Is there life beyond growth for business?

May  2, 2012

(Reprinted from sustainability-dō – The art of blogging sustainability, succinctly by Alan Atkisson)

The short answer is:  yes, there must be. But we have not seen it yet. The search continues. To illustrate the point, let me paint an impressionistic portrait of recent events in Stockholm, Sweden.

In April 2012, the government of Sweden hosted a conference called “Stockholm+40,” commemorating the 40th anniversary of the first UN Conference on the Human Environment, held here in 1972. That meeting launched UNEP as well as a number of national Ministries of Environment, among other milestones – despite the serious, then-secret, now-revealed conspiracy by wealthy nations to derail it. (Think I’m kidding? Check out the history for yourself here.)

At Stockholm+40, business people, government representatives, NGO leaders, and of course UN officials held a small-scale dress rehearsal for the Rio+20 summit on sustainable development. It was a grand affair, and even ended with spontaneous dancing in Stockholm’s famous City Hall. But there was also a large, gray, ominous presence that stalked the proceedings.

The invisible elephant in the room? Growth. The human world desperately needs it. But nature can’t take much more of it. Growth is the central issue we face. And yet, we can barely stand to talk about it.

That’s a problem.

It’s not that growth is off the agenda; indeed, growth is central. But we simply do not know

Rio + 20 focuses on the Green Economy

how to discuss topics of growth and sustainability in clear, common language. Consider the upcoming Rio+20 summit, which is devoting half of its theme to “Green Economy.” Is “Green Economy” the same thing as “Green Growth”? And how do these terms relate to “Sustainable Development”?

A new report (LifeBeyondGrowth.org) published by my consulting group, in partnership with a Japanese institute, shows clearly that these terms mean quite different things, and they are popular with quite different groups of people. Green Economy’s champion is UNEP and green NGOs. Green Growth is championed by other pieces of the UN, as well as business and economic development leaders, especially in Asia. Meanwhile, although everyone says that both Green Economy and Green Growth are integral to sustainable development, large parts of the “SD” crowd (not to mention serious environmentalists) still view both terms with suspicion.

Because of these profound, underlying differences in worldview, the world is still tip-toeing around the topic of growth. For example, a recent UN document attempted to present a unifying “System-Wide Perspective” on the concept of Green Economy. But in the real world, these different phrases are in competition – and so the phrase “Green Growth” is not defined until page 37. Then, it takes several pages to describe Green Growth in ways that are compatible with Green Economy.  The result makes for painful reading.

What does all this dancing around mean for business? Tension. A moment on the stage at Stockholm+40 reflected this tension  perfectly. Tim Jackson of Prosperity-without-Growth fame clashed – politely, civilly, but bluntly – with Reuben Abraham, Professor of Entrepreneurship from the Indian School of Business. Free markets will solve all problems, said Abraham, if we just get the prices right. When we do, we can decouple economic growth from waste and resource use, thanks to new, efficient technologies that we cannot yet imagine.

You’re right, said Tim, about getting the prices right. We’ve got to do it. But you’re dreaming about decoupling. Do the math. Technology and markets won’t do the trick, no matter how ingenious. If we keep growing – in any meaningful sense of that word – we’re doomed.

I hope both gentlemen will forgive my unsubtle paraphrasing. But their polarized views

Jeff Rubin's new book is just one of a series that discusses the end of growth.

reflect the dilemma that business finds itself in today. I know business people who really do understand the physical “limits to growth.” But no one has shown them a serious alternative model for what enterprises should be doing. Not only does society depend on companies to create jobs for a swelling army of unemployed people. For corporations, survival depends on continuous expansion. Questioning growth is not just sensitive; it means lawsuits, hostile takeovers, crashing careers.

And yet, privately, more and more business people do question growth. They are searching. Concepts like the Green Economy and Gross National Happiness hold promise for them. Somewhere out there, they sense, there must be a new, more sustainable model for business.

Like everyone else, they are hoping we find it in time.

Alan AtKisson is a Special Guest Speaker at the Sustainability Learning Centre's next Green Team Webinar. June 7th at 3 pm EDT

Alan AtKisson is president of the AtKisson Group, a global sustainability consultancy, and the ISIS Academy, an international sustainability training company. He is the author of two books, Believing Cassandra and The Sustainability Transformation.

Join Alan at the Sustainability Learning Centre’s June 7th Green Team Webinar.

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About Kathryn Cooper

Kathryn Cooper is a committed sustainability practitioner and educator moving companies toward “green” profitability and sustainable competitive advantage by unlocking human creativity and technical innovation. Over the last two years she has had the privilege to work with companies like Dupont, Zerofootprint, WWF Canada, and Partners in Project Green on sustainability issues, best practices and renewable energy. Kathryn is a graduate of York University with a Master of Education specializing on Sustainability and the Environment. She holds an MBA from Wilfrid Laurier University, and a Bachelor of Science from the University of Guelph.
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