Finding Hope for a Sustainable World

By December 10, 2012Blog

About the Author

Speech delivered by Andy Hoffman at the 2012 Erb Institute Holiday Party

To the Erb class of 2013, 2014 and 2015, staff, spouses, partners and loved ones; I’d like to wish you all a Happy Holiday season. Whether you celebrate as a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu or perhaps none of the above, this time of the year is a moment to pause, give thanks for the blessings we enjoy, and look to the new year with a renewed sense of hope.

We have had an amazing year.  I hope you have all seen the new Erb Annual Report and the incredible amount of work we have accomplished this year.  I give special thanks to Dom for putting together such a beautiful report.

You are also an amazing group of people.  The number of Erbers who are involved in student government, take leadership roles in student clubs and are engaged in activities that stand out is too long to mention individually. This year, 32 Erbers held 43 different club leadership positions; Erb teams placed in 17 case competitions; you have presented at 18 conferences, written numerous reports, papers and blogs, pushed for a zero waste football game and helped to make the campus more sustainable.  It is no idle boast to say that the University of Michigan would be a fundamentally different place without your presence.  When I look out on this crowd, I feel hope for our future.

But hope is a curious word; one that is different than optimism.  Optimism springs from some confidence based on a technical assessment that you’re doing things that have worked in the past and therefore you can rationally say, “This is going to work.” Hope is different. Hope is really a belief in the rightness of what you’re doing. In Vaclav Havel’s words, it is “the certainty that something makes sense.” Christopher Lasch says that “Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to those who lack it.”  David Orr adds, “Optimism is the recognition that the odds are in your favor; hope is the faith that things will work out whatever the odds. Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.”

When faced with the problems of our day, I am often asked if I am hopeful.  And my answer is always yes.  And the justification for that hope is sitting here before me.  It is you.  You have the power to change things, and by coming here to this place, this University, this Institute, you have made a commitment in your life to pursue a vision for a hopeful world.  What does it look like?  That is for each of you to decide for yourselves and to pursue in your own way.

And that leads me to an idea I want to impress on all of you; that of a calling or vocation; finding your purpose in this world. It means a shift from what we often ask our children – what do you want to be, to a more deep question, what were you meant to be?  It is a fundamentally different way of looking at the world and our place within it.  It is based on a sense of responsibility.

I am reminded of an event that happened when I first got here to Michigan.  Bernie Ebbers had just been sentenced to prison for fraud and conspiracy for false financial reporting at WorldCom.  This was a major event in the business world and no one was talking about it. No one!  That is until I got on the elevator that day and listened to two professors in front of me.  One turned to the other and said “What do you think of the Bernie Ebbers sentence?”  The other replied, “I think it’s ridiculous.  It’s not like he killed someone.”  I thought, “No, it is like he killed someone.   There are seniors bagging groceries in Walmart right now because he wiped out their retirement savings.  These kinds of events cause people to commit suicide.  He holds at least some responsibility for that.”

We need to wake up to the awesome power that business has in our world, and the awesome responsibility that business managers have in running them.  They have the power to bring the world towards sustainability or bring it towards ruin.  You have chosen to find a purpose in creating a sustainable outcome by being here.  I thank you for that.  But I also believe that if you don’t, if we all don’t set a personal vision of how we are going to leave the world a little better than we found it, then I believe we are all doomed. We will have more Enron’s and WorldCom’s, more Bhopal’s and Exxon Valdez’s.  We need business managers who are driven by more than their own personal wealth and status.  We need managers with a sense of purpose, one that includes a willingness to roll up their sleeves and solve the real problems of our day.  And they are many.

According to the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, “Humans have changed Earth’s ecosystems more in the past 50 years than in any comparable historical period.” We have increased species extinction rates by up to a thousand times over rates typical for Earth’s history. Almost 25 percent of the world’s most important marine fish stocks are depleted or over-harvested, while 44 percent are fished at their biological limit and vulnerable to collapse. As we extract the world’s riches, we contaminate its atmosphere, altering our global climate through the unabated emission of greenhouse gases.  And these impacts are not evenly distributed. According to the UN, the richest 20 percent of the world’s population consume over 75 percent of all private goods and services, while the poorest 20 percent consume just 1.5 percent. Of the 4.4 billion people in the developing world (more than half of the world’s population), almost 60 percent lack access to safe sewers, 33 percent have no access to clean water, 25 percent lack adequate housing, and 30 percent have no modern health services.  And if that doesn’t get your attention, then consider that the richest 3 people in the world have assets that exceed the combined gross domestic product of the 48 least developed countries.  Now I could stop here, as many do when they read off such a litany, and leave you with a sense of hopelessness.  But there are reasons to be hopeful.  I want to lift your spirits that you engaged in an important endeavor.

The solutions to these problems will, indeed they must, come from the business world.  Business is the most powerful institution on earth.  Without business there will be no solutions.  Business will design the next building we live and work in, the next drivetrain under your hood, the next source of energy to propel it, the food we eat, and the clothes we wear.  And, I am excited to say that sustainable business seems to have gone mainstream.  You can now leave this program and work on sustainability strategies, sustainable products and operations, sustainability reports, and strive for a position like “chief sustainability officers.”  These did not exist 10 years ago.  The business world is changing.  LOHAS consumers, almost 20% of the US population, can mobilize $290 billion in spending power each year.  Investment funds practicing impact investing can leverage roughly $50 billion.  The business world is indeed changing.

But you and I both know that the solutions to the root problems go far beyond an LED light bulb, windmill, or solar cell to be solved. The problems go deep to the complexity of our economy and society.  On that front, I also see signs of hope that we are changing the way we think.  The business world is in flux in some strange and radical ways.  We now live in a world where a twenty-two-year-old part time nanny can start an online petition of 300,000 signatures and force the Bank of America to cancel plans to charge debit card users a $5 monthly fee. Patagonia can start an exchange and ask its consumer to buy their products used on eBay before coming to the store to buy new. And the CEO of the multi-national Unilever, Paul Pollman, can say that we need to think on longer time frames, that the concept of shareholder value has passed its “sell-by date” and that the company will no longer provide quarterly profit updates to shareholders. And that’s mild.  He has also voiced the opinion that hedge fund managers would “sell their own grandmothers if they thought they could make a profit” and that “We are entering a very interesting period of history where the responsible business world is running ahead of the politicians.”  This is radical stuff that you never would have heard 10 years ago within the confines of mainstream business.

And, even deeper than that, sustainability requires that change how we conceive of ourselves as people, as human beings; not merely as consumers, defined by what we possess and what we buy but as people, defined by who we are and what we believe, and – dare I say it – how we love the world around us, both human and natural. In the words of Dwight D. Eisenhower, “we must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow.  We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage.”  That captures it all for me.

We need profound cultural change to create a sustainable world. We need people who will think deeply, work diligently and never give up.  We need those people in all sectors of society – whether your path takes you to business, government or the nonprofit sector.  You are taking the first steps on that journey, and we hope and pray that with the deep foundation you are getting here, you will have the persistence to push forward, keep trying, find the answers, and follow your path.  Whether it is that first job out of the gate or that job you get when you are my age, your impact will be measured by a similar kind of long term thinking that Paul Pollman is talking about.  I know that some of you struggle with this idea of “selling out” and I would like to ask you to reconsider the use of that term.  I don’t want to measure the value of this program or your worth by the size of your salaries (high or low) or the companies at which you start but instead by the lasting legacy of the careers of hundreds, if not thousands, of graduates that come from this program and others like it.

As you advance in your path to create the legacy, when you get discouraged – and you will – I want you to recall these words by Thomas Edison: “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”  Like a stonemason who has to hit a stone 100 times before it breaks.  It is not the 100th hammer strike that breaks the stone.  It is the 99 before it.   And to make that 100th strike with the hammer requires hope.

The greatest joy, indeed the only real lasting legacy of a professor is his or her students.  You are my hope, you are all our hopes.  Take your time here to build your own hope, find your calling, discover your vocation, create your vision for your part in building a sustainable world.  Be different, think differently, live by the immortal words of George Bernard Shaw.  “Some people see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not.”

Once again, to you and your loved ones, a happy and blessed holiday season.

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