"Sustainability Nears a Tipping Point"

tippingpoint The headline of this post comes from a recent report found in MIT Sloan management review. What do you think it means? I find this sentence to be another example of the fuzzy, sloppy, and dangerous way sustainability is used in business.

[If the tone and rhythm of this post appear different from my usual style, it’s because I am trying a voice recognition program to write with. I hope to save a lot of time using this because my typing is so bad it takes me about twice as long to do a piece as it should. I find, however, that the words come out very differently as I speak them than when I write, so you’ll have to bear with me for a while until I learn how to use this new program.]

Now back to the article. The gist of the article is that so many companies have now put sustainability “permanently under management agendas,” that it is close to becoming just another normal business activity. Normal in this sense means that businesses are not only contributing to sustainability but at the same time derive some kind of bottom line benefit.

This year, most survey respondents say sustainability is on their companies’ management agendas to stay. What’s more, a substantial portion of respondents say their companies are profiting from sustainability activities.

Once again this article, like so many, looks inward toward the firm instead of looking outward at the world where sustainability is to be found. The use of the phrase “tipping point” is most ironic here. In the usual sense, tipping point means a place where the system shifts from one regime to another. There may be a tipping point involved in the acceleration of the inclusion of “sustainability” in the agendas of business managers, but I fear that the more important tipping point refers to the possibility of a regime change in the global system.

I vacillate between anger and sadness whenever I read articles that talk about sustainability in this way. Business, taken as an institution, has always had the wrong conception of sustainability. The Sloan Management Review article continues that illusion. Sustainability should be high on corporate agendas, but it should never be simply just another entry. Unlike almost all other corporate activity, sustainability is a measure of how well or badly the company is contributing to the health of the globe, but that cannot ever be measured in terms of the activities of any single enterprise.

It is critical that respected sources like MIT and its Sloan Management Review become more discerning about sustainability. The more they write articles like this, the more the mistaken viewpoints become normal. Again it’s ironic that this outcome is missed because MIT is the home of systems dynamics out of which this kind of blind reliance on normal behavior was given its own name: shifting-the-burden. This concept means continuing to practice “solutions” that deal essentially only with the superficial symptoms of deep-seated problems, of which sustainability is a clear example. Many have described this approach to “problem-solving. Russell Ackoff called them messes and had his own name for this pattern.

The routinization of activities related to environmental management in the early days of corporate activity in this general area was a different matter. In this case each company had its own set of problems to deal with. The systemic results were approximated by adding up the contributions of all the polluters. It was important that environmental management took a place alongside other corporate strategic activities so that appropriate human and technical resources were allocated to it. It took perhaps three decades following the passage of the first environmental statutes for that to happen. But it’s a serious mistake to compare the evolution of concerns about sustainability to that history.

In the name of sustainability, this article and others like it generally refer to a set of activities analogous to those that used to be called environmental management. They are about a set of activities, largely some form of eco-efficiency, that reduce the environmental and social impact of the goods and services the firms offer. This is certainly meritorious in the same sense that environmental management was, but it will not prevent the global system from collapsing nor will it produce the positive image of sustainability-as-flourishing, as I have been writing about it.

The US is part of a highly interconnected global environmental, economic, and social system. That system is the only place where sustainability will show up or not. Connecting sustainability with any single entity within that system is conceptually flawed. At one level, business and government leaders know that. Early global warming policy initiatives failed due in large part to the argument that any reductions the US might agree to would be overwhelmed by the growth of emissions from the rapidly developing nations like China. In other words, it was the system that counted. Sustainability is exactly the same. But the same companies that declined limits on carbon emissions are now claiming positive contributions by doing precisely the same thing. Each one is acting on its own while the desired outcome depends on the combined and coordinated effects of the entire global economic system.

The anger I referred to earlier springs from my sense that many of these companies know better. Certainly those that fought against carbon reduction targets understand. My sadness springs from recognizing the pathologic patterns that are developing. Shifting-the-burden is a pathology that is well recognized as a cause for failures in businesses and virtually all kinds of organizations. It is very difficult to remedy. The more that the misplaced routines become embedded in single companies or in the whole institution, the more difficult is the job of getting to the real set of causes (usually many) at the systems level. All too often this pattern is discovered only after some disastrous event. Although certainly not a disaster on the global scale, I expect the trees and shrubs in my yard that burst into bloom a full month ahead of schedule will suffer severe frostbite tonight when the temperature is expected to fall to or below its seasonal norms. What will it take to wake us up?