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Home arrow Communication arrow Strategic Communication for Sustainable Organizations
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1.1 Why Sustainability and Why Now?

In 1969, Paul Ehrlich published his influential book, The Population Bomb, which brought attention to growing global environmental problems. Prior to that time, sustainable development was discussed in both the international development and the renewable resource management literature in terms of the concept of maximum sustainable yield. However, the term really captured the international communities' attention after the 1987 publication of the World Commission on Environment and Development's report, Our Common Future. Gro Harlem Brundtland, Prime Minister of Norway, chaired the commission's inquiry into pressing interrelated global problems (e.g., energy supply, climate change). Today, the most frequently used definition of sustainability appearing in the scholarly literature focusing on organizations comes from Our Common Future and reads, “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED 1987, p. 43). The report goes on to make two points that rarely are acknowledged in the business literature:

It [sustainable development] contains within it two key concepts: the concept of 'needs', in particular the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs.. .. Perceived needs are socially and culturally determined, and sustainable development requires the promotion of values that encourage consumption standards that are within the bounds of the ecological possible and to which all can reasonably aspire.

Although the report was very clear that there are finite resource limits, at the same time, it offered a vision of the possibility of the simultaneous and mutually reinforcing pursuit of economic growth, environmental improvement, population stabilization, peace, social justice, and intergenerational and global equity, maintainable over the long term. The implicit message was that sustainability and development can coexist and limits can be stretched if resources are managed adequately and wise policies put in place. Sustainable development is an attractive concept because it offers hope. Today, sustainable development “is arguably the dominant global discourse of ecological concern” (Dryzek 2005, p. 145). Those interested in sustainable development often see the natural environment as the responsibility of multiple actors including businesses, national governments, global governing bodies, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) whose toolkits include appropriate technologies, voluntary business initiatives, and interorganizational partnerships. Key Point: Coordinated collective efforts both internationally and at the grassroots level are necessary, all of which require strategic and effective communication.

In The Sustainability Handbook, Blackburn (2007) summarized 36 global trends resulting in the need for organizations to strive toward sustainability. I'm most interested in one, climate change, because it is a game changer. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report entitled Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Coauthored by 259 authors representing 39 counties, the report described the very high probability by the late twenty-first century of increased temperatures and more heat waves over most land areas; increased frequency, intensity, and/or amount of heavy precipitation; increased intensity and duration of drought; increased intense tropical cyclone activity; and increased extreme high sea level. Very high probability statements are cause for alarm because the scientific method is not set up to talk in absolutes.

“Global climate change has become one of the most pressing issues for industry,

government, and civil society in the twenty-first century” (Okereke et al. 2012,

p. 10). The United Nations Secretary General also identified climate change as the major, overriding environmental issue of our time. Climate change involves shifting weather patterns which threaten food production, rising sea levels which contaminate coastal freshwater reserves and increase flooding risks, and a warming atmosphere which aids in the spread of tropical pests and diseases. The authors of the United Nations Environment Programme report (2013) write:

Increasing evidence indicates important tipping points, leading to irreversible changes in major ecosystems and the planetary climate system, may already have been reached or passed. Climate feedback systems and environmental cumulative effects are building across Earth systems demonstrating behaviors we cannot anticipate.

In May 2011, according to the International Energy Agency (2011), the global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from energy use in 2010 were the highest in history. By 2015, they continue to ascend. Given that our global economy is likely to grow over the next 10 years, the window has probably closed on our ability to keep the average global temperature rise below 2 oC. We are overloading our atmosphere with carbon dioxide, which traps heat and steadily drives up the planet's temperature. This carbon frequently comes from the fossil fuels we burn for energy—coal, natural gas, and oil—plus from deforestation. The authors of the United Nations Environment Programme report (2013) write:

The most dangerous climate changes may still be avoided if we transform our hydrocarbon based energy systems and if we initiate rational and adequately financed adaptation programmes to forestall disasters and migrations at unprecedented scales. The tools are available, but they must be applied immediately and aggressively.

Five features of climate change and sustainability-related problems present a challenge for how we are to proceed:

(1) indeterminacy—it is impossible to foresee the best course of action; (2) valueladenness/normativity—values effect behaviors, lifestyles and systems; (3) controversy— full agreement or consensus among and even within all stakeholders is rare, if not impossible; (4) uncertainty—it is impossible to identify the exact impact of a chosen strategy or action; and (5) complexity—a whole range of variables messily interact (Wals and Schwarzin 2012, p. 13).

Competing claims exist about what is occurring and what should be done. But we must move forward, even in the face of challenges and uncertainty.

In preparation for the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (2013) report, the children's charity UNICEF was among the NGOs present who urged governments to heed the report's warning. UNICEF warned that the young will bear the brunt of temperature increases. Children born in 2013 will be 17 in 2030 and 37 in 2050 when the worst impacts of climate change will be in full swing including extreme heat waves, expanded diseases, malnutrition, and economic losses. Another NGO, Oxfam, warns that world hunger will worsen as climate change hits crop production and disrupts incomes while food prices spike. The number of people at risk of hunger is anticipated to double by 2050. Other NGOs anticipate facing similar pressures.

 
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