Some of us still talk about ‘business sustainability’ as an answer to the limits we’re hitting everywhere, in energy, in clean air and water, in natural resources, in purchasing power of the middle class, in debt-based material growth etc. It’s a useful idea to forget about sustainability. If something can’t be sustained, it won’t be sustained, no matter how hard we hope. If the true costs for diminishing and permanently used-up resources was charged to business beneficiaries of those resources, these businesses would close their doors tomorrow.
If we, as individuals, were forced to live within the boundaries of one planet, instead of four planets or twenty planets, our lifestyle, as we know it, would be finished today. The fact is, many of our current activities can’t be maintained for much longer, even if we continued to ignore the moral problem of global inequality, or the problem of 1% of the people grabbing and using up wealth and resources on behalf of the rest of us, and even on behalf of their own grandchildren. For both businesses and individuals, it’s more than just a question of sustainability of operations. It’s about sustenance as a business, about existence.
What to do, if you are a business owner? Firstly, make sure your company has understood the situation. Secondly, make sure you have hired the best thinking available to help decide the right course of action. Thirdly, don’t waste any more time hoping that a solution appears out of thin air and bails you out at the last minute.
A very short note at the end of the year (having recently survived yet another end of the world): There must be something very wrong with incentives in our economic systems. As the limits to material growth are approaching, we should have in place strong incentives for using less physical resources. Instead, many – if not most – incentives systems reward people for using more resources. We reward our best and brightest for getting better at using more resources every year. Don’t we?
The math: If one person uses up a number X amount of non-renewable resources while alive, and we are now 7 billion, calculate X so that the current level of aspired consumption can be maintained for all 7 billion and their children and grandchildren. For our great grandchildren, we’ll just have to find a great excuse.
The impossibility of infinite material growth on a planet with finite resources presents us with three moral dilemmas:
Firstly, how can we, who enjoyed the boom years with all imaginable consumer goods and luxuries available to us, deny people in the newly industrialized and developing economies the right to pursue the same level of consumption and comfort?
Secondly, how can we justify to our own children that cutting back on consumption is something they must be prepared to do, if our generation will not cut back?
The third dilemma is, what kind of solutions should we be promoting and selling to people, once we have the understanding of the previous two. What does sustainable business development mean under these conditions?