Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

16 Dec 2015

Values and sustainability – fourth in a series

Posted by Michael Keating

How can values drive the greatest challenge humans face: moving to sustainability? How can we change development to fit within Earth’s natural limits, and still live a good life? This series of articles takes us through the evolution of some major environmental issues in recent history, looks at visions and principles that can guide us in the future, examines barriers to change and gives examples of leadership for sustainability.


Examples of leadership

In the first article I traced the evolution of environment as a major public issue. In the second I showed major sets of goals and principles to achieve sustainability. In the third article I looked at barriers to achieving sustainability. In this article, I’ll look at examples of leadership for sustainability.

Political leaders

I think the best example of a political leader showing broad sustainability values is former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. Dr. Brundtland was a medical doctor, with a strong interest in children’s health issues. She had been Norway’s prime minister and environment minister when she was asked by the United Nations in 1983 to form a World Commission on Environment and Development. The title of her commission’s 1987 report Our Common Future shows a highly ethical bent. Its most enduring message is that if development is to be truly sustainable, it needs to meet the needs of the present without comprising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Dr. Brundtland and her 21 fellow commissioners offered a vision of greater equity in world economic growth, along with fairer and more cooperative global dealings. The commission said that poorer countries must have the opportunity to develop economically, meaning they needed more ecological space to use resources and discharge some pollution. This means developed countries need to reduce their environmental impacts not only to make room for developing countries but also to bring down the total impact, which is too great for the long term. The report said the well-being of future generations is a moral issue for today, and we can act in a more moral way by reducing consumption and pollution. The Brundtland report said there is an obligation on the affluent to refrain from wasteful use of resources.

photo of Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland

Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland

The Brundtland report issued a challenge to world political leaders, and did change global politics. There have been a series of responses, such as the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and Agenda 21 from the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, and the UN Millennium Development Goals. In 2015 world leaders agreed on 17 new sustainable development goals under The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. They include an end to poverty, food security for all, gender equity, sustainable energy, and sustainable consumption and production. In December representatives of 195 nations signed the Paris Agreement on climate change, which committed them to dramatically reduce the discharge of greenhouse gases.

Business leaders

If politicians are seen as leaders, business people are the doers who will play a crucial role in making or breaking dreams of a sustainable world. Only a generation ago when most people thought of business leaders and the environment it was generally as polluters or destroyers of natural resources. But by then many corporate leaders were becoming worried about how many traditional business practices were damaging the environment, their reputations and future success. A number of them embraced the concept of sustainable development and have made serious efforts to reduce their companies’ environmental impacts.

The one I think stands out is the late Ray Anderson. In 1973 he founded Interface, which became one of the world’s largest carpet companies. He built it into a business success, but was getting questions from customers about the environmental impact of a company that used large amounts of petroleum products, and generated large amounts of waste. In 1994, while looking for answers he became deeply shocked by the amount of damage done by the current industrial system. Anderson developed a vision that a company could become sustainable and restorative, and he set out to change Interface’s industrial production. His approach had a strongly moral basis. He came to believe that his business was helping to destroy the planet and this was fundamentally wrong. “The theft of our children’s future (will) someday be considered a crime,” he said. He went on to write, “I believe that a sustainable society depends totally and absolutely on a new mind-set to deeply embrace ethical values… that, along with an enlightened self-interest, drive us to make new and better decisions.”

Ray Anderson

Ray Anderson

He set the huge Atlanta Ga. based company on a course to, as he wrote, “shut down the smokestacks, close off its effluent pipes, to do no harm to the environment and take nothing not easily renewed by the earth.” Anderson applied principles of thrift and reuse as he set out to eliminate waste, recycle materials, use renewable energy and move to a closed loop process that does not create waste. Under his guidance, the company grew and profits increased as waste decreased.

Anderson was a pioneer, but now there are many who see the wisdom of his ways. Some are pushed by a social conscience. More are driven by government regulations and consumer demand for greener products and processes. A major fast food chain is moving to sustainable food and more recycled products. Car companies are moving toward hybrid and pure electric cars. Many companies have reduced waste and the use of toxic substances in their operations. The Paris Agreement on climate change means business has to go through a second industrial revolution to become carbon neutral in a few decades. There is still a huge distance to go before business in general becomes sustainable, but the movement has begun, and is unlikely to stop.



The most influential religious statement on sustainability is Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical, On Care for Our Common Home, the first papal document dedicated to the environment. It is appropriate, coming from a pope who took the name of the patron saint of nature. The 91-page document gives a sweeping review of issues such as water scarcity, climate change, genetically modified crops, renewable energy, public transportation, politics and business. It is a stinging critique of much in modern society, accusing people of turning a blind eye to obvious environmental destruction while carrying on with wasteful consumption. It is also a profoundly ethical document, saying both that humans are overusing and destroying the environment, and this is hurting the poor more than the rich who cause most of the damage.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

Pope Francis used stark language, such as, “We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes.” He said people need to stop “…a whirlwind of needless buying and spending.” Many people, he wrote, are becoming more selfish, and less likely to respect the common good, adding environmental decline is linked to “an ethical and cultural decline.” He went on to say that “People may well have a growing ecological sensitivity but it has not succeeded in changing their harmful habits of consumption which, rather than decreasing, appear to be growing all the more.” He criticized a culture of denial of environmental realities accusing some of “trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.” Along with selfishness, Francis criticized what he called a mentality of technocratic domination that leads to the destruction of nature and the exploitation of the most vulnerable populations. In a political message, the pope attacked what he called the myopia of power politics, saying governments are too afraid to apply high principles and work for the long-term common good.

In a statement that echoed a tenet of sustainability, the pope said: “We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.” It was an echo of the Brundtland report’s description of “interlocking crises” of environmental, economic and social issues. Francis continued that “we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment…” The pope stated that humans are capable of the worst but also of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and he called on people to develop an ecological conscience. “The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone.” He called for human solidarity and a new lifestyle … “bringing healthy pressure to bear on those who wield political, economic and social power.” Turning to individuals, he said buying is both economic and a moral act, and encouraged more modest consumption, especially among those who can afford to consume more. He urged consumers to put pressure on producers to consider their environmental footprint and production patterns.


What can we learn from these sustainability leaders? They took strong moral positions, moving ahead of others in similar positions. They took risks, and have drawn criticism from some. But the most important question is, do we have enough sustainability leaders? Will people who try to provide such leadership have the courage, intelligence and tenacity to move society from a pathway now heading toward environmental and therefore economic and social ruin? The Paris Agreement on climate change is the most hopeful sign in years. A great number of people provided striking leadership. For example Microsoft founder Bill Gates was a business leader key in getting governments and some of the world’s richest people to fund clean energy. Many politicians showed the courage to sign an agreement that will be very difficult and expensive but absolutely essential to implement. These include French president Francois Hollande, who had to set aside preoccupations with terror attacks and immigration, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who played a key role as negotiator. Leadership came from one of the smallest nations. Tony de Brum, foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, a chain of Pacific coral atolls with only 72,000 inhabitants, was a key figure in getting support for a “high ambition coalition” pushing for 1.5C cap on temperatures. The Paris Agreement is a demonstration of what leadership can achieve. We will need a lot more of it, coming from small villages to large nations, if we are going to make the great transition to a more sustainable world.

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