By Stephen Ahn
How will the next generation of leaders solve the world’s sustainability challenges? We asked Erb/WEC Fellow Stephen Ahn, who’s participating in a new program created by the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise, the World Environment Center and IBM. You can also read a perspective on this topic by Stephen’s colleague, Emily Taylor, here.
At the World Environment Center conference on resource scarcity, I had the chance to hear speakers from the National Intelligence Council, the New America Foundation and the WWF engage with corporate executives. Invited to attend as a WEC/Erb Fellow - with sponsorship from IBM – I was struck by how dire our future looked.
The WWF reports that current global consumption of resources is 1.5X the available supply; the United States alone is consuming 4.5X. That is at current levels of consumption – according to the National Intelligence Council, the middle class is expanding; as people move up the income ladder they eat higher up on the food chain, which requires more resources to produce.
If we don’t change the way we consume, we will run out of resources. But herein lies the predicament: most people don’t see resource scarcity as a major problem as there is no immediate negative externality. It is something to worry about some other time. We hope that by putting our head in the sand, the problem will go away or someone else will come up with the solution.
So how can we address resource scarcity? I look at it like kicking the smoking habit.
Smoking is one of the hardest addictions to break because it is habit forming. You start modelling your behavior around smoking – when drinking, after a meal, to relieve stress, etc. Quitting becomes worse when everyone around you smokes – when they go out for a smoke, you want to go out and join them as well. Smokers have their own little world where membership is a cigarette.
We all know the risks behind smoking, but there are still about 58 million smokers in the US. Why do they still smoke? Well, the serious health risks are not immediate; it is sometime out in the unknown future and to stop now would inflict a decrease in immediate pleasure for an uncertain benefit later in life. Not everyone gets cancer, we tell ourselves. Yet, through social, business, and government initiatives we reduced smoking from 42% in 1965 to 19% in 2011.
Our current model of consumption is like smoking – it is addicting and difficult to stop. We are not content with what we have and believe purchasing that new product will make us happy. However, the sense of euphoria we receive is temporary – pretty soon we want buy something else to maintain that ‘high.’ We want it cheap, so to feed our need, businesses look for the cheapest raw materials possible.
Unfortunately, that too often means harvesting materials at an unsustainable rate or manner. Our unchecked need to consume is like a cancer, and pretty soon the consequences to the planet will be dire.
So this brings me back to the WEC conference. The companies in attendance want to change their behavior, and I applaud them for that. However, just like in smoking, it is difficult to quit when everyone else around you is still smoking.
The New America Foundation reported that we need a new grand strategy – the alignment of our economic engine, governing institutions and foreign policy to solve the global challenges of the era. This next challenge will be redefining our consumption practices. We need to make it socially unacceptable to be unsustainable, just like we made it socially unacceptable to smoke. And we all have a role in doing that: business, government, and consumers. I think you’d be surprised that some within the corporate sector are on the case. That gives me hope.
Stephen Ahn is a student at the University of Michigan Erb Institute, a partnership between the School of Natural Resources and Environment and the Ross Business School. He served in the Peace Corps Honduras for two years as a business adviser and prior to that worked five years in asset management. Stephen received a B.S in business admin from Boston College.