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To make real progress we need better leaders

February 2009

Technology can help us transform the world, but commitment is lacking at the top, says Mark Lee

Not so long ago I was at the miraculous green space that is The Eden Project – an environmental education centre in a post-industrial china clay quarry that has been constructed in Cornwall, England. I was there to take part in a gathering of specialists looking at what progress we have made on sustainability over the past 20 years.

The attendees shared the view that, despite tremendous gains in knowledge about sustainable practice and many advances on the part of different organizations, globalization is racing ahead of sustainability. The litany of negative news stories we face every day about the state of the planet is ample testimony to this sad state of affairs.

However, although human economic activity as a whole has to date offset most of the gains made in the sustainability space, I believe, as did most of the participants at Eden, that a great transformation is actually possible. A considerable number of the technologies and practices we need for a sustainable future are already known to us, and human ingenuity will find the rest – if necessity really is the mother of invention and we have the will.

But I do wonder about the willpower. What concerns me is that we may lack the leadership to get the job done, especially at national and international levels. There are inspirational examples of leadership from individuals such as Al Gore, single organizations such as General Electric, and from specific regions and cities such as California and London. And of course there are great hopes for Barack Obama – if he can keep his eyes both on the day-to-day demands of the worldwide financial crisis and the longer-term issues such as global warming that just have to be addressed.

But what is present in these people and places is sadly lacking in many other arenas. While many of the solutions to the problems that face us require long term thinking, economic and political systems just do not accept calls to action that require economic sacrifice in the short term.

And therein lies the big challenge if we are indeed to pull off the economic and social revolution needed. We must find and nurture enough leaders from all sectors of society to change things swiftly. Business has a big role to play in this, for the working environment is an ideal proving ground to bring through individuals who have the courage and common sense needed to lead us in troubled times.

If businesses can concentrate more on helping to bring forward a generation of leaders who see the triple bottom line rather than just financial targets, then maybe in another 20 years we will be celebrating progress, not ruefully shaking our heads at two decades of wasted opportunity.

Mark Lee is CEO of SustainAbility




Mark Lee | Global | Governance

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