Books: Positive case for drastic action

Peter Senge and his co-authors encourage a can-do approach to sustainability, says Anthony Giddens.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The Necessary Revolution: How individuals and organizations are working
together to create a sustainable world
Peter Senge, Bryan Smith, Nina Kruschwitz, Joe Laur and Sara Schley
Nicholas Brealey Publishing

This book is an interesting and important contribution to the burgeoning literature on the implications of climate change for business. As Peter Senge et al quite rightly note, the twin problems of global warming and energy security are truly formidable and certainly unprecedented. As problems that humanity has never before had to face, nothing short of revolutionary change will allow us to resolve them - hence the main title of the book.

Almost any statistic one cares to mention about global economic development shows that we cannot simply carry on as we do today. For instance, the number of cars in the world is growing dramatically, up from 50 million in 1950 to 800 million in 2008 - virtually every one of them pumping emissions into the atmosphere whenever it's used.

As the authors point out, there's an impressive consensus among scientists that climate change is real and that it poses enormous potential dangers for all of us. There are still a few sceptics around who argue that global warming is a natural process rather than induced by human activity, or who say the risks are exaggerated. However, this argument can cut two ways. It is also possible that the dangers posed by global warming are greater, and more proximate, than most scientists believe.

Many who write about climate change today are pessimistic - they don't believe that we can respond radically enough, and fast enough, to cope with the challenges we face. The pervading tone of this book, by contrast, is one of can-do optimism. All over the world, and in many contexts, individuals and organisations are responding to the urgency of the situation. The point now is to further develop, and generalise, some of the solutions they are pioneering.

The authors suggest three main principles that should guide such endeavours. First, businesses, other organisations and states must incorporate sustainable development into all forward planning. 'Sustainability' can be simply defined, they say, as protecting the interests of future generations. It will require a major wrench for business firms to incorporate sustainable development into their thinking, but henceforth it will become de rigueur.

The second principle is that 'institutions matter'. For us to survive the hazards ahead, we have to rethink our institutions, social, political and economic. A superficial approach, treating the symptoms rather than the true causes of our overstretched civilisation, will backfire on us.

Third, the authors say, we need a renewed sense of vision - even of utopianism perhaps, although they do not use the word. We have to be prepared to think well beyond the here and now; nearly all radical innovation starts with such a vision, a new way of thinking and perceiving. Intellectuals, scientists, political leaders - all must play their part in fostering new perspectives. But contributions from far-sighted entrepreneurs will be crucial.

Much of the book consists of examples of individuals and groups who have turned orthodox business practice on its head, and have done so successfully. There is no single recipe, the authors say - what is impressive is the sheer diversity of ideas bubbling up around the world. Of the many case-studies they describe, I shall mention only two, each impressive, but matched by numerous others that are covered.

One is the green product-line created by Xerox. Anyone who visited the document centre at Xerox in the late 1990s would have seen an enormous sign reading: 'Zero to landfill, for the sake of our children.' The slogan was not just greenwash. Behind it lay a complete rethink of the production process, a 'clean-sheet design'.

The objective the company set itself was to be able to recycle all parts used, so that nothing ended up in land-fill. Through questioning many rules and practices previously taken for granted, the corporation was able to achieve 97% of its target.

At all levels, inspirational individuals can break the mould of conventional wisdom. Sweden is the country furthest along the path in overcoming its dependence on fossil fuels - and one person, Per Carstedt, can take much of the credit. A car dealer persuaded of the need to counter climate change, Carstedt sought to introduce biofuel cars into the country. There were no filling stations or know-how, but his persistence paid off. About 15% of vehicles in Sweden today run on biofuels.

Carstedt anticipated early on the backlash that has in fact occurred against biofuels, and the research group with which he is currently involved is producing them from cellulose, derived from woodchips or industrial waste.

Senge and his co-authors have produced an excellent volume, which deserves to find a place on the shelves of any thoughtful manager. The book is an example of what it is about, since it is both innovative and radical.

However, unlike the two cases that I quoted above, many of the innovations they discuss are only in their early stages and we don't really know yet where they will lead. The jury is out on whether 'the necessary revolution' can actually be achieved.

Lord Anthony Giddens is professor emeritus at the Centre for the Study of Global Governance at the London School of Economics.

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