UK: Planning for the planet - CORPORATE ENVIRONMENTALISTS.

UK: Planning for the planet - CORPORATE ENVIRONMENTALISTS. - Changing Course.

by Francis Kinsman.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Changing Course.

By Stephen Schmidheiny.

MIT Press; 374pp; £19.95 (paperback £9.99).

Review by Francis Kinsman.

With hindsight, UNCED (aka the Rio Summit) may appear a bit of a mess. But perhaps it's capable of being jiggled to give a useful start. If so, a possible godfather to the event's upbringing could turn out to be the Business Council for Sustainable Development, which is made up of four dozen CEOs from companies as various as Volkswagen, DuPont, Ciba-Geigy and Mitsubishi, and headed by Stephen Schmidheiny, a Swiss industrialist.

Schmidheiny thus has good credentials. His book, which extends across the whole subject, combines mass of sustainable development case studies. It's a pity that only the expensive hardbound edition boasts an executive summary. Presumably the publishers were afraid that most industrial shakers-and-movers would not bother with the fine print. A pity if they're right, because it's full of great and relevant stuff. Being the only business input commissioned by UNCED's secretary-general, Maurice Strong, it should reverberate for some time to come. You will need this book if only as a reference source. Before your order comes through, as an intellectual exercise, why not define exactly what "sustainable development" means for you personally and on the bottom line. Are you sitting comfortably?

For a start, must on the fact that, of the current world population, only 750 million enjoy a relatively advanced standard of living. Then, accept that halfway through the next century, the (by then) doubled global population will all be clamouring for similar delights. This wish, if it were fulfilled, would imply an impact on the environment some 25 to 30 times greater than today - a not even remotely sustainable development. Is there another way?

Personally, I share with Schmidheiny the view that there is, but only if the level of business awareness is immediately lifted off, fast and smoothly, from its present surface - so stony in its pragmatism, so arid in its philosophy. Yes, some of us now live very well. But there is no way that our grandchildren will do so unless we recognise that we are trustees for their future.

The good news? Business has a part to play in this process and a tremendously profitable one. Only business, whose success or failure is so ruthlessly determined by the marketplace, has reason to respond to its sticks and carrots. Forget wordy politicians and worthy children's crusades. Business will be the engine of the enterprise.

So far, however, the emphasis as far as business is concerned has been largely on the stick. If I have a criticism of this book, it is that no enough is made of the juicy carrots that will increasingly accustom business people's eyes to the treasures of the darkness. The author rightly stresses the fact that energy conservation means cost reduction; that "demanufacturing" and "remanufacturing" have been shown to contribute to important savings. But it all sounds pretty unglamorous, doesn't it? What about profits? Tomorrow will show a lot of people the way to clean up, in both senses. Good luck to them.

Jonathan Parritt, a friend of mine but a critical one, describes such an approach as merely "cleaning the dragon's teeth". I dispute this, and have gleaned some most useful data from this book with which to refute it. But I wish very much that this particular dragon had a bit more ammunition to offer.

It lacks the passion I had hoped for. But to be fair, who could imagine writing anything with 48 of the world's top CEOs breathing down your neck? And as a global input? The mind must reel with the anaesthesia of compromise. Nevertheless, the fear remains that this excellent effort may simply go down the plughole, perceived as either a cynical PR exercise or a "motherhood" endorsement, and that nothing will really emerge from it. That would be a waste as great as some of the avoidable ecological wastes that the author so methodically identifies.

I wish - fond dream - that this careful prose could be reconstituted into a brash, stark, pungent message, to the effect that the sticks are going to be bloody painful and the carrots absolutely delicious. Maybe the message will come from some other sources, but it must come soon. Meanwhile, Schmidheiny's coolly rational contribution to one of the new millennium's vital debates will dissatisfy those who are so dark green they are almost black. But it is dead on time for business people to act upon, and just in time for the planet. Time is the art of the Swiss.

Francis Kinsman is a futurist and author.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime