The University Record, October 29, 2001

Gladwin pitches Fathom readers on sustainable development

Editor’s Note: This feature first appeared on the Fathom Web site,

By Thomas N. Gladwin

Gladwin (Photo by Bill Wood, U-M Photo Services)
Many industry leaders and management theorists have considered the economic and technological dimensions of corporate strategy, presenting their ideas as seemingly “value free.” Some have examined social issues but relatively few have related the topic to the natural world.

Corporate strategists have focused their energies on the instrumental realm of markets and efficient resource allocation, evading the exploration of how strategy relates to ultimate ends (i.e., human fulfillment and community) and ultimate means (i.e., the capacity of the biosphere to support life). They have implicitly assumed that continuous growth and technological progress are inevitable. They have tended to focus on rather proximate matters shaping masterful strategic management, rather than attending to the more systemic, non-linear, large-scale, long-term and slow-motion processes set to shape strategy in coming decades. In this article, I would like to redress the balance.

The biases I have just mentioned are not atypical of management theorists. But a variety of dysfunctions arise when business in general, and strategy in particular, becomes detached from the biosphere, the full human community and the principles of right conduct in the world. Our strategic sense-making, for example, is channeled away from the fundamental interdependencies that ultimately determine organizational success and survival; our sensitivities are numbed to the moral injunctions, obligations, and accountabilities which stakeholders attach to the “responsible” mastery of strategy; our creative capacity to envision glorious corporate opportunities associated with fulfillment of basic human needs is constrained; and our search for genuine meaning and purpose in this world is impeded if weighty questions like for who, where, when and what purpose are we mastering strategy are discouraged.

Why it matters

Threats to the integrity, productivity and resilience of both our natural and social “life support” systems have been highlighted widely by scientists in recent years. Well-documented examples include the over-exploitation of fish stocks, falling water tables on every continent, major rivers running dry, overgrazing and soil erosion.

Concentrations of carbon dioxide are increasing in the atmosphere, global average temperatures are rising, extreme weather events are increasing in frequency and severity, nitrogen overloading is acidifying rivers and lakes, ultraviolet radiation is rising due to stratospheric ozone depletion, and toxic heavy metals and persistent chemicals are building up steadily in organisms and ecosystems.

The earth’s forests are shrinking, highly productive wetlands are vanishing, especially in coastal areas, coral reefs are dying, natural ecosystems are being lost thanks to exponential rates of land use change, invasions of non-native species are on the rise due to global traffic; and species are being exterminated about a thousand times faster than normal.

The knee-jerk reaction to such news is typically psychodynamic denial, repression or rationalization. Scientists warn that we are eating up the planet’s natural capital, crossing a range of sustainable yield threshold, and fomenting conflict, within and across generations, over the growing scarcity of natural resources.

Steady deterioration in the Earth’s biophysical health and the stagnant or falling quality of life for a majority of humans are closely connected. A swelling global population, persistent deprivation and growing social disintegration are just some of the problems. United Nations reports say the world’s human population, after soaring from 1.6 billion in 1900 to a little over 6 billion today, is projected to reach 8 billion in 2020 and perhaps stabilize at around 9 billion to 10 billion by 2050. An estimated 350 million couples still have no access to family planning.

Population pressures and the associated economic/ecological/political decline fuels internal and cross-border migration. Rural to urban migration is producing mega-cities, especially in the developing world. Medical experts warn that the epidemiological environment is deteriorating. Old diseases like tuberculosis are resurgent and new ones, such as HIV/AIDS, emergent.

Global data on persistent human deprivation are even more distressing. An estimated 37,000 infants will die today from poverty-related causes; more than 260 million children are out of school at the primary and secondary levels; 840 million people are malnourished; 850 million adults remain illiterate; 880 million people lack access to health services; 1 billion humans have inadequate shelter; 1.3 billion people (70 percent female) attempt to live on less than $1 a day—up by 200 million over the past decade; 2 billion have no access to electricity; and 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation.

This misery translates into massive social disintegration. Some 1.2 billion adults are either unemployed or woefully underemployed below a living wage. This is one-third of the world’s workforce and the highest percentage since the 1930s. More than 250 million children between 5 and 14 years of age are working as child laborers. Income inequality is rising within and among all nations.

The share of global income of the richest one-fifth of the world’s people is now estimated to be 74 times that of the poorest one-fifth—a gap that has doubled over the past 30 years. Forbes Magazine estimates that the combined wealth of the 225 richest people in the world now equals the combined annual incomes of the poorest one-half of humanity. The widening social gulfs breed anger, frustration, alienation, anomie and hopelessness.