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Three Steps Toward Making Business More Sustainable

2735 words - 11 pages

Three Steps Toward Making Business More Sustainable

We live in troubled times. The practices, institutions, and systems which our culture has evolved during the two centuries since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution are everywhere reaching and exceeding the limits of their usefulness to humanity as a whole, and, in many cases, have actually become detrimental to the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants. They are increasingly recognized as being unsustainable over the long term. Yet, as the oft-cited Chinese proverb points out, every time of crisis is equally a time of opportunity. The challenge before us is nothing less than the complete redesign of virtually all human systems, ...view middle of the document...

First, we need to work to reassert and reclaim the primacy of human values such as community, family, and self-actualization over purely economic considerations. Secondly, we need to transform the way economic activity itself is conducted. This means transforming our current business practices, inasmuch as business accounts for the vast majority of economic activity under the present system. It is this second sphere and some strategies for its transformation which I want to briefly discuss in this paper.
Business, in my opinion, represents a point of maximum leverage, which will deliver a relatively high yield of change for a given amount of effort expended, because it is, under the market system, capable of much greater flexibility and more rapid adaptation than are other institutions such as government, education, or formal religious bodies. Although there are, of course, many different changes in standard business practice which can and will eventually be implemented, three in particular stand out as key elements of any potential transformation: the incorporation of so-called "externalities" into economic decision making, the use of techniques which enhance creativity to both generate solutions and to optimize the rate at which individuals and their organizations are able to change their behavior, and a recognition that dealing with cultural diversity and the issues which surround it is a prerequisite for achieving the social solidarity and social justice which a sustainable society requires.
A great deal of the damage to the environment which is presently being done by businesses is a result of the obsolete economic theory which underlies their decision making. The basic assumptions of economics were formulated in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century by such figures as Adam Smith and David Ricardo. At this early stage of the Industrial Revolution, two implicit assumptions were made which may have been valid at the time but which have since become increasingly questionable. First, both the supply of natural resources and the capacity of the environment to absorb outputs of pollution were effectively assumed to be infinite. Secondly, human welfare was considered to be synonymous with increased production and consumption of material goods.
It has become increasingly obvious over the last few decades that the industrial economy is subject to limits both in terms of available resources and in terms of the amount of pollutants which can be safely discharged into the environment. Unfortunately, neither business practices nor the economic theory which underlies them has changed accordingly. In a nutshell, the problem is that under the present system, the price of goods does not reflect their true long-term cost. For example, a gallon of gasoline, once used, is essentially gone forever, oil being a non-renewable resource (in a human-scale time frame). It also produces chemical byproducts which, in the aggregate, affect climate and...

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