The Earth is in trouble. The existential threat posed by a changing climate and environmental “unsustainability” is leading to dire predictions about the future of its land, its sea and its people. The impact could be enormous, as significant as any war or plague; in fact, wars and plagues may be direct outcomes from climate change and environmental degradation.
The Usual Suspects
So, who will save the Earth? It can be tempting to look to the usual suspects; isn’t this the job of governments, philanthropic organizations and activists?
As for the government: Policymakers, particularly in the United States, cannot even agree on how serious the threat is and are hindered by seemingly intractable political differences. And international bodies lack the requisite authority to compel nations to act in the interests of the common good.
What about concerned citizens? Calls to stop engaging in activities with negative environmental consequences aren’t realistic economically or even sufficient. As individuals, our attempts at conservation, however well-intentioned, will simply not be enough.
Spoiler alert: There are no easy fixes. But many experts — including scientists, policymakers and business leaders — argue that to address our sustainability challenges requires innovation on a massive scale. In the environmental crisis, the acceleration and adoption of sustainable technologies could change the game.
Enter the business community.
Business … Really?
Now, big business has traditionally been viewed as the bad guy, the source of — not the solution to — the critical environmental challenges that we face. And business does indeed contribute to many of our sustainability challenges. But business also has tremendous potential to address them. Love them or hate them, business and markets are catalysts for innovation and change.
Because innovation is not just invention. Innovation is the marriage of invention and commercialization. For an innovation to be viable, it must create value for individuals who are ultimately willing to subsidize the development, installation and scaling of a new technology.
Our environmental challenge is a complex, interconnected problem requiring massive collective action. It is highly unlikely that business can or will save the earth on its own. But a systemic challenge needs a systemic solution, and that’s what we’ve set out to do: Spell out how, within a business framework, all stakeholders can play a role in being part of the solution.
How We Drive Change
Based on decades of academic research, work with pioneering companies, and our research and teaching at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business and Duke University Fuqua School of Business, our new book, Can Business Save the Earth? Innovating Our Way to Sustainability, from Stanford University Press, is about unlocking the innovative potential of markets and the roles we all need to play, whether we run large companies, power the fountainhead of invention, finance impactful investments or simply spend our hard-earned money at the grocery store every week. We will find important supporting roles for universities, all levels of governments and NGOs.
We’re all in this together. Working together, we could drive systemic change and actually save the earth. The stakes could not be higher.
Michael Lenox and Aaron Chatterji authored Can Business Save the Earth? Innovating Our Way to Sustainability (Stanford University Press), to release 22 May.