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Is Sustainable Development Still Sustainable?

By 3p Contributor

In many international circles, it will sound like heresy. But now it must be asked:

Is sustainable development still sustainable?

And the corollary question:

If it proves viable, how will sustainable development look in the coming decades?

The questions are prompted by the current upheaval in global society. We now face a fierce storm of headwinds and centrifugal forces threatening the global harmony that is vital for sustainable development success.

In his new book, Us Vs. Them international analyst Ian Bremmer spells out the seriousness of this societal infection.

Here’s the money quote from his introduction:

“This book is about ongoing political, economic, and technological changes around the world and the widening divisions they will create between the next waves of winners and losers.

“It’s about the ways in which people will define these threats as fights for survival that pit various versions of ‘us’ and various forms of ‘them’.

“It’s about the walls governments will build to protect insiders from outsiders and the state from its people.”

More specifically on the roiling global forces impeding further sustainable development we see:

  1. Attacks on globalization via tariffs, economic walls, protectionism and xenophobic, populist nationalism

At the heart of such attacks: authoritarianism vs. liberal democracy and its institutions. Autocratic national governments are increasingly undermining liberal institutions such as the free press, law and order and diversity.

This concentration of recalcitrant power sucks out the social oxygen needed for sharing new ideas, as well as for the cooperation and innovation needed for sustainable development growth and success.

  1. The international refugees dilemma

A historic high of some 65 million people around the world are now displaced from their homes due to extended wars and a lack of immigration solutions. The tragic consequences: vast, complex humanitarian issues and a plague of the "Us Vs.Them" virus. Much of this turmoil is the result of divisive myths about migrants spread for political gain.

  1. New species of companies generating new kinds of macro social issues

Consider two relatively new company species:

  • Digital behemoths such as Google, Facebook and Twitter represent a new stage of business evolution now generating or magnifying existential issues such as personal privacy, truth vs. “fake news” and the subtle, addictive psychological effects on users of their products.

  • The coming wave of companies developing and/or applying artificial intelligence (AI) causing job displacements, vast economic and safety issues and potential use in anti-social applications such as weaponry.

What are the social responsibilities of these companies? How are they being met? What does a company owe to its country – and society?

The case for optimism

There does appear to be a strong case for optimism. Here's the evidence:

Responsive initiatives by the “new species” companies

The new-age, unprecedented socio/economic power and influence of these companies – Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. -- prompts the question: What socially-oriented investments and commitments should they make, even with the possibility of sacrifice of some profit?

These digital communications behemoths – and other nascent high-tech companies -- are recognizing, and beginning to address their unique social responsibilities (sometimes under regulatory duress or pressure from employees, investors or customers).

A long-term  global program for addressing  pressing social issues – The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals –  is now well underway.

The World Bank’s just-issued “2018 Atlas of Sustainable Development Goals” is a guide to the impressive progress already made to achieve these goals. Not incidentally, many of the involved companies are actually developing new businesses to benefit from the transformational opportunities inherent in the SDGs.

Principles of Responsible Management Education

This is the Global Compact–affiliated network of several hundred colleges and universities around the world preparing the next generation of business and institutional leaders for application of sustainable development commitments in their careers.

A new study reported by Bloomberg: “Younger millionaires feel a much stronger sense of personal responsibility to use fortunes to benefit broader society than do their older peers.”

The International Integrated Reporting Council recently produced a framework for “integrated thinking and reporting” - how an organization creates long term value in the context of its external environment. Networks of companies in a dozen countries around the world are applying the Council’s principles to their planning and reporting.

Ian Bremmer concludes his book – and perhaps provides us with an appropriate summation – with these hopeful sentiments:

“Human beings use their natural ingenuity to create the tools they need to survive. In this case survival requires that we invent new ways to live together.

“Necessity must again become the mother of invention.”


Adapted from “Innovation, Integration Driving Business Evolution Toward  Sustainability”, Sherpa Institute 20018 Virtual Global Conference, June 20, 2018


Image credit: Flo Maderebner/Pexels

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