The term "sustainability" continues to grow more common in ourvocabulary. What accounts for this development? What does sustainabilitymean? Why is it so essential to us all?
Sustainability is about survival. It is the understanding that we mustleave this planet as we found it or improve it so those who follow us willhave at least the same opportunities we have had. This is an awesomechallenge given the economic, social and environmental impact of our humanpopulation that now exceeds six billion and is growing fast (a gain ofnearly 9,000 people every hour). It also means that we must findreplacements 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 ofyears, we have evolved in concert with other species of plants and animals.We, like all living things, are subject to the natural laws that enableeverything to exist. Every physical thing we require and enjoy is derivedfrom our world. Everything. Now much of life, including our own, isthreatened. 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. Withthe advent of the Industrial Age in the late seventeen hundreds, ourpopulation growth accelerated. As recently as the year 1900, our populationwas only 1.6 billion. Something extraordinary that will never again occurhappened in the twentieth century. In one hundred years, our populationgrew 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 keephealthy.
Consumption, the hallmark of our era, has evolved into a pattern ofoverconsumption never dreamed of a mere century ago. As a consequence, therate and range of global environmental deterioration is unprecedented. Itis driven by the relentless needs of a global population growing out ofcontrol. Parasitic-like and swarming, we are destroying our environment.With astonishing speed, we are attacking our ecosystems like businesses inliquidation. In a few short centuries, we have upset an extraordinary arrayof life that took billions of years and endless experiments to produce.This unprecedented onslaught of consumption, this reckless pursuit ofmaterial acquisitions and pleasure, while inequitably deliveringunsustainable comfort to a small minority, now poses a threat to all ofhumanity.
Environmental problems cross the boundaries of nation states, politicaland cultural ideologies, academic disciplines, business interests, andreligious theologies. They affect the affluent and the impoverished,developed and developing nations, individuals and whole societies. Theseproblems are far more than just items on a list of major concerns. They areat the core of our existence. These issues determine not only the qualityof our lives but whether we will live or die.
The total impact of our activity on this small planet is enormous andunsustainable at our current rate of consumption and related resourcedepletion. This is a reality that is seeping into our awareness. It hasresulted in a re-evaluation of how we run our organizations and live ourlives. All of this has extraordinary meaning for how we conduct our vastbusiness enterprises. This awareness has established a new bottom line forbusiness that incorporates not only 'profit' but also concern for peopleand ecological systems.
What does this mean specifically for the world of business? It means thatthe equation has changed forever for all stakeholders. It is true thattraditional '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 existsonly to make a profit, it and we may no longer continue to exist. What isthe good of profit if we destroy the conditions that sustain life?
We must distinguish between short-term gain with little concern for, orignorance of, human and environmental costs and consequences, and long-termsustainable gain with full knowledge and respect for the completecomplement of costs and consequences. As Aldo Leopold wrote, "A thing isright when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of thebiotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise." Similarly, LesterBrown noted that, "The economy operates within the boundaries of a globalecosystem with finite capacities to produce fresh water, form new topsoil,and absorb pollution. As a subset of the biosphere, the economy cannotoutgrow 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 peopleand organizations. To think differently is to delude ourselves. We aredependent upon each other at every turn. The integrity of each of usaffects the integrity of the whole. We are each, individuals andbusinesses, 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, andeconomic system so powerful we can dominate and destroy each other and therest of the natural world. It is a global culture that is driven anddominated by commerce. With vast resources at its command, business setsthe tone for behavior and consumption. The consciousness of businessbecomes the consciousness of our planet. It is important to remember thatbusinesses are nothing more than organizations. Organizations are nothingmore than a body of people organized for some end. If we are to succeed,individually and collectively, we will do so because individual people makethe right decisions and implement sustainable policies. If we are to fail,we will have done so because individual people have made the wrongdecisions and implemented the wrong policies.
Sustainability is not a complicated issue. It is simply aboutunderstanding and honoring the reality in which we exist. If we honorwithin that reality that which sustains the web of human and environmentalrelationships, we will prosper. If we violate that which sustains theserelationships, we will suffer unnecessarily. If we continue doing so, wewill terminate or, at a minimum, severely degrade our civilization. It hashappened before. Civilizations have come and gone.
We are a young species, not unlike a child finding its way. If we makethe right choices based on the vast amount of knowledge we now possess andcontinually enhance, we will succeed and advance our civilization. If weignore what we know and insist upon violating the reality that enables usto live, we will suffer grave consequences. Sustainability is like anorchard. Those who understand and respect the non-negotiable rules of lifeenjoy the fruit and nurture the trees. Those who don't understand or ignorethe rules of life destroy the trees one by one until there is no moreorchard and no more fruit.
Written by: Joe Simonetta
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