Not just about the environment

The economics of sustainability present a recipe for political success

Spotted OwlThe ballyhoo over protection for the spotted owl is unnecessary. Sustainability and economic development can not only coexist, according to Richard Locke; taken together, both goals can thrive.

by Richard Locke

Academia is usually pretty far removed from the nuts and bolts of presidential campaigning, but what I recently saw in an MIT Sloan School of Management classroom shows hope for not only the global challenge of sustainability, but for how it can be met in a win-win way for both economics and politics.

Many of the 70 or so MIT students who enrolled this semester in a unique class called S-Lab (Laboratory for Sustainable Business) were predictably motivated by a heartfelt interest in the environment, especially climate change. But other MBAs showed up for another basic reason: they see great investment opportunities in sustainability and want to learn more about it. This rare marriage of concern and opportunity is conceiving a potentially powerful political constituency.

Though difficult to pin down, a basic definition of “sustainable development” was offered by a 1987 United Nations conference as meeting “present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” Beyond that broad understanding, sustainability falls into an often confusing array of narrow silos, each focused on a specific issue, be it water, waste, energy, or even social justice.

Sustainability is, in fact, about all these things and once you pull any single thread, the whole fabric comes with it. Concerned about reducing the carbon footprint? That requires thinking about not just this nation, but major new economies, such as China and India. That, in turn, means talking about how much energy they generate energy and how and what they do with it. Which then gets into patterns and quality of economic development, labor justice, quality of water, air and infrastructure. And on and on.

That's why one key goal of S-Lab is to offer a more comprehensive and systemic approach to sustainability. Another critical goal is to change the basic discourse around the issue. Currently, much of the conversation about sustainability is negative in tone. It's about limits of growth, about what we shouldn't be doing, about what we're doing wrong. Instead — and here's where smart political strategy comes in — sustainability should be presented as a positive opportunity for businesses to redesign their current models and operations. They can develop and sell new products and technologies and build new markets, all while helping the environment in a meaningful way.

No need to pit economy against spotted owls

This isn't just vague hope. Late last year, more than 300 attendees, from small startups to large global corporations like Coca Cola, came to our first MIT conference about sustainability as a management strategy. Most had not even been to MIT before. They came because they recognized that MIT's combination of strengths in business, engineering and science, uniquely positions it to define the risks and opportunities involved in creating sustainability-based business models for the future. No one believes we can just engineer our way out of this problem, or that there is some technological, utopian solution. Ultimately, we need to combine innovation with radically changed behaviors, both corporate and personal.

That starts with changing the current political conversation, or lack thereof. Instead of economic development versus spotted owls, sustainability should be “sold” as a platform for the kind of job-generating growth that is a key issue for November. Republican or Democrat, a presidential candidate can effectively campaign for sustainability as a way to regenerate the nation's economy.

The interrelated challenges of sustainability mean bringing back home much of the production now being done abroad and producing in a cleaner way, retraining and reinvigorating our own workforce to do so. We can use our technology to build economic and political bridges to the world. We can change our infrastructure in a major way, creating good jobs and a better foundation, physical and otherwise, for further growth.

Sustainability directly links to another hot election issue — national security. Reducing carbon fuel imports means reduced dependence on outside energy sources, especially fossil fuels, which is good for our security. Once again, good policy intersects with good economics, and that means good politics. Greater energy independence requires massive investment in renewables. A candidate should propose tax incentives to get homeowners and businesses, especially smaller ones, to retrofit to be more energy and water efficiency.

An American president once boldly called for this nation to put a man on the moon. A presidential candidate today would reap praise — and votes — for boldly putting economics into the politics of sustainability.

Richard M. Locke is Alvin J. Siteman Professor of Entrepreneurship and Political Science at MIT Sloan.