How Individuals and Organizations Can Create a Sustainable World

Peter M. Senge, the author of The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organizations Are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World, was the recent keynote speaker in Albuquerque at the National Association of EHS (Environment, Health and Safety) Management Forum (October 28-29, 2009).

Senge is a senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is also founding chair of the Society for Organizational Learning (SoL), a global community of corporations, researchers, and consultants dedicated to the “interdependent development of people and their institutions.” His keynote explored a range of strategic and tactical practices used by EHS and sustainability managers today.

But as Roberto Piccioni of notes in his article “Take Care Using the Word ‘Sustainability'”, the word “sustainability” is a loaded term for business, and one without a lot of context and meaning. Hence, why Senge’s keynote focused on the core messages of innovation, challenging assumptions and redefining objectives.

Sustainability and corporate responsibility are overused terms with a lot of baggage. And because the terms are vague or undefined, an organization’s typical pattern of behaviour is to shift the burden sustainability and corporate responsibility to sustainability officers, and other experts and consultants.

But hiring a consultant to sort out chronic problems that are interconnected to individuals, government and business doesn’t lead to success. This is not an issue you can outsource.

In Senge’s book, The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals And Organizations Are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World, he highlights three guiding principles for business.

1. There is no viable path forward that does not take into account the needs of future generations.

Senge’s sentiment is that sustainability expresses our need to live in the present in ways that do not jeopardize the future. In this case, businesses can’t compete if they can’t cover the distance between now and then.

2. Institutions matter.

Our world is shaped not just by individuals, but by networks of businesses, government and non-government institutions. We need to work together to solve our collective problems.

3. All real change is grounded in new ways of thinking and perceiving.

Here Senge quotes Einstein: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thnking we used when we created them.”

Our world is an interconnected world, which means no one person can bring about success or failure.

We face interconnected challenges related to

  • energy production and consumption
  • transportation
  • food supplies
  • clean water resources
  • material waste
  • toxicity

Senge’s book is a call for revolution. He prompts us to imagine a world in which the excess energy from one business would be used to heat another. Where buildings need less and less energy around the world, and where “regenerative” commercial buildings – ones that create more energy than they use – are being designed.

He calls for a world in which corporations such as Costco, Nike, BP, and countless others are forming partnerships with environmental and social justice organizations to ensure better stewardship of the earth and better livelihoods in the developing world.

But this is not an unattainable future. That world is already emerging and The Necessary Revolution is packed with inspiring stories of how the revolution is unfolding. As a note, revolutions or cycles of change are not new to us.

The Necessary Revolution. Excerpt page 8:

Something important has happened in this last stage of the industrial era that sets it apart from the past: Globalization has brought a level of interdependence between nations and regions that has never existed before, along with truly global problems that also have no precedent. This includes environmental crises such as increasing levels of waste and toxicity (which often spill over from one country to anohter) and growing stresses on a host of finite natural resources, but also the widening gaps between the wealthy and the poor and alarming political reactions to these imbalances in the form of global terrorism. Just as the Iron Age didn’t end because we ran out of iron, the Industrial Age isn’t ending because of the decline in opportunities for further industrial expansion. It is ending because individuals, companies, and government are coming to the realization that its side effects are unsustainable.

The choice is to evolve and revolve or to stand at an impasse.

Are you part of

  • Companies who resist replacing outdated methods and technologies.
  • Governments who refuse to implement regulations.
  • Individuals who resist change to established lifestyles.
  • Or are you part of the building pressure for change?

    We’re seeing modest changes in government regulations. The question is, what will come now of Copenhagen (7 Dec 2009)?

    For companies looking at the threats posed by unsustainable actions, consider the following:

    • Approximately 8 billion tons per year of carbon in the form of carbon dioxide are emitted globally through the burning of fossil fuels for transportation, heat, and electricity worldwide. This is approximately 5 billion tons more than the biosphere can absorb (page 16).
    • Coal generates 54 percent of the United States’ electricity, 80 percent of Australia’s, and 80 percent of China’s growing electricity use (page 17). It is also the single biggest source of air pollution in the United States (and includes substantial amounts of highly toxic elements such as mercury). CO2 emitted per unit of energy (BTU) from coal is roughly double that of natural gas.

    Our hope is that you’ll mobilize and empower passionate individuals in your organization to solve these problems using new ways of thinking. These don’t have to be C-level staff, change can come from all levels of business. It can start with a building audit and setting goals for energy conservation. These can be financial goals as well since conservation leads to cost savings. The choice is yours, but the time to act is now.

    If history has taught us anything it is that endings are beginnings. What’s the history you want to write?