Sustainability is the possibility that humans
and other life will flourish on Earth forever.
Reducing unsustainability, although critical,
will not create sustainability.
This weekend, I’m back at Marlboro College teaching in their MBA in Managing Sustainability Program. It’s the end of the journey for the first cohort to enter the program two years ago. I listened to five of the group present their capstone project reports.One of their cohort is over in Copenhagen and presented her work earlier. Now this is not MIT where I taught for some time before retiring, but the quality of the work was quite on par with many of the Master’s students I worked with while I was there. What I learned in a short time working with this program, and earlier with a similar program at Bainbridge Graduate Institute is that on-line programs can produce outstanding results. Marlboro can and does address sustainability from a critical stance that would produce much discomfort at virtually all standard MBA programs, even those that advertise themselves as aligned with sustainability.
The students’ projects covered a lot of ground, from developing a program for inducing transformational change with sustainability at the core to an enlightened variant of the offsets concept extending it to saving critical habitat. It makes a great deal of difference when the students are motivated by a strong normative sense far beyond the commodified themes at “standard” business schools. I have been more or less an on-looker this trimester, but soon will begin a sequence of linked courses entitled, “Exploring Sustainability.” Not surprisingly, I intend to make the focus of the first course in the sequence on my book and the overall context to sustainability it provides. I will be able over the two-year-long program to expose the students to several contexts for exploring sustainability from the traditional eco-efficiency framework (sustainable development) to the emerging notions of sufficiency (sustainable consumption) and then to a spiritual frame. I am fortunate to have outstanding texts to guide this journey. I am aiming to instill a critical competence so that the students will be able to step back from the noise that accompanies most conversations about sustainability and cut quickly to the chase using the competence they brought into and acquired during the program.
Friday evening, the regularly scheduled evening speaker’s event presented a special program. We were privileged to listen to a most distinguished panel of players from the world of socially responsible investing community lead us through a candid historical narrative and discussion of the challenges they face in moving from their historical roots to address the much more complex issues of sustainability. The questions from the student audience were worth the price of admission (if there had been one). I believe the panel when they complimented the audience for asking the right and hard questions about their “business.” For me there was a bit of deja vu. Towards the end of my time at MIT, a few of my student’s did their theses on this sector. Their work raised many questions about the effectiveness of socially responsible investing, a sector just then really coming into its own and growing exponentially. I learned, last night, how far this financial sector has come, but also, how far they still have to go to match the challenges that sustainability poses to the institutions of business including the investment world. I discovered in the informal talk after the program ended that the participant from Trucost, the firm that prepared the analysis on which the recent Newsweek ranking of the 500 “greenest” firms was based, was quite familiar with the critique I had written on this blog. I had to correct my first post as I learned more about the details of the ranking methodology. It’s always satisfying to find out that people actually do read what I write here.