There’s a big—and getting bigger—public discussion about sustainability, but it’s not the one managers need. Here are some early findings from a different kind of inquiry.
About halfway through the Wall Street Journal’s recent ECO:nomics conference — a confab of several hundred A-list corporate executives and several dozen green-strategy headliners — there was A Moment. On stage was Al Gore — Nobel laureate, Oscar winner, global warming frontman and, before all that, a high elected official. He was being interviewed, and he’s good at it. Equal parts zeal and data, he touted his plan to get utilities off carbon fuels within a decade. He described the end of polar ice. He talked about how the systems engineers in NASA’s Houston control room when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon were an average age of 26 — “which means,” he said, “that when they heard [John F. Kennedy’s go-to-the-moon] challenge, their average age was 18.” Which means, he was implying, that if you think his climate goals are too high, it’s only because your notion of what’s possible is underdeveloped. There’s help coming, Gore was telling us, and the people bringing it will be more capable — or at least less daunted — than we are.
The leading question
What’s the publicly pursued sustainability ‘discussion’ all about? And if it’s not the kind of discussion that managers need to have, then what is?
- Issues central to most sustainability debates: carbon emissions, alternative energy, regulatory policy, global politics.
- In the press, the focus is on policy making, not on management or wider sustain-ability concerns.
- Executives define sustainability much more broadly, and have begun acting on opportunities.
Gore on this day was resplendent, and most of the crowd loved him. But now it was question time, and first there was a (self-identified) scientist who questioned all Gore’s science; Gore effortlessly backhanded him by citing “3,000 scientists” of his own. And then came Bjorn Lomborg, the self-styled “skeptical environmentalist” and head of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, a think tank that analyzes how governments and philanthropists can get the most bang for their world betterment buck. Lomborg, standing genially at his seat, began, “Hi, Mr. Vice President. I’m Bjorn Lomborg.