations. No single entity exists independently. Within this pattern of existence, destructive conduct, clearly nonsensical, returns to harm us in one form or another over time.
We have developed an integrated and complex social, technical, and economic system so powerful we can dominate and destroy each other and the rest of the natural world. It is a global culture that is driven and dominated by commerce. With vast resources at its command, business sets the tone for behavior and consumption. The consciousness of business becomes the consciousness of our planet. It is important to remember that businesses are nothing more than organizations. Organizations are nothing more than a body of people organized for some end. If we are to succeed, individually and collectively, we will do so because individual people make the right decisions and implement sustainable policies. If we are to fail, we will have done so because individual people have made the wrong decisions and implemented the wrong policies.
Sustainability is not a complicated issue. It is simply about understanding and honoring the reality in which we exist. If we honor within that reality that which sustains the web of human and environmental relationships, we will prosper. If we violate that which sustains these relationships, we will suffer unnecessarily. If we continue doing so, we will terminate or, at a minimum, severely degrade our civilization. It has happened before. Civilizations have come and gone.
We are a young species, not unlike a child finding its way. If we make the right choices based on the vast amount of knowledge we now possess and continually enhance, we will succeed and advance our civilization. If we ignore what we know and insist upon violating the reality that enables us to live, we will suffer grave consequences. Sustainability is like an orchard. Those who understand and respect the non-negotiable rules of life enjoy the fruit and nurture the trees. Those who don't understand or ignore the rules of life destroy the trees one by one until there is no more orchard and no more fruit.
Senior Publications Editor
World Business Academy