Increasingly--and perhaps irrevocably--questions regarding the environment are moving to the fore of strategic thinking.
I was recently on a conference call planning for a conference which will have "sustainability" theme. The call organizer seemed a bit uncertain about introducing this word, as though it were not quite kosher for a conference that will attract a lot of people in suits to have sustainability as a core consideration. She said, "I don't mean sustainability in the environmental sense only. Every organization has to be sustainable. It's not like this is going to be a Greenpeace conference. But, environmental sustainability is certainly part of the equation." But, as the conversation unfolded, it became clear that a lot of us who are strategists see the relationship of organizational futures to ecology as very central to organizational viability. You can't really have an organization if you can't find raw materials because they are in short supply, if your people can't get to work because they can't afford gasoline, and if your customers can't go out to buy your goods and services because the rate of increase in asthma is 75% and a goodly amount of that is attributable to environmental pollutants.
The people and organizations that become part of the solution to these terrible environmental conditions we're facing will become the survivors and the heroes of the future; those who are in denial or locked into benefits of the old way of doing things are coming to the end of their tether.
The situation is both extraordinarily dire and incredibly rich with opportunity.
Lets take consumer plastic trash (pictured above) as an example. According to Business Week, "almost 30 million tons of solid plastic waste is dumped at sea or buried in landfills [per year!]." Only a very small percentage of the plastic that could be recycled is. The result: a vast amount of plastic--both recyclable and indestructible--finds its way to a vortex in a remote area of the pacific ocean in the region of Hawaii. There a mass of floating plastic, sort of like The Blob from the 50s, twice the size of the State of Texas congealing and threatening the world ecosystem.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is just one of innumerable ecological nightmares that are becoming increasingly difficult to sweep under the rug. If we don't address them, we can forget about it, we're going to be toast. Bring up that doleful music playing for the requiem scenario. I don't know if it will happen before my lifetime is over or in the next 100 years, but the human species can't continue to deny the conditions it has created for itself and for the entire planet with impunity.
The good news is that there are thousands and thousands of efforts underway to ameliorate the current crisis and improve matters. Some, like bicycles, are no-brainers. Portland Oregon has become the United State's premier bicycling city with 6% of the commuters using the non-polluting two wheelers. Washington DC is following the lead of Paris in bike-sharing, and other American cities are close on its heels.
One four letter word is definitely implicated in the bicycle story: JOBS. While, unfortunately, it appears to be the case that bicycle ridership is down China it is still huge there, with something like 450M riders, and it is clearly a growing phenomenon in the traditionally developed world. So, every organization would be wise to begin to take its biking employees and customers more seriously.
Other approaches to reducing the environmental impact of our present economy , such as bio-plastics, are more controversial. Like all genetically engineered products, bio-plastics, which can be used as plastics but bio-degrade as plants, critics suspect it of being unnatural or injurious to a more organic form of agriculture. However, whatever the concerns, it seems highly likely that some firms like Metabolix, with its Mirel that might replace millions of tons of plastic per year, are bound for an enormous success in the decade ahead. And, the people who are really doing the research for their organizations on what will make an environmental difference and what won't, are also bound for some big successes.
The curtain is closing on the era where we couldn't pay attention to the world we're in, the world we're creating. Like Sam Cooke said, "a change gonna come." The gaia is coming to the place that it's always been, center stage.