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 / Spring 2009 / Issue 54(originally published by Booz & Company)


Sustainable Goes Strategic

2. Sustainable policies and practices are simple, comprehensible, and pragmatic enough for employees to execute them and customers to understand them.

3. Sustainability is measurable. Managers can track its processes, implementation, and effects.

4. Sustainable policies are reality-based. They do not deny scientific consensus (about climate change or other environmental im­pacts) that is based on accumulated evidence, nor do they take every popular green idea at face value.

As you explore your own concept of sustainability, you may be drawn first to the simplest ap­proach: adopting green practices. Bookstore shelves groan with how-to-go-green books, both personal and corporate, from the silly to the daunting. National Geographic has True Green@Work: 100 Ways You Can Make the Environment Your Business (National Geographic, 2008). “Finish Rich” maven David Bach (with Hillary Rosner) weighs in with Go Green, Live Rich: 50 Simple Ways to Save the Earth (and Get Rich Trying) (Broadway Books, 2008). The Better World Handbook: Small Changes That Make a Big Difference, by Ellis Jones, Ross Haenfler, and Brett Johnson (New Society Publishers, 2007), covers such disparate topics as clean energy, the crisis of masculinity, and building better communities.

The most powerful of the how-to lists is Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century, edited by Alex Steffen. A catalog born of the Web site launched by futurist writer–editors Alex Steffen and Jamais Cascio, this compendium of strategies, experiments, organizations, resources, and examples has the advantage of having sprung from a continuing conversation in the lively blogs and discussions on the Web. The Worldchanging view of what is “better” is broadly progressive, but the book and Web site combination yields a smorgasbord of options. The word yeasty comes to mind; the word lockstep doesn’t.

The Larger Context
But green practices undertaken without a comprehensive strategy for corporate sustainability will ultimately prove unsatisfying. Moreover, although virtually every serious climate scientist agrees that the climate is changing, and that much of this change is anthropogenic (caused by human activity and in this case specifically by greenhouse gases), the delays built into the climate system suggest that humanity can’t solve this problem merely by cutting carbon emissions, especially given the short time available to avoid disaster.

An effective strategy means reducing any activity that spurs further climate change while simultaneously preparing for life in a changed climate. If books and re­sources are to help, they must address the problem at the appropriately large scale before they can help readers focus on the particular practices to change in any individual business.

To start, one could pair Daniel Yergin’s brilliant 1991 history of petroleum, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power with Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. It is astonishing to see in The Prize how much of the 20th century’s politics were shaped by the value of oil. Yergin’s book also leads the reader to look at the 21st century with new eyes: No country starts wars anymore, or even shapes its foreign policy, to found new colonies or expand its territory. The one true driver is hunger for energy sources. In Collapse, Diamond analyzes the implosion of societies across continents and millennia — and finds the root cause in resource depletion. Their plight is frighteningly similar to the depletion that the world as a whole seems to be facing today.

A further perspective comes from The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman. Published in 2007, this book is a well-imagined, well-researched look at how Earth would evolve if humans were to disappear from its surface. In New York City, great stone-sheathed buildings are built above tunnels for sewers, heating, and subway trains — most of which would flood the day the great pumps that keep them dry failed. In time the flooded iron would rust, the concrete exfoliate, and the columns buckle. The buildings would fall, and wildlife would re­turn to the streets of Manhattan. Similar fates would befall the great refineries of Texas and other structures around the world, now constantly maintained by humans who deploy abundant fossil-fuel energy to do so. Inside the guise of this compelling hypothetical narrative is an amazingly vivid look at what hu­manity is doing now to the planet, including dumping millions of pounds of plastics into the oceans, and other actions usually unrecognized in the popular consciousness.

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Sustainability Resources
Works discussed in this review.

  1. Lester R. Brown, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (W.W. Norton, 2008), 412 pages
  2. Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Viking, 2005), 586 pages
  3. Thomas Friedman, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution, and How It Can Renew America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 448 pages
  4. Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills, The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy (Basic Books, 2005), 242 pages
  5. Fred Krupp and Miriam Horn, Earth: The Sequel — The Race to Reinvent Energy and Stop Global Warming (W.W. Norton, 2008), 280 pages 
  6. William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (North Point Press, 2002), 196 pages
  7. Peter Senge et al., The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organizations Are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World (Doubleday, 2008), 416 pages
  8. Alex Steffen, editor, Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century (Abrams, 2006), 608 pages
  9. Alan Weisman, The World Without Us (Thomas Dunne Books, 2007), 336 pages 
  10. Daniel Yergin, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power (Simon & Schuster, 1991), 934 pages 
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