2010 > Junij

Dr. Art Whatley: Teaching Sustainability in the Management Curriculum


Professor of Management and Program Chair

MA in Global Leadership and Sustainable Development

College of Natural and Computational Sciences

Hawaii Pacific University

Honolulu, Hawaii  96813


Management education rests upon a set of beliefs that were adopted two hundred fifty years ago during the early stages of the industrial revolution.  Over time these beliefs became internalized into our unconscious and have given rise to the widespread belief today in unlimited natural resources and unlimited economic growth.

There were approximately 600,000,000 million people in 1750 in the world with abundant natural resources free for the taking.  It is easy to see how people living at the time came to believe that resources were unlimited and the corollary belief that humans can't possibly harm nature because of her abundance.  Another early belief that arose was that the waste from human and industrial processes could be deposited anywhere without harm either to nature or to human communities.  Waste was willfully dumped into the air, water, and on the land free of charge without thought to its long term consequences for living systems. The belief was that nature's capacity to receive our waste was unlimited.

The issue before management education and management educators in general, is whether or not these basic beliefs are still valid in the year 2010. Evidence is amassing quickly that these beliefs are indeed harmful to both human communities and to natural systems.  We now have confirmable evidence to show that the basic life support systems on the planet, e.g., clear air, clean water, healthy forests, healthy reef systems, and healthy lands, are all in decline (Brown, 2008; Meadows, et. al., 2003).   There is also evidence that the fossil fuel energy resources upon which all modern industrial systems depend for continued economic growth are at or beyond peak supply (Heinberg, 2005).  Furthermore, we are also realizing that the planetary sinks into which the industrial model dumps its waste are now full (Speth, 2004, 2008).

As humans become more aware of the harm to natural systems that result from our industrial processes, we must begin to look for alternative ways to develop other than believing in the unlimited economic growth model. We must begin to move management education away from the beliefs of the industrial model and replace with a model of management that is sustainable generation after generation.  (Savory and Butterfield, 1999; Doppelt, 2003; Laszlo, 2008).  Today we know how to bring sustainability concepts and principles into the management classroom and begin to step away from continuing to teach the unlimited growth model.  Numerous authors (Robert, 1991; Hawken, Lovins, and Lovins, 1999) have developed theoretical frameworks that link sustainability to conventional management education.

One of those frameworks, The Natural Step, is discussed here to illustrate management education can be integrated with environmental sustainability.  It is through this integration and the use of sustainability frameworks that management education can provide students with the necessary mental models to help create sustainable business practices.

The Natural Step framework was developed in Sweden in the 1980s by Dr. Karl-Henrich Robert, a leading Swedish cancer physician. After years of treating symptoms of cancer, Robert began to explore the relationship between humans and the conditions of their environment in search of causes of cancer.  He started asking theoretical questions about how humans could interact with the nature in ways that would reduce the risk of getting cancer.  He then asked a group of his colleagues--fifty ecologists, chemists, physicians, and medical doctors-to review and edit his questions.  He took their input and modified his questions-this process of getting expert opinion to modify his questions occurred twenty-one times and eventually produced four principles which he called "system conditions."   These 4 system conditions are known as The Natural Step (TNS) framework.

Let's take a look at how the four Natural Step conditions can be used to bring sustainability principles into the management classroom.  TNS condition number one holds that:   management activity should not lead to increased concentrations in the environment of substances extracted from the earth's crust. For example, the burning of fossil fuels, taken from the earth's surface, leads to increased concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which causes global warming.  Allowing substances from the earth's crust to build up in the world ultimately poses harmful effects for humans and all of life in general.   By understanding this first TNS principle, management educators could then teach the economic and ecological benefits of metal and mineral recycling to avoid concentration buildups, and to develop renewable energy sources and decrease the use of fossil fuels.

The second TNS principle holds that before a society can be sustainable, all of nature's functions and diversity must not be subjected to becoming a waste dump for human or society-made substances.  The most infamous examples are an agricultural chemical known as DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), a dangerous chemical used in agriculture sector and PCBs from the construction industries and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), a group of synthetic oil-like chemicals that are poisonous and have been shown to cause damage to the reproductive, neurological and immune systems in animals and humans.  They are even more sinister because they are known to mimic estrogen in women of child-bearing and cause development problems
in infants.

Both of these human-made substances accumulate in the environment and remain there for decades, eventually ending up in large concentrations in the tissues of animals at the top of the food chain, principally humans.  Management curricula can begin to teach new ways to reduce economic depends on harmful, toxic human-made substances that persist in the environment.

The third principle requires that humans stop systemically exploiting or overusing nature's resources. Economic activity must find ways to avoid taking more from natural systems that prevent those natural systems from being able to replenish themselves.  This includes, for example, stopping the habitat destruction of other plant and animal species that serve as life supporting elements or subsystems of biodiversity--the very source of human livelihood. The health and well being of all human organizations depends on sustaining our environmental and natural resources.

Systems condition four addresses the issue of social justice. This principle holds that those who work in organizations are not subject to conditions that systemically undermine their capacity to meet their needs. The goal of management, then, is to openly address the issue of social justice for everyone in the organization as a basic human right.  Management students should be trained to ask themselves:  "Would we like to be subjected to the inequitable and harmful conditions that managers often create?"  For management decisions to be just and fair, they must allow for broad-based participation from other organizational members, they must be transparent, and everyone should be held accountable to standards of honesty.

The first two Natural Step conditions guide managers to avoid concentrations of pollutants form synthetic substances and substances minded or pumped from the Earth's crust to ensure that they are not systematically increasing in nature. The third condition addresses the tendency of human systems to overharvest or replace natural systems with human made ones.  Overharvesting of fish stocks that lead to collapse is an example of this third condition. The fourth condition requires that human needs be satisfied worldwide to maximize the benefits form the resources used.  Taken one at a time, step by natural step, human systems begin to eliminate the underlying cause of environmental destruction by comparing existing actions against the four natural step conditions.  An increasing number of organizations internationally are realizing both economic and ecological successes by using the Natural Step framework. This framework has gained considerable momentum as there are now Natural Step offices in eleven different countries aiding businesses, communities, and governments worldwide.

In summary, management schools and management educators must bring sustainability frameworks and theories into the management curriculum.  To continue to teach management as it was designed in the early days of management education, based on unlimited growth, unlimited resources, and unlimited sinks into which we place our waste, is both immoral and detrimental to building sustainable societies and organizations.  Our children and future generations deserve organizations that are managed sustainably and respect the natural world.  They deserve nothing less.


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