‘Sustainability’ Risks Losing Effectiveness as a Term
Using the term “sustainability” does not spur society on to an ultimately better solution. Rather, it is a “negative vision,” said MIT Sloan’s Peter Senge, founder of the Society for Organizational Learning.
“It’s just a bad word. It’s technically what we would call a ‘negative vision,'” said Senge, in an interview at MIT Sloan Management Review.
To Senge, Senior Lecturer in Behavioral and Policy Sciences at the MIT Sloan School of Management, sustainability is about recognizing that global commerce tends to put most of the wealth in few hands, with devastating results in consumption patterns and resulting environmental and societal damage.
“We don’t want the unsustainable, we don’t want civilization to collapse, we don’t want the human species to fail. Well, of course we don’t want that, but those images don’t move people. ‘Survival’ is not the most inspiring vision. It motivates out of fear, but it only motivates for as long as people feel the issues are pressing on them. Soon as the fear recedes, so does the motivation,” he told MIT Sloan Management Review.
Instead of considering sustainability, society must look at reinventing its way of living, because population growth and commerce will render today’s version of sustainability unsustainable. He said a preferred term may be “All about the future.”
Senge has noticed a trend of companies going from being “less bad” to “more good,” the interview notes.
He cites the example of Alcoa, which in the 1990s had sought to build a water-intensive aluminum smelting plant in California, which even then was beginning to understand the perilous state of its water resources. California rejected the plant, leading Alcoa leaders to realize that it must address its water use in a larger sense.
“They went to a serious strategy session and said, if we look at the big issues in the world for the next 20 years, water is getting bigger, and we better significantly reduce our water footprint,” Senge said.
Because of that realization, Alcoa has been able to reduce its water use 50 percent per ton of aluminum created.
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