Holcim (US) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise, Ross School of Business and School of Natural Resources & Environment
University of Michigan
My grandmother was born in 1894 and lived nearly a century. Think of the changes she saw in her life! – indoor plumbing, home electrification, the automobile, air flight and the first man on the moon. I used to think that no one would see the kinds of changes she saw in her life. I’ve come to realize that I am wrong. The coming generation will be witness to vast changes. Where the past century witnessed the forcing of nature to fit our needs, the next century will focus on making our society fit within the environment that remains.
I like to provoke my students to think about this eventuality by telling them to take the year of their birth and add 79 if they are male, and 81 if they are female. The result is the year that they are statistically likely to die. I then challenge them to envision what that world will be like, and more importantly, the role they will play in bringing about the world they want it to be. This leads them to think, not about problems, but about solutions. In the words of Raymond Williams “To be truly radical is to make hope possible, not despair convincing.”
When we think about the future, we often think of environmental problems like climate change, ecosystem destruction and water scarcity in terms of smokestacks, burning forests, and polar bears. I try to see their cultural and institutional roots.
And this makes exploration in my research and teaching exciting, yet challenging. It is exciting because our business culture is already shifting. As I write this, consumers, investors, insurers, and bankers are driving markets by using the environment to make their decisions. And this gives me hope. But, challenges remain. Cultural shifts to deal with issues like climate change threaten deeply entrenched social, cultural, economic and political institutions into active resistance. The only way we can overcome this resistance is to recognize and engage their deeper cultural and institutional roots.