Sustainability, but for Managers

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.

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Image courtesy of the World Economic Forum.

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. It seems to me you’re probably the most well-known person arguing that we should be spending a large sum of our money, and we should be spending most of our concern, on cutting carbon emissions, and cutting very very soon.


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Comments (3)
It seems to me that the agenda shouldn't be how to stop the problem but what to do when it happens. From what I can gather - and I'm no scientist - the changes to the planet are inevitable. 

If that is the case - we should be spending the money on plans for what we are going to do then!
Shahid Atique Malik
It is odd that there is so little commentary on sustainability by the people who would actually put the apparatus in place. By this I mean the engineers, like me. We believe in incremental change as we deal with practical solutions. But when we see and hear, what I can only describe accurately as a wing-nut, such as Al Gore and his arty ilk, I am speechless. Or as Elaine in 'Seinfeld' would say, I am without speech. How can we possibly talk to people who act out in the real world without experimentation on a very small scale?

I do not think that lack of communication skills ca be blamed blame. I feel am considerably more educated, well read, and all that sort of thing than my arty friends and acquaintances, but the breadth of their ignorance leaves me, well, speechless ...

I had suggested that unless the human population level is drastically reduced, there is not much that technology can really do. At this point, I am usually shunned by the collective.

Dr. Atique Malik
Edwardsville, Il 62025
You have hit the nail on the head. The Sustainable Enterprise Fieldbook,
provides the practical hands-on "what to do" back at your desk for managers which you suggested is needed. It is why 26 authors, all practitioners of organization effectiveness contributed to this volume. 
A Sustainable Enterprise Network has been launched in anticipation of the ongoing support managers will require as we all manage the uncertainty of a sustainable future.
Will send you an invitation. Or contact 
vaxelrod at
Victoria G. Axelrod