It’s considered a truism of the environmental movement: the planet has reached its limits, and it’s time to scale back and embrace austerity, or risk dire ecological consequences. No wonder corporate America, which thrives on growth, has often resisted the message. But famed environmentalist Frances Moore Lappé, author of the recent EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want, argues that “scarcity” mentality is limiting environmental progress – and creating unnecessary to barriers to cooperation with industry.
“Human beings see the world through culturally-formed filters,’” she says. “It’s literally hard for us to see what does not fit inside that pre-formed mental map.” When faced with dire scenarios – global warming, world hunger, or the like – it’s easy to imagine the only solution is to scream “stop!” But that rarely proves effective, and only serves to create a feeling of powerlessness, says Lappé.
She rejects “mechanical” solutions to environmental problems (on one hand, imagining that we have to ‘go back to the land’ and give up all modern conveniences, and on the other, envisioning a magic future where technological advances will fix everything). Both approaches, she says, “ignore the question of power, which is the shorthand for human relationships.” Instead, she says, we’re overlooking solutions already in our midst. They’re often political, or cultural, and therefore complicated – but they’re possible.
“We know population growth is a symptom, not a cause,” she says, citing one environmental challenge. “It drives me crazy when people say it’s inevitable we’ll get to 9 billion people. Well yeah, if we don’t do anything to empower women. But that’s taking the current social patterns for granted and not realizing that every year a woman is educated, it statistically correlates with fewer births.”
So how can businesses apply the kind of “systems thinking” that Lappé endorses? She believes there’s great opportunity – for profit, as well as social change – in embracing environmental opportunities that have been obscured by the notion that business and ecology are at odds. “If I were a business leader and captivated by this idea,” she says, “I’d want to draw a map of all the connectedness. How can I convert to less carbon output and save money and make employees feel happy and more motivated? There are so many possibilities for what businesses can do.”
Her goal? For business leaders to say, “environmentalists aren’t my enemy – they’re my allies.” She believes there are countless win-wins, from businesses installing green roofs and performing energy efficiency upgrades (thus saving money on their utility bills) to registering as a “B Corporation,” a special status that recognizes sustainability as well as profitability. There are even business opportunities in harnessing the vast resources we now waste, she says: “At least 55% of all energy in the U.S. is wasted, and well over 40% of our food is wasted. The key is alignment [between business goals and sustainability], not limits. Alignment means we’re creating systems that gradually reduce, hopefully eliminate, that waste. If we stay in the ‘we’ve hit the limits’ frame, we can’t even see that.”
Do you believe growth and sustainability are compatible? How is your business embracing environmental opportunity?
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on July 12, 2012.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.