World Business Forum Kickoff Thoughts

wbf09-logoThe 2009 World Business Forum kicked off yesterday with a dramatic flair at Radio City Music Hall. 3p was invited to cover the forum in a special “blogger’s balcony” of sorts. The sight below was a non stop parade of top notch speakers on a variety of subjects, but mostly a montage of personal experience and advice – well received by the audience and the press in attendance.

Jen Boynton posted earlier on the remarks of Bill George, former chief executive of Medtronic. George spoke about using the financial crisis as an opportunity, stating “never waste a good crisis”. He was referring to business trouble in general and mentioned many examples of companies who’ve dealt with crises openly and swiftly as a contrast to companies that ignored them or tried to cover them up. That quote got me thinking about environmental and social challenges we face and the the adage that climate change actually represents a huge business opportunity for those willing to take it on.

Most interesting and inspiring – George insisted that people follow their values and stick to them. Quitting a job that had made him miserable was one of the best decisions he ever made and should serve as an example.

Incidentally, I don’t think Bill George was the first to use that quote, it’s been used by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as well, specifically in reference to climate. But I digress…

The tone of the forum turned far more ominous with the arrival of David Rubenstein of the Carlyle Group. Rubenstein painted a grim and detailed picture of today’s economic and financial situation – even as we find ourselves, technically, out of recession in the coming year, unemployment is likely to remain at least 7% or 8% for years, along with higher taxes, higher inflation and so on while we dig out of the financial hole we’re in. But at the end of the day, like Bill George, Rubenstein insisted the key to success is doing what you love, what inspires you, and not thinking about short term money.

But what about sustainability?

From the perspective of an MBA grad who studied at a newfangled school focused heavily on social and environmental sustainability, the forum at times felt like a throwback to the old days of business school when praise of economic growth, big egos and little else were the norm. None of the early speakers focused specifically on the issue of climate change, social instability or other big picture problems and the role of business therein. Until Economist Jeffrey Sachs took the stage.

Sachs shook the room with a refreshing, yet troubling reality check about the what the planet’s ecosystems and natural resources can sustain in terms of increasing human consumption. The simple fact – our planet can literally not sustain us unless we radically change the magnitude of our consumption. It’s made worse by the current financial crisis which, Sachs argued, was primarily caused by the deraveling of the basic regulations put into place since the Great Depression, primarily the repeal of Glass-Steagall and the runaway home lending of the last decade or so – a totally unregulated market that ballooned to over $60 trillion before its collapse. The final blow? Near total ownership of Washington politics (Democrats and Republicans alike) by lobbying groups.

Enter T. Boone Pickens for some comic relief. The venerable Texan talked about his life’s story in characteristic swagger, cracking jokes and generally enjoying his status as successful maverick. It would have been really interesting to hear Pickens’ thoughts on Jeffrey Sachs who immediately preceded him, but the conversation focused mainly on his personal story – both inspirational and funny. When things did turn to renewable energy, Pickens reminded us of the reality that wind & solar, though useful, can’t even come close to meeting our electrical energy needs, and do nothing for our transportation needs. The solution, says Pickens, is natural gas, and lots of it. His motivation – stop importing oil as a matter of national security.

A worthy reason for sure, but what about Pickens’ thoughts on the environment in general? Despite his charisma, Pickens rather quickly dropped into grumpy grandfather mode by dismissing a more aggressive environmental agenda as dooming us all to a life of “riding bicycles”. Pickens says that if he asked “who was an environmentalist” in the room, everyone would raise their hand. But when told the declaration would cost each person $1000, the number would plummet. Sure… but to me Pickens’ joke is representative of a deeply old fashioned paradigm that says environmental or social progress necessarily is costly in economic terms. Although that’s sometime true in the short term, it seems to be far less costly than doing nothing, and is in many cases profitable in a longer term view – especially if your definition of profit is wider.

Jen’s notes on Saatchi & Saatchi’s Kevin Roberts to come!

Keep following the action today on twitter by watching #wbf09.

Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of has grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.

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