Can one manage sustainability? MBA mantra: “You have to be able to measure something to be able to manage it.”

20 02 2010

There are many attempts to measure sustainability, notably by the World Watch Institute on a global scale, and Ceres and other CSR organizations on the corporate or industry level. LEED and other industry standards exist for specific projects and capital investments.

Some of these steps are quite impressive, but I think we still lack a comprehensive functional definition of sustainability. Dr. Ehrenfeld has defined sustainability as “the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on Earth forever.” I am agree with much of what is captured in this sentence; though I think it is imperfect, it is the proper definition to frame a continuing debate. I have a few quibbles, starting with the word “possibility.” Dr. Ehrenfeld writes, “Most talk about possibilities in common conversation is better couched in terms of probabilities, the chances that something missing at the moment will turn up in the next… we live only in the present” (50). In this statement, he passes over exactly the concept I would prefer – “probability,” or better yet, “likelihood.” Unlike possibility, likelihood is quantifiable. (I recently listened to a fascinating podcast from risk analyst and department chair of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University Elisabeth Paté-Cornell.)

Sustainability is often confused with stasis (particularly though not exclusively regarding economics). The word “flourish” has many definitions, but my favorite is now considered obsolete (OED verb definition 3): “Display vigour in, with; abound in, overflow with.” Human flourishing cannot be solipsistic; it must act upon or overflow into something. I am fond of the Biblical conception of humans as the gardeners of Eden. Though the question of flourishing, as Dr. Ehrenfeld says, remains subjective, the effects of flourishing in, with, upon or to may be quantified. We can create an index of measures that do not in themselves constitute flourishing, but may indicate the relative health of the human species:

  • Percentage of species with a stable breeding population
  • Percentage of ecosystems with intact cycles; historically stable ecosystems or changing according based on clearly non-human inputs
  • Number and effect of invasive species upon native ecosystems
  • Human suicide rate
  • Human rate of death from resource scarcity or infectious disease
  • Human armed conflict
  • Diversity of human culture and language
  • Discrepancy between richest and poorest in terms of standard of living, renewable and non-renewable resource consumption, and personal and political freedoms
  • Existing measures like Gross National Happiness that measure lifestyle satisfaction
  • Advances in all manner of knowledge and technology; their impacts upon these other measures

Such an index is a teleonomic expression of flourishing. Favorable circumstances on such measures indicate flourishing. A healthy Flourish Index and a quantitatively derived likelihood of its remaining health constitute a quantitative approximation of sustainability.

It is probably not the job of an MBA to establish this index. Our training is for enterprise, not statistics or economics. However, the reason we have tacked the S onto the MBA for Sustainability is that business leaders cannot (reasonably or ethically) ignore this debate. I hope to participate in the evolution of thought on sustainability, but I picked business over economy, philosophy, sociology, or statistics; those disciplines will be the leaders in quantifying and measuring my work.

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