Why is it that Sustainability is being talked about and discussed as seriously in just the last two decades?
Why did this not happen say 50 years ago.
We were not as many people. We were 1 billion in the entire world in 1910. NY became the first city with one million people in 1906. We are today 7.5 billion people lurching toward 9 billion by 2050. The world has left the Holocene Age and entered the Anthropocene, a new geologic epoch that acknowledges the enormous influence of the world’s 7.5 billion people on the planet.
There are nine “planetary boundaries” identified by world leaders that represent “thresholds below which humanity can safely operate and beyond which the stability of planetary-scale systems cannot be relied upon.” These are called the “key performance indicators” (KPIs) of the planet, many of which are not doing so well.
While one (ozone depletion) is on the mend, scientists believe we have overshot the boundaries of three:
Biodiversity loss, and
Nitrogen and Phosphorus cycles.
Further indicators are also blinking red, such as ocean acidification, freshwater use, and deforestation. The remaining two boundaries—chemical pollution and atmospheric particle pollution—require more data to assess. All of these disruptions are the result of system failures created largely by our market institutions. They will have to be remedied by those institutions. Or by new ways of living, and business into the future.
We are entering a very interesting period of history where the “responsible business world is running ahead of the politicians” and taking on a broader role to “serve society”.
The next phase of business sustainability calls for a transformation of the market, discarding of such outdated notions as treating the environment as a limitless source of materials and sink for waste, seeing economic value as the only measure of nature’s worth, encouraging unbridled consumption, and considering perpetual economic growth as even possible.
Corporate decision makers have a key role to play in facilitating this transition. Instead of accepting the rules of the market as given, they must change them to incorporate the planet’s KPIs. For example, to turn around the KPI of climate change, the market must go carbon neutral and eventually go carbon negative. We don’t yet know how to do that, but we know that it cannot be done by one company or one product. It requires a change in the overall market.