Finding purpose: The solution-driven business

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The following is an excerpt from "Finding Purpose — Environmental Stewardship as a Personal Calling." Readers can enjoy 10 percent off "Finding Purpose" on Greenleaf Publishing’s website, using the discount code FP10.

Hope is a curious word, one that is different from optimism. Optimism springs from some assessment that you are doing things that have worked in the past and therefore can say, "This is going to work." Hope is really a belief in the rightness of what you’re doing.

In Vaclav Havel’s words, it is "the certainty that something makes sense." Christopher Lasch says, "Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to those who lack it."

David Orr adds, "Optimism is the recognition that the odds are in your favor; hope is the faith that things will work out whatever the odds. Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up."

When faced with the problems of our day, I am often asked if I am hopeful. My answer is always yes. The justification for that hope is the next generation that I see in my classrooms. The greatest joy, indeed the only real lasting legacy of a professor, is his or her students. They are my hope; they are all our hopes.

Every new generation faces a new set of challenges left behind by the previous generation. For this new generation, environmental degradation stands as the ultimate challenge.

According to the U.N. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, humans have changed Earth’s ecosystems, more in the past 50 years than in any comparable historical period. We have increased species extinction rates by up to a thousand times over the typical rate throughout our planet’s history. Almost 25 percent of the world’s most important marine fish stocks are depleted or over-harvested, while 44 percent are fished at their biological limit and vulnerable to collapse.

As we extract the world’s riches, we contaminate its atmosphere, altering our global climate through the unabated emission of greenhouse gases.

These impacts are not evenly distributed. According to the U.N., the richest 20 percent of the world’s population consume over 75 percent of all private goods and services, while the poorest 20 percent consume just 1.5 percent. Of the 4.4 billion people in the developing world (more than half of the world’s population), almost 60 percent lack access to safe sewers, 33 percent have no access to clean water, 25 percent lack adequate housing and 30 percent have no modern health services.

And if that doesn’t get your attention, then consider that the richest three people in the world have assets that exceed the combined gross domestic product of the 48 least developed countries.

Many of the most critical solutions to these problems will, indeed they must, come from the economic market, including business, non-profit organizations and governments. The market is the most powerful institution on Earth and, like it or not, business is the most powerful entity within it.

Without business there will be no solutions. Business will design the next building we live and work in, food we eat, clothes we wear, automobile we drive, source of energy that propels it and the next form of mobility to replace it.

In 2015, Apple CEO Tim Cook said, “Now more than ever businesses are in a position to help societies solve their greatest problems. The responsibility should not rest on governments alone. Whether we are talking about climate change or equal rights, the challenges we face are simply too great for businesses to stand on the sidelines.”

Does this surprise you? Does it seem out of character for a business executive to talk about solving our environmental and social problems?

It is not. Many companies have been searching for years to find ways to link their corporate strategy with the solution to our pressing societal challenges.

In fact, this kind of thinking is our only hope, most notably when it comes to climate change. Personal virtue is great, and I applaud anyone who chooses to make a deep commitment to living a green lifestyle. But if the market does not drive companies to do the same, solutions will never emerge on the scale necessary.

The plain and simple truth is that no solution to these defining problems of our times will ever occur without the involvement of business.

For example, business has the opportunity to move the public debate on climate change forward at a more rapid pace. This may sound surprising, given that many people see business, and especially big business, as obstructionist when it comes to climate action.

Yet the strange truth is that scientific assessments by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other organizations still have failed to convince a significant proportion of a wary public, and business assessments that climate change is a real concern can bring more of these people onside. If businesses spend money on it, then it must be true.

The messenger is as important as the message. To a certain segment of Americans, the environmental movement and scientific community are seen as left-leaning institutions whose ideas and arguments will always be suspect.

But some businesses can be seen as "honest brokers" on this issue. Not businesses with vested interests in the outcome of climate debates, of course, such as oil and gas companies or renewable energy firms, but companies with no dog in the fight. Companies that just want to keep doing business the way they always have and now find themselves dealing with the challenges of a changing climate.

Not long ago, The New York Times posted an article titled "Industry Awakens to the Threat of Climate Change," describing how Coke, Nike, the World Bank and even the tycoons in Davos are looking at the physical impacts of climate change as a business risk with real dollars attached in the form of lost resources (e.g., water from droughts or agricultural products due to crop failures), disrupted supply chains (due to extreme weather) and other material issues.

This is the kind of news that shifts the public debate. When we see businesses pushing national governments to find policy solutions in Washington or at the Paris climate talks, or state legislatures to provide funding for coastal protections against sea level rise (such as in New York), then and only then will many in the undecided middle of America start to see climate change as real.

As humans, we tend to act only when our personal interests are at stake, and for many people those personal interests are measured in dollars and cents.

While technological and economic activity may be the direct cause of environmentally destructive behavior, environmental stewardship is not primarily about technological or economic activity. Instead, it is about our beliefs and values, the cultural norms and societal institutions that guide that activity.

Many business students, joined by increasing numbers of experienced professionals, now hope to devote their education and careers to what is often called "green business." I thank them all for that.

But I also believe that people need help and guidance to find a personal vision of how and where they can make the most difference. I am inspired and hopeful as I see so many people taking up the charge, finding a call to purpose by bringing environmental stewardship into their life’s work.

I see courageous people who strive to develop a sense of sacredness that allows them to be more authentic in resolving the conflicted value systems that create our environmental problems. The nature of their work has changed, from a career in which they earn a living to a vocation in which they express a set of deeply personal values in pursuit of goals far greater than themselves.

I hope you will take up this charge as well.

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