By Mark White
In just the last 100 years, humanity has enjoyed tremendous advances in medical care, greater social justice, innovative transportation and communication technologies – even putting a man on the moon! There are more people living on the planet at greater levels of well-being than ever before. But in our journey to improve the human condition, we’ve encountered some unintended consequences that have created challenges for the future flourishing of our species.
For example, in 1928, chemist Thomas Midgely invented chloroflourocarbons (CFCs) as a safe and non-toxic replacement for refrigerants (e.g., propane) then in use. I’m sure he had no idea that 60 years later, they would prove so hazardous to Earth’s protective ozone layer that the world’s nations would join together to ban their production under the Montreal Protocol. This is but one example of the missteps we’ve made (and fortunately, one we we’ve been able to reverse). CFCs really ARE excellent refrigerants – but when we look at the big picture, it’s probably best that we use something else.
In my work as a business professor at the University of Virginia, I haven’t found it especially helpful to blame anyone in particular for our present (unsustainable) state of society. Rather, I tend to emphasize the systems nature of the problem, and the corresponding need to coordinate the efforts of producers, consumers and overseers in addressing it. This is an important point. Instead of preaching “doom and gloom,” I’ve found it much more effective to tell of the opportunities we have to make better choices, and I emphasize the benefits arising fromsustainability revolution we’re in the midst of now. This sentiment is in line with a provocative 2005 essay by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. Entitled, “The Death of Environmentalism,” it argues that the environmental community’s strategy of protecting a single thing – “the environment” – hasn’t worked particularly well (at least to address global climate change) and that a new strategy is needed.
The key challenge that lies ahead is to increase human well-being while living within Earth’s finite limits. Doing so will require the leadership of business and industry, and in fact, that’s pretty much the premise of our Certificate in Sustainable Business program – narrowly-focused strategies that do NOT address alternative production and consumption systems will not be enough. The business community must play an important role in this transformation, and that will entail knowledgeable decision–makers possessing an excellent understanding of sustainability challenges, sustainability solutions, and the business acumen (marketing, finance, management, etc) to effectively implement change.
The great naturalist, John Muir, once wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Six decades later, ecologist-turned-politician Barry Commoner offered the First Law of Ecology: “Everything is connected to everything else.” Both of these sentiments are apt descriptions of our journey forward. Recognizing that our sustainability challenges have arisen from our very human desires to build a better world for ourselves – and not pointing fingers at any one particular party – is an excellent first step in framing our response as one of shared challenges and shared responsibilities. The MBI Certificate in Sustainable Business program offers participants the opportunity to simultaneously broaden their horizons while equipping them with the business skills needed to take on and achieve these meaningful tasks
MBI Sustainable Business is a non-credit certificate program offered by the University of Virginia. Developed in partnership with GreenBlue, an environmental nonprofit dedicated to the creation of a more resilient system of commerce, it is designed to assist working professionals, students and other interested parties gain an understanding of the sustainability challenges facing business, and to develop practical skills for addressing them.
Mark White is an Associate Professor at the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce with academic expertise in the areas of corporate finance and sustainable business practices. He teaches financial management in the School’s ICE program and serves as Director of the McIntire Business Institute, a certificate program providing non-business students instruction and practice in fundamental business concepts and skills.
Professor White is an engaged member of the University’s sustainability community and is involved in numerous collaborative research projects including The Bay Game, an interactive simulation of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Leave a Reply