[This article is part of a series of interviews from the MIT Sloan Management Review published on GreenBiz.com. It is adapted from "A Sober Optimist's Guide to Sustainability," an interview published by MIT Sloan Management Review in January 2009. The complete interview is available here. To read all of GreenBiz.com's interviews with MIT thought leaders, visit http://greenbiz.com/mitsloan.]
MIT Sloan professor John Sterman is the Jay W. Forrester Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Director of MIT's System Dynamics Group, and one four faculty co-leaders of the Sustainable Business Lab (S-Lab). Sterman's research includes systems thinking and organizational learning, computer simulation of corporate strategy, and the theory of nonlinear dynamics.
You have an intriguing way of raising sustainability issues with students. Can you describe it?
Before I introduce that material I always start out by having students fill out a little questionnaire. The questionnaire is very simple. It says, "How much money per year would be enough for you?" What you and your immediate family need.
People routinely will write down $5 million to $10 million per year. Some of the undergrads and engineering students will say $20,000, $30,000, very low numbers. The median response for MBA students is around $300,000. Three hundred thousand to consume every year. That's a lot of money.
The conversation is quite discomfiting for many, many people. But it's a very important conversation, and strongly linked to the sustainability issue, because the pursuit of all of that income and consumption speeds the degradation of the planet -- and it doesn't make us happier.
How would you say we are doing, according to your definition of sustainability?
Badly … But the perspective of those of us at the S-Lab is that sustainability is much broader than just an ecological concept. We think of sustainability as encompassing not just ecological issues but economic issues, social issues, political and even personal issues. You can't have a sustainable ecosystem if there's extreme poverty, if there's no opportunity for people to meet basic human needs and realize their potential. And of course you can't have a healthy economy if the result of that economic activity is the degradation of the environment.
How do personal issues fit into your integrated view of sustainability?
The personal isn't always part of the conversation, but I really do believe that we can't have a sustainable society if people are constantly overworked, burned out, sleep deprived, and don't have time for friendships or relationships or community, for participating in civil society. When everybody's striving so hard to have more -- more income, more consumption, more stuff, the pursuit of all of that stuff undermines the things that actually contribute to a fulfilling, meaningful, happy life.
The guiding principle of more: Making a change to that principle seems so fundamental to what you're saying we're going to have to do.
I think this is the most difficult issue. And it's not one you can tell people about. But they can discover it for themselves various ways, including using simulation models that play out the interactions of economic and population growth with natural resources and the environment. When people play with these models, they quickly people discover for themselves that as long as everybody in the world wants more -- as long as everyone in the world wants to be as rich as we are, and we all want to be richer than we are today, there's no solution. There's no amount of resources, of energy, of waste disposal capacity large enough -– eventually, growth overwhelms the ecosystem's capacity to support us.
What impediments do you see blocking the way toward solving these problems -- or, for that matter, seizing the opportunities they present?
There are several. One is simply that there are a lot of myths out there that are deeply embedded and yet are just plain wrong.
In the energy domain, one of the myths is that investing in efficiency or developing renewables is just too expensive. Or that we can't reduce our greenhouse emissions enough to stabilize the climate. Yet there are many, many studies that show that there are billions of tons per year of greenhouse emissions that can be abated and gigawatts per year of power consumption that can be avoided by investing in efficiency that actually puts money in your pocket.
What other impediments do executives and managers face?
Another big impediment is that there's a fundamental worse-before-better tradeoff. If you want to redesign your operation to use less energy, use fewer inputs, produce less waste, it's likely to have a positive return on investment, but like any investment, in the short run performance will suffer.
But, you know, I'm fond of a quote from Thomas Hardy, who said -- I believe the quote is, "If a path to the better there be, it begins with a look at the worst."
I'm someone who believes that this is not the best of all possible worlds, and that makes me a true optimist, because I think we can change the world for the better.
Living that way focuses your energy, gives you the hope that you need to get up every day and work towards a sustainable, equitable world of opportunity for all without glossing or denying any of the challenges and difficulties we face. We're not very good at that. We need to get better.
© Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2009. All rights reserved.