The Sustainability Lens

Piersonbooklens.jpgBy Steve Pierson
“The most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic, not the dreamer. Hopefulness only makes sense when it doesn’t make sense to be hopeful. This is your century. Take it and run, as if your life depends on it.”
From Paul Hawken’s commencement address to the University of Portland Class of 2009

Let me begin by saying what a wonderful commencement address I think Mr. Hawken’s was, and thank Hunter Lovins for relaying it to the Presidio community. It reminds me of Mark Sower’s Presidio graduation address comment about how “we are faced with insurmountable opportunities.” Both hold the tension of that impossible task we must nevertheless do. The anchor is the impossible task, and the variable is our capacity to rise to it.

This touches on what I believe is the heart of why we have such a difficult time achieving a consensus about what “Sustainability” means. From listening to the various perspectives, a key difference seems to be with the assumed location of the anchor. Between the rock and the hard place, which one is truly fixed? Between the irresistible force and the immovable object, which must ultimately yield? Thus, between fiscal responsibility with professional careers and whatever remaining patience the Earth holds for us, which must be “reasonable” and yield to realistic goals?

In the abstract, we all agree that, of course, the Earth’s limitations are ultimate. In the abstract. But what about in concrete decisions right now? What about in our conduct in a job interview, or when envisioning a business or career? Or in day to day operation of a business that’s just barely in the black? THAT’s where something has to give, because contemporary business and economic norms are not anywhere close to fitting within the ultimate (and now rapidly deteriorating) carrying capacity of the Earth. I suspect that’s at least one place where we diverge in our definitions. One pole becomes what we must accept out of harsh reality, while the other becomes the dream of someday.

I said that the anchor of Mr. Hawken’s address is the impossible task, and the variable is our capacity to rise to it. But the lens can also be turned the other way. The anchor can be the practical demands of commerce, business, and a professional demeanor. Turned that way, the variable is our capacity to facilitate positive progress within the bounds of reason. Both perspectives fear the prospect of a collapse. Collapse of the Earth’s carrying capacity (hopefully not a threat within the next few weeks or months) and the collapse of a career, a company or an economy (much more plausable in the immediate term, especially nowadays). The ranges of these two perspectives do point toward one another, but they may not overlap. In fact, they may not even come close.

Maybe both are true, in their own way. It’s probably true that we do have to satisfy both constraints, and to allow either collapse would mean the game is lost. This is our insurmountable opportunity as sustainable MBAs. Your mission, if you choose to accept it. To quote Wes “Scoop” Nisker: If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own. See you out there.

Steve Pierson is a 2008 Sustainable MBA graduate of Presidio School of Management. Other writings in a similar vein may be found at his website,

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