Sustainability: Opportunity or Responsibility?

Author:Farias, Gerard


The flood of material in the media and academia on climate change is a clear indicator that serious concerns about the environment exist and are shared among a broad spectrum of people. The estimated three to four hundred thousand people in the New York City 2014 Climate Change march is further evidence of this concern. The United Nations (UN) and its membership have devoted many summits, meetings, time and money to the topic. The UN sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has made it amply clear in its series of reports that we have a severe crisis in the making caused by human action. While still a source of debate, we believe this conclusion is based on rigorous scientific research and a consensus by 97% of the world's climate scientists (IPCC, 2013). The consequences of climate change could be catastrophic with increasingly severe storms, sea level rise, melting of ice at the poles, flooding, species extinction and host of other issues. While we will elaborate more on these issues later in this paper, it is sufficient and safe to conclude that climate change is real and it will have severe consequences. Clearly, we have an environmental crisis and it is getting worse. But there is a bigger and deeper crisis.

It is typical for advocates of sustainability to make the so-called business case for sustainability by positioning it as an opportunity to deal with the environmental crisis we now face. In contrast, we will argue that while we do have an environmental crisis on our hands and that this crisis does present opportunities, this framing is self-defeating because it falls severely short in addressing the root causes of the situation we find ourselves in. We will show that limiting the characterization of the environmental issues we face to a crisis and/or opportunity is simply a code for business-as-usual (BAU) (Ehrenfeld & Hoffman, 2013). It is critical that individuals and institutions dig deeper into the environmental issues and assume responsibility for their past and current actions. In addition, it is meaningless to discuss environmental issues alone. We have a world where close to four billion people live below or just above the poverty line, a billion people suffer from chronic poverty, close to a billion do not have easy access to clean drinking water and about two billion people do not have access to electricity. Any characterization of environmental sustainability that does not take into consideration and address the myriad of problems that people at the bottom of the pyramid (Hart & Prahalad, 2002; Prahalad & Hammond, 2002; Prahalad, 2006) face is not only an exercise in futility--it is immoral. Any approach to environmental sustainability must incorporate solutions to poverty as well as take into consideration the increase in consumption by people who have emerged from poverty--even if these consumption levels are minimal (Farias & Farias, 2010). By the same token any discussion of environmental sustainability is meaningless if it does not consider consumption--overconsumption in particular--in a finite world. In the following pages we will explore and analyze sustainability as a multidimensional concept that needs systemic solutions that are driven by human values.

The United Nations orchestrated two major related agreements in 2015. The Paris Climate Change Accord brought nations together to agree to a series of measures to limit the emission of greenhouse gases and global warming. The UN also launched the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG's)--17 goals that represent a comprehensive and ambitious response to the issues and challenges humanity faces today. By juxtaposing issues like poverty, environmental degradation and food security, these goals challenge us to think systemically about the deep linkages between these seemingly conflicting goals. The UN is calling on everyone to participate in the implementation of the SDGs. There is a firm belief (rightly), that it will require the efforts of all sectors--Governments, Non-governmental organizations and Business to commit to working towards these goals. For businesses, this will truly call for a reexamination of their role in society and their values in that context (Sustainable Development Goals, 2016).


There are some 500 definitions of sustainability, many of them contextual (Young & Dhanda, 2012). This plethora of definitions could be indicative of either the deep interest in the topic and/or a manifestation of the bandwagon effect of the sustainability movement. We will restrict our discussion to a few definitions that are pertinent to our position in this article.


The most widely cited and used definition came from the 1987 Brundtland Commission which defined "sustainable development as meeting the needs of current generations without endangering the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." This definition formulated in response to economic development at the expense of the environment is commendable. However it is fraught with problems. Firstly, note the emphasis of meeting the needs of current generations. Twenty-nine years after the Brundtland Commission, the needs of current generations are not being met with up to two-thirds of the world's population not having access to basic needs like nutrition, energy, water, clothing and shelter. While these problems may have been mitigated to some extent, they remain largely unresolved even while we contemplate the potential impact of a population of nine billion people by the year 2040 (United Nations, 2013). Secondly, note that the definition focuses on current and future generations of humans and is therefore anthropocentric in nature (Starik & Rands, 1995). By implication, we may argue that a deep understanding of the planet as an integrated ecosystem (Sukhdev, 2008) will lead to the deduction that biodiversity on the planet needs to be protected and maintained simply to serve the needs of current and future generations. Unfortunately, such a deep understanding of the ecosystem is very limited.

Environmentalists (e.g., Dietz & Neumayer, 2007; Hediger, 1999) have proposed defining sustainability in weak and strong terms. Their intention here is to respond to the commonly accepted perspective by traditional economists. This perspective supports the point of view that it is okay to convert natural capital into financial or manufactured capital as long as the sum of capitals remains the same. This view is highly problematic because it does not take into consideration the generative capacity and the ecosystem services that natural capital provides over time. Further, to be comparable to financial capital, it will be necessary to determine the net present value of natural capital. Natural capital is bound to be undervalued because we do not really understand the complete system well enough. For example, how would we determine the present value of a forest when it is very likely that we do not have a complete inventory of the biodiversity in the forests? If we do not have a complete inventory, it would be logically impossible to understand the systemic linkages between species and phenomena in the forest. To complicate matters even more, we have no time frame over which to compute the net present value of a natural asset--a hundred years? A thousand years? 10 thousand years? Environmentalists therefore argue that the conversion of natural capital into financial capital represents, even if done "sustainably," weak sustainability at best. Strong sustainability on the other hand is based on the principle that natural capital must be maintained. To illustrate we point to the story of Niyamgiri in India based on an account by Padel and Das (2010). Niyamgiri is a bauxite rich mountain range in Odisha, India. A UK based company, Vedanta, has applied for permits to exploit this valuable resource. However, the plan is to engage in mountain top mining which means that the hills will be inundated with plant and equipment and the rich forests and their biodiversity on the hill slopes will be at least damaged if not lost. Bauxite in its raw form is an ongoing source of value because it acts like a sponge absorbing water from India's monsoon rains and releasing that water slowly for the rest of the year providing high quality water to millions of people and the land downstream. We do not believe the present value of the bauxite is anywhere comparable to the generative value of the bauxite and the ecosystem services it provides (Sukhdev, 2008) in the form of water. This value can be generated for millennia if the bauxite is left undisturbed. Note that we have not even touched on the human impact of the proposed mining of bauxite at Niyamgiri. The area is home to one of the many indigenous communities in India. They have lived for centuries in harmony with the forests f with no concept of property rights. They see a spiritual connection with the mountains and the forests. While they have been able to assert their rights under the Indian Forest Act, they are continually being challenged to defend their homeland. From an environmental standpoint, it is clear that the manufactured capital in the form of aluminum from bauxite is nowhere near the value that the material will generate for generations if left undisturbed.

Stories similar to Niyamgiri are common around the world. For example, in Canada, the extraction of tar sands oil will destroy or at the minimum severely damage the Boreal Forest which is a major carbon sink and the Athabasca River Delta which is major source of water not only to wildlife, but also to the human population that lives downstream (Lenz, 2009). Adopting the weak sustainability approach converts regenerative (natural) capital that produces value through ecosystem services over very long time frames into capital that is expended or dissipated rather quickly. Strong sustainability on the other...

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