Hedging Bets On Going Green

Betting big on sustainability, says Anya Kamenetz, is an act of faith.

I'M OBSESSED with the apocalypse. I have this in common with Ashton Kutcher, who told Men's Fitness last year, apparently in all seriousness, that he works out to prepare for the "end of day" (sic). I understand that existential threats are ancient, but it seems to me that there are more of them than ever these days. The baby boomers just had nuclear weapons and only feared them from one country. We have climate change, peak oil, globally overleveraged late-stage capitalism, swine flu, Islamofascist terrorism, the end of the Mayan calendar, "rogue nukes," and "suitcase nukes." I'm expecting zombies any day now.

There are just as many existential threats to be faced down in our working lives, albeit at the scale of industry rather than civilization. Once, when I was on a publicity tour for a book I wrote about disruption in higher education, an angry grad student accused me of advocating the demise of his chosen profession: university-level academic. I countered that as a print journalist, I was pretty much in the same boat, and that we'd both better get used to chronic uncertainty. Whatever your job -- dotcom entrepreneur, assembly-line worker, mortgage broker, physician -- chances are you've had to swallow the same message in the past decade.

The problem is one that Alex Steffen, who for seven years wrote and edited an excellent environmental blog called Worldchanging, nailed in the 2008 essay "The Apocalypse Makes Us Dumb." Millenarian thinking -- imagining the worst, an end of days that will erase everything we know -- is both a powerful trope and totally wrongheaded. It leads to the very behaviors that give us the worst chance of thriving when disaster does come -- depression, denial, paralysis.

What works better? In the face of such fears, build. Make decisions that are aligned with your values and motivated by hope and that work both now and in a range of imagined futures. Make backup plans and stay flexible. In the face of my fears and vivid fantasies of the end times, I make a conscious effort to build my social capital, from the community around this column to friends I can call at 3 a.m. And I try to think of both my life and my work as an ongoing learning process, where I consistently seek new skills and new forms of collaboration so I can stay true to my values -- whether the output is a dead-trees book, an animated video, a web-streamed presentation, or even a vegetable garden created with my city neighbors.

You can also see the same range of responses to existential threats in the business community, which must face everything from collapsing business models to the drying up of resources. The bitter-ender, fear-based strategy looks something like Massey Energy, the coal company with the worst safety record in the business. It recently sold out to a competitor in the face of an unprecedented mine closure by the Department of Labor.

Luckily for us all, more large companies are taking the opposite approach. A growing number of organizations are meeting the most dangerous threats halfway, including Xerox, reinventing itself as a business-services company in the age of the paperless office; Häagen-Dazs, which has donated $620,000 to honeybee research over the past three years to support the threatened pollinators that contribute to half of their ice-cream flavors; GE, which overcame the bailout of its Capital arm only to see CEO Jeffrey Immelt named to head President Obama's jobs council; and Nucor, the steel company that has emerged from two bankruptcies to become the largest recycler in the country and a flagship American manufacturer with uniquely egalitarian pay and benefits.

The ultimate example of businesses thinking positively in the face of chaos is the growth of corporate-sustainability efforts despite the current economic and political headwinds. In its annual State of Green Business report, Greenbiz.com said, "Some of the world's largest companies and brands are putting a stake in the ground in the name of environmental sustainability," even though a rising number no longer expect the U.S. government to limit greenhouse-gas emissions anytime soon. Sustainability, like technology before it, is often getting promoted to a C-level position, and hiring in the sector is brisk.

In 2010, Procter & Gamble, the largest consumer-packaged-goods company in the world, introduced an especially ambitious strategy. "It does us no good to grow today at the expense of tomorrow," said P&G CEO Bob McDonald, who is also the company's executive sponsor of sustainability. The company has absolutist long-term goals: zeroing out packaging and manufacturing waste, transferring factories to 100% renewable energy, and transitioning products and packages to 100% renewable and recyclable materials. More important, it is already making progress toward some ambitious, enforceable goals. P&G has reduced carbon emissions by 53% per unit manufactured since 2002. Each small, difficult step is a bet that thisapproach will have long-term value. And it says something about the sincerity of its commitment that P&G has yet to build a marketing campaign around this threat.

"Behind every sustainability business or thought leader is a scared kid asking a question: Is this too late?" says Joel Makower of Greenbiz.com. Yet in the face of that existential fear, giant companies are pursuing positive changes in how they make, package, ship, and sell products -- changes that will reduce risks, cut energy costs, and build a deep kind of goodwill today. That's a pretty good reason to be optimistic.

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  • David Corson

    Distopian visions of the future... I'm fascinated by them in film (The Matrix, Dark City, Blade Runner, Freejack, even Johnny Mnemonic, and many many more).

    It's nice to hear about and see real, practical visions of the future moving in the direction of a world we'd actually want to live in.