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Our Insights 21 Apr 2010

Earth Day 2010: A Retrospective and Call for Action

By Preetum Shenoy

Here at SustainAbility, we love this time of year: seeing the flowers in full bloom; enjoying the longer, warmer days; and noting that extra little pep in everyone’s step. And of course, there’s Earth Day, that glorious day of the year when the rest of the world gets a flavor of what gets us up every morning: the opportunity to honor and preserve Mother Earth, and all of the beauty within it.

But I must admit that this year, on the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, I’m overwhelmed by a sense of bittersweet reserve. After all these years, we, as a society, still have not found a way to manage the Earth’s resources in the way that the first Earth Day’s organizers had envisioned.

I don’t mean to belittle the hard work of Gaylord Nelson, Denis Hayes or their contemporaries in spearheading and sustaining this international day of environmental awareness and action, or the spirit of the broader global sustainability movement that it represents. After all, we should applaud their tireless work and that of such visionary pioneers as Rachel Carson, James Lovelock, Stewart Brand, Muhammad Yunus, C.K. Prahalad, Stu Hart, and our own founder John Elkington; all of whom have helped move sustainability—at least in thought—from the periphery into the mainstream.

But as I reflect on the progress (or rather, lack of significant progress) that we’ve made over the last four decades, I feel that we, as a society, have failed to do their hard work justice, and have largely failed to realize the full potential of the movement. The very continued existence of an Earth Day at all tells me that we aren’t nearly where we should be at this stage. Why must we still designate one 24-hour period out of 365 as a reminder that we should be living more gently on the planet, and in greater harmony with one another? Why have we not made greater strides in integrating this mindset into the fabric of our daily lives?

We currently need an Earth Day because we don’t meaningfully demonstrate how much we value the Earth on a regular basis. But the reality is that now, more than ever, the Earth—and all of the life that it supports—so desperately needs us to integrate the spirit of this one day into every thought and action of our lives each and every day.

As I look out 40 years ahead, my wish is that by 2050, the tradition of Earth Day as we currently know it—a single day of awareness and action—will be a distant memory, relegated to the history books. That the promotion of environmental and social responsibility is so deeply embedded into all that we do—work, play and otherwise, 24/7/365—that references to “Earth Day” or even “going green” will be rendered redundant, and just automatically assumed within our standard daily practice.

At SustainAbility, our hope is that the services we currently provide to our clients and to society at large will some day become obsolete. That sustainability will be so well integrated into the fabric of corporations and our personal lives, that there will no longer be a need for separate sustainability or corporate responsibility departments, much less niche consultancies such as our own. That every entity will be wholly focused on delivering value evenly across the triple bottom line of financial, environmental and societal factors.

Which brings me to this call for action.

Let’s build on the momentum of the current sustainability movement and ensure that we have much reason to celebrate come the 80th anniversary of Earth Day. May we evolve the Day itself to stand for a celebration of the bounty that the Earth provides to our society and of our successes in managing its resources responsibly, rather than just promoting awareness and isolated action as we do now. Between now and April 22, 2050, can we come together to make these dreams (that are so critical for our society’s continued well-being) a reality?

  • That society shifts its mindsets and behaviors away from “He who dies with the most stuff wins,” towards “We all win when we ‘do well by doing good’.”
  • That society is able to mobilize around action and innovation to both mitigate and adapt to climate change (within the 2 degrees C threshold) before any catastrophic impacts should be realized.
  • That poverty and hunger (and the inequitable systems that allow them to persist) are made a distant memory, much in the same way that the world eradicated polio.
  • That the GDP as the primary economic indicator is outdated, and has been replaced by a new economic paradigm that rewards activities that improve the quality of life, ecosystems, and the health of the biosphere.
  • That businesses employ “true cost accounting” in which externalities are fully internalized.
  • That we achieve a closed loop system that drives full carbon neutrality and zero emissions/waste as a business imperative, in the same way profit maximization and total quality management are considered today.

Not on our current trajectory, we can’t.

That is, not unless we fully mobilize as a society and put human ingenuity to work, as I know we can. Consider for a moment, that in the same 40 years that Earth Day has been celebrated, society has banded together to bring about revolutionary innovations such as the personal computer, the internet, mobile phones, and now devices so “smart” that they seem poised to render even their human creators obsolete. All of which, at the time, seemed like little more than delusional pipe dreams devoid of reality, but once realized, have turned status quo on its head. And each new day brings more examples of emerging visionaries and social entrepreneurs innovating through business and markets to address vast social and environmental divides that the world faces. While such work is inspiring, its current scale is woefully inadequate to address the magnitude of the systemic shifts we’ll need to achieve in order to not just survive, but thrive, as a planet in the decades and centuries to come.

The time has come for us to push ourselves and one another into action, to build on the momentum of our growing sense of environmental and social consciousness. We can no longer afford to rely wholly on governments or NGOs to do all of the heavy lifting. We must all assume the roles of social entrepreneurs in our own lives, as we all have a stake in the continued viability of Mother Earth, and a responsibility to deliver positive results against the triple bottom line in all that we do. We need to channel all of that energy that we’ve been expending on maintaining status quo, towards coordinating and collaborating with one another to accelerate progress towards a brighter future for us all. Not only because there is a tremendous amount of upside market potential, but because our very lives and livelihoods depend upon it. Let’s make those early sustainability pioneers proud, and give future generations a new slate of leaders and role models whose footsteps they will proudly want to follow.

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