Sustainability and the Necessity of Getting Everyone On Board

Steven Cohen, executive director at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, wrote an article about the move toward sustainable practices in the future. A proponent of the sustainability movement, Cohen sees it as necessary, stating that “the current approach to economic life has created a lifestyle our forbearers couldn’t even dream of, but it cannot be sustained without a revolution in management, technology and scientific understanding of our home planet. Fortunately, I think we are capable of creating the change we need.”

Cohen aptly defines sustainability as “an effort to sustain production today without impairing our ability produce in the future.” In his article, he outlines some changes that he sees taking place in the economy and politics that show a movement toward greater sustainability practices. His general idea is that, in the long run, sustainable policies will win out over unsustainable policies due to the perceived need for policies that aren’t detrimental in the long run to production and the economy. He says, “Our goal is to base our consumption on resources that can be grown or renewed. There is no question that the use of scarce resources may benefit an individual in the short run; and that many people are more interested in making a quick buck than passing resources on to their children. Public policy and law can help prevent serious damage from these impulses. But the general point is that the best, most effective managers will be sustainability managers and the best run organizations will adhere to these principles because they lead to long-term profitability. A sustainability perspective would lead a CEO to question an entire production process and to see if there was some way to manufacture the same good without generating pollution and waste in the first place.”

While Cohen makes an outstanding case for why sustainability should be inevitable, I believe that he has forgotten to consider some important things. First, he suggests that part of the inevitable move toward sustainability will come from policies and laws put in place by lawmakers to encourage such practices. However, politics only goes so far in controlling businesses. So, while he argues that the “best, most effective managers will be sustainability managers” because these principles lead to “long-term profitability,” he neglects to acknowledge that the majority of small businesses don’t have the capital to invest in making sustainable choices.

He also fails to recognize that the majority of people, including those who are not educated about the importance of or necessity for sustainable practices, as well as those who would willingly choose convenience and low-cost over encouraging a change toward sustainable practices, do not see this move as inevitable. While Cohen puts the emphasis on policy, technology, and management, he seems to forget that ordinary, everyday people are an integral part of these things. They elect officials based on their stances on issues. They make demand for and consume (or choose not to consume) new technologies, and, on the whole, they choose to do business with companies that will charge them the least amount of money for any given service, regardless of the management style.

Cohen says, “The facts of population growth, economic growth, environmental degradation, and human reliance on the natural world make sustainability politics, technology and management inevitable.”

While I agree with Cohen that it is necessary that we make these changes because of these reasons, I would perhaps not choose to use the word “inevitable,” as it implies that we do not need to do anything more than what we’re already doing to facilitate it. It’s true—strides have been made in the direction of sustainability and if we remain on the path we’re on now, we will most likely eventually get there. But it will probably be too late for the Earth and most of its resources by the time everyone is on board with recognizing that we need to do something and having the ability to do something to protect those resources. In order to speed the process, I propose we work to improve technologies that will lower the cost of sustainable practices as well as educate the mass population about the personal benefits they will reap from sustainable practices. Lower costs for practices and resources that are sustainable, especially when combined with a greater sense of why sustainability is necessary, will lead more people to accept it as a viable option for the future. This will help decrease the gap in opinion about sustainability that may otherwise develop between those who manage businesses with great capital or policymakers and the general public who help support both of these endeavors.

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