Imagine a world in which the excess energy from one business would be used to heat another. Where buildings need less and less energy around the world, and where “regenerative” commercial buildings – ones that create more energy than they use – are being designed. A world in which environmentally sound products and processes would be more cost-effective than wasteful ones. A world in which corporations such as Costco, Nike, BP, and countless others are forming partnerships with environmental and social justice organizations to ensure better stewardship of the earth and better livelihoods in the developing world. Now, stop imagining – that world is already emerging.
A revolution is underway in today’s organizations. As Peter Senge and his co-authors reveal in The Necessary Revolution, companies around the world are boldly leading the change from dead-end “business as usual” tactics to transformative strategies that are essential for creating a flourishing, sustainable world. There is a long way to go, but the era of denial has ended. Today’s most innovative leaders are recognizing that for the sake of our companies and our world, we must implement revolutionary—not just incremental—changes in the way we live and work.
Brimming with inspiring stories from individuals and organizations tackling social and environmental problems around the globe, THE NECESSARY REVOLUTION reveals how ordinary people at every level are transforming their businesses and communities. By working collaboratively across boundaries, they are exploring and putting into place unprecedented solutions that move beyond just being “less bad” to creating pathways that will enable us to flourish in an increasingly interdependent world. Among the stories in these pages are the evolution of Sweden’s “Green Zone,” Alcoa’s water use reduction goals, GE’s ecoimagination initiative, and Seventh Generation’s decision to shift some of their advertising to youth-led social change programs.
At its heart, THE NECESSARY REVOLUTION contains a wealth of strategies that individuals and organizations can use — specific tools and ways of thinking — to help us build the confidence and competence to respond effectively to the greatest challenge of our time. It is an essential guidebook for all of us who recognize the need to act and work together—now—to create a sustainable world, both for ourselves and for the generations to follow.
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Peter Senge was named as one of the 24 people who had “the greatest influence on business strategy over the last 100 years” by the Journal of Business Strategy
PETER SENGE, senior lecturer at MIT and the founding chair of the Society for Organizational Learning (SoL), is the author or co-author of several bestselling books, including The Fifth Discipline, Schools That Learn, and Presence. BRYAN SMITH, coauthor with Senge of The Dance of Change and two other Fifth Discipline fieldbooks, is a member of the faculty at York University’s Sustainable Enterprise Academy, and president of Broad Reach Innovations, Inc. NINA KRUSCHWITZ, manager of the Fifth Discipline Fieldbook Project, is the editor of Reflections: The SoL Journal on Knowledge, Learning, and Change. JOE LAUR and SARA SCHLEY co-founded the SoL Sustainability Consortium in 1998; Joe is vice president of content for Greenopolis.com, and Sara is a mentor for the Harold Grinspoon Foundation.
A Future Awaiting Our Choices
Anyone visiting Australia today cannot help but notice massive billboards in all the major cities encouraging people to conserve water. A natural response would be to think these are the result of recent drought conditions, and indeed they are–in a way. But though the signs are new, the drought they were erected in response to has gone on for years and shows no sign of improvement. Across the nation, water reservoirs are at roughly one-quarter of capacity and have been declining for a decade–thanks to a combination of subnormal rainfall and rising temperatures widely attributed by leading scientifi c panels to climate change. (1) Starting in 2007, water became the focus of national debates;
one popular suggestion even called for the complete elimination of the nation’s large citrus crop. This sounds drastic, but when there is simply not enough water to go around, hard choices need to be made, even if that means sacrifi cing an important crop in an industry that accounts for roughly 3 percent of GDP. The country’s national election in fall 2007 was the first in the world in which climate change was the number one issue
(and the candidate deemed most dedicated to addressing it won), a possible harbinger for other countries in the coming years, including the United States.
But in addition to conserving resources such as water, innovative Australians everywhere are also seizing the opportunity to rethink and re-create their lives and the infrastructures that govern them. They are working together in communities across the country to come up with renewable energy solutions, and beginning to consider sweeping changes in energy and water industries. Business, long dominated by mining and minerals industries, has become a vocal advocate for investment in innovative alternative energy technologies, such as wind and solar.
Half a world away, Sweden has parted ways with other industrial economies to completely sever their dependence on imported oil–and the vulnerability that goes along with it. Under former prime minister Göran Persson, a commission was established in 2006 that laid out a fifteen-year plan to cut fossil fuel use to zero by 2020. This momentous shift was, in fact, the outcome of decades of work by remarkable networks of public and private sector leaders committed to making northern Sweden the world’s first “bioregion,” in which all energy needs are met from sustainably produced biofuels.
Similar changes are occurring in businesses the world over. In response to the turmoil of world oil markets and oil-producing regions, DuPont, one of the largest and oldest companies in America, has set itself on a course to shift its product line from petroleum-based to bio-based feedstocks. Like many companies around the world, DuPont has worked for years to reduce waste, including carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. But it now sees that the real innovation opportunities lie in the creation of new products that break the company’s dependency on conventional oil and gas entirely. Similarly, Nike has reduced its “carbon footprint” by more than 75 percent. But, again, by looking for the truly innovative opportunities for the future, the company has declared its intent to achieve zero waste, zero toxicity, and 100 percent recyclability across its entire product line by 2020. “Our company and our customers care about health; our products and ways of producing them should embody this,” says Darcy Winslow, former head of the women’s footwear division. “But to do this we are having to completely rethink how we design, produce, and distribute those products and how we recover them at the end of their lifetime.”
There are many types of revolutions. History talks mostly of political revolutions, dramatic events that all too often represent little real change over the long term: The cast of players in power shifts and new political philosophies come into vogue, but when it comes to the daily realities of most people, little changes. But occasionally something different happens, a collective awakening to new possibilities that changes everything over time–how people see the world, what they value, how society defines progress and organizes itself, and how institutions operate. The Renaissance was such a shift, as was the Industrial Revolution. So, too, is what is starting to happen around the world today.
Perhaps surprisingly, the most visible signs of this new revolution are a mounting series of environmental and social crises.
While Australia’s water situation may seem extreme, it is hardly unique. Both the southeast and southwest regions of the United States are facing a similar need for rationing and possible permanent cutbacks. In developed countries around the world, previously taken-for-granted aspects of daily life–food, water, energy, predictable weather–seem less and less reliable.
Each of the last several summers has brought record heat waves to much of Europe, as well as other strange occurrences such as extreme flooding, crops that come to season a month early, and the appearance of mosquito-borne diseases previously known only to the Southern Hemisphere–events that scientists have linked to global warming and increased atmospheric CO2. (2)
In the United States, there have been repeated scares about contaminated food imported from Asia and E. coli outbreaks from crops grown in our own backyard, recent warnings to parents about the rapid spread of poison ivy caused by higher CO2 levels in the atmosphere (which both speed the plant’s growth and increase its toxicity), and a historic shift in the politics of energy. Even former protectors of the oil-fueled economic status
quo now recognize that America’s energy consumption (we consume 25 percent of the world’s fossil fuels with only 5 percent of the population) cannot continue. (3) Our rampant consumption and protect-the-source foreign policies no longer offer a reliable path for the future. As President Bush admitted, “America is addicted to oil.”
While environmental crises get most of the headlines today, the simple fact that the wealth of the 200 richest people in the world exceeds the combined annual income of the world’s 2.5 billion poorest people should give anyone pause, as should the knowledge that almost half of the world’s population lives on less than $2 per day while the average American earns $130 per day. (4) The belief that economic growth alone will solve the problems of poverty is simply not borne out by the facts. And the drive to satisfy legitimate ambitions for material progress is forcing developing countries such as China and India toward unprecedented rates of fossil fuel consumption–a poignant reminder that our social and environmental crises are joined at the hip.
But the real problem is not these crises per se but the likelihood that our responses will be completely inadequate.
If we see each problem–be it water shortages, climate change, or poverty–as separate, and approach each separately, the solutions we come up with will be short-term, often opportunistic, “quick fixes” that do nothing to address deeper imbalances. Take the recent frenzy in the U.S. over ramping up production of corn-based ethanol as an alternative to imported oil. The number of ethanol plants is expanding rapidly (there
will be almost 200 by the end of 2008) and vast amounts of corn are being grown to supply them.5 Not only is this driving up food prices around the world, but ethanol from corn arguably takes us in the wrong direction in terms of reducing greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gas emissions from using corn ethanol in cars do not differ substantially from emissions from using gasoline in cars. The net effect of using corn-based ethanol may even increase greenhouse gases due to land-use changes, as farmers worldwide clear forests and grasslands to grow corn in response to higher prices and demand.6 More sustainable alternatives such as cellulose-based biofuels from forestry and crop wastes are being developed, but the search for a quick fix, as opposed to creating a truly environmentally sound energy system, has put the attention on corn ethanol.
Fortunately, more and more people are beginning to sense that the mounting sustainability crises are interconnected–symptoms of a larger global system that is out of balance. As soon as people understand this, their view of the problems shifts. They start to see the extraordinary opportunities for innovation that can occur when we abandon fearful, reactive mentalities. They start to realize the deep problems we face today are
not a result of bad luck or a greedy few. They are the result of a way of thinking whose time has passed.
All ages end–from the Iron Age to the Bronze Age, from the age of the Renaissance to the Reformation, from the rise and reign of empires such as Rome’s to more modern empires such as Britain’s. No era–no matter how influential or how far-reaching–lasts forever. The Industrial Age, which has shaped our lifestyles and our worldview for generations, is no different.
To many, the term industrial itself seems rather quaint, since most of us in the developed nations appear to live in a world dominated by bits and bytes, not smokestacks and coal mines. Seventy percent of the American economy, for example, is driven by the spending of consumers, people who for the most part work in service or white-collar industries.7 Relatively few Americans work in factories today, fewer still in mines or on farms.
But immediate circumstances can be misleading. In fact, the last quarter century has seen the most dramatic increase in industrial activity the world has ever known. The number of automobiles in use in the world has grown from about 50 million in 1950 to about 800 million in 2008. The annual growth rate in the global production of automobiles (over...
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