Note: This article was taken from a talk given by Leo Burke, director of Integral Leadership at the Mendoza College, during the Alumni Reunion 2010.
In considering the potential of business to do good in the world, there are multiple factors at play that we need to take into account. I’d like to zoom out to look at the context of the things that will matter in the next few years.
Over the last few decades, we’ve seen enormous changes in technology, in globalization, and in the sophistication of markets altogether. There are many variables to consider in this evolution, but I think the most important one is population growth, which is a super variable. When I graduated from college in 1970, there were 3.7 billion people in the world. Over the last 40 years, that number has increased by 84 percent. There are now 6.8 billion people in the world.
This factor alone has put enormous stress on the earth’s resources such that today, we are extracting 1.4 worlds beyond the replenishment rate of our oceans, our forests and our fuel. The single most important factor for reducing population is actually increasing female literacy, more than birth control, more than economic development. The extent to which we can both understand and support initiatives that increase female literacy worldwide will be important to address this variable of population.
A second variable to consider is policy. We’ve lost the public trust when it comes to business, and we need to regain that. And we need to regain that trust in terms of encouraging citizens to get more involved in setting policy. There is a physician named Bernard Lown, who invented the defibrillator. In 1989, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for co-founding Citizens for Nuclear Disarmament. Recently, Lown said, public policy is too important to be left to experts and politicians. It needs to be formulated by citizens. And so there needs to be a dialogue between business and citizens in how we will be able to unleash the power that business can bring to society.
The Gulf of Mexico tragedy reminds us that we are still a nation addicted to cheap oil and, indeed, only 7 percent of our fuel actually comes from renewables. The extent to which we can shift policy and unleash a ground swell that’s building in terms of entrepreneurship and innovation about clean tech and green energy will not only create jobs, but will enable greater sustainability altogether.
The third factor is that we need over the next decade to look at a monetary system that narrows the gap between rich and poor rather than widens it. The roots of our current monetary system actually go back to the Renaissance based on the foundations of interest and debt, and it’s no longer viable in a world of 6.8 billion people.
Interestingly, there are some extraordinary experiments on the horizon right now with electronic currencies that move well beyond the fiat currencies of nation states, whereby corporations and citizen groups are actually engaging in currencies that are based on such things as kilowatt hours and sustainable metrics for the earth. We’re on the forefront of an explosion in this area altogether. So while the G20 is trying to figure out who’s going to have the world’s reserve currency at some point in the future, citizens and corporations will probably far transcend this in very short order.
Fourth, we need to embrace the global commons. The global commons are those resources on which we depend for life that include the air, the water, the earth itself that are owned by no one, but are the responsibility of everyone. We must steward our responsibility in such a way as to ensure inter-generational equity and justice so that our grandchildren and great-grandchildren can inherit an earth that’s livable. As we do this, we’ll come to see that there’s a balance between the public sector interests and the private sector interests, whereby the commons can be not only perpetuated but enhanced.
The fifth variable involves re-examining our paradigm of reality. Now is the time for us to decide if we want a world that works for everyone. At 6.8 billion people, there are a billion people right now who cannot get a clean drink of water. There are a billion people who will not get enough food in order to sustain their lives in a healthy manner and another two billion who will go to bed hungry.
What is our response to this? The resources are there to take care of all of these problems. We need to mobilize the will to do so. We need to understand that it’s not just that we’re all interconnected together, but all of life is an intrinsic indivisibility in which we participate. To the extent that we can begin to understand this and live on the basis of that presumption, we can take the totality of humankind into account. And as we do these things, we provide a context where business can be a powerful force for good in a world that certainly needs it.