Peter Senge Urges Collaboration on Sustainability Efforts

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Peter Senge

Peter Senge

What would it take to get rid of disposable cups? That was a question MIT Sloan senior lecturer Peter Senge raised in an interesting keynote address this morning at the MIT Sustainability Summit 2010.

Senge, who is the author of well-known books such as The Fifth Discipline and The Necessary Revolution, focused on the need for collaboration among unlikely partners to achieve real progress on sustainability issues — and convert our “take-make-waste” economy into a new, more sustainable economy.

Senge used the example of disposable coffee cups (a topic apparently on his mind because he came to the Sustainability Summit from a Starbucks-convened cup summit taking place down the street) to get the MIT Sustainability Summit attendees thinking about the need for collaboration in sustainability projects. 

Senge asked the audience: Who would have to work together to eliminate disposable cups?  The answers suggested include everyone from Starbucks and its competitors to paper manufacturers, food service providers, recyclers and municipal governments.

To make real headway on really tough sustainability issues is a “massive undertaking in collaboration,” Senge explained. What’s more, he pointed out, the parties that need to collaborate often aren’t naturally inclined to — such as competitors in the same industry who need to work together or nongovernmental organizations who need to work with corporations.

A good guy/bad guy mentality can be a barrier to such collaboration. Concluded Senge:

“You’ve got to wake up and say ‘We’re all part of the system.’ You know who is causing the destruction of species? You and me. You know who’s causing the huge waste problems around the world? You and me.”

Once you reach that type of realization, Senge suggested, “you become more open-minded.” His advice?

“Look for small steps of things you can do together with people with whom you traditionally would never have cooperated — and do something useful, no matter how small.”


Related article: For more on Senge’s ideas about sustainability, read MIT Sloan Management Review’s


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Comments (5)
Phil Paine
Go back 40 years and we didn't have throwaway cups.  But the sad truth is that society wants the convenience they bring and wants cheap fuel.  Most people may say they are interested in reducing waste but only so long as it doesn't affect them.  Remember the biggest nation for waste production and energy consumption per capita is the US by a long way.  Get the government committed to reducing waste and start taxing fuel like they do in Europe (petrol costs $2 per litre) and you may start to see some real progress.
samuel sadikario
"Have-make-waste" is a nice emblem of modern life (wasted lives, ideas, souls). But it's not economics, it's moral. We have to change the moral of this world ( becomes late).
Susmita Barua
Peter, it was nice to meet you at the Zen Peacemaker symposium. Hmm..I'm imagining debt-free sustainable and prosperous green currency of the people for the people for a radical system change :)

The Starbucks Cup Summit: Rethinking the Recycling System | Everything Green
[...] plastic suppliers, cup manufacturers, waste haulers and recyclers, competitors and municipalities. Peter Senge – the father of systems thinking and our facilitator for the day – challenged us to think [...]
Some interesting ideas. Perhaps BP and energy industry need to pay heed...