Remarks to the Erb Class of 2017

One of the benefits of being a professor is that we forget that we are aging. Each year, we are met by a fresh crop of new students that are always the same age.  So, in effect, we are constantly surrounded by a group of people that never grow old.  But of course we are aging.  I can see things as they have evolved while you, the new students, see everything as if it were new.  I envy your perspective.

I have been reflecting on this passage of time as I enter my last year as Faculty Director of the Erb Institute.  Though my five-year term ends in September 2015, I will still stay involved with the institute and continue to work on sustainability research, education and outreach.  But the pending end of my term as Faculty Director marks a significant point in our history that I think you will benefit from knowing, especially on this occasion of  “Community Day”  as you mark the beginning of a new school year.

Community Day, Class of 2017 and 2016 mid-year admits

As I look upon our third decade, I too have become part of that passage of time. I am the most recent Faculty Director in a line that includes Stu HartTom Gladwin, Jonathan Bulkley, Jim Reece, Brian Talbot and Tom Lyon.  Similarly, Terry Nelidov is the latest in a string of Managing Directors that includes Susan SvobodaKellie McElhaneyDrew Horning, and Rick Bunch. What was called the Corporate Environmental Management Program (CEMP) in 1993 is now the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise (Erb) in 2014.  In that progression, we have walked through three different logos.



More than the passage of people, names and logos, the Institute has evolved in its focus and purpose to reflect the times. The very first dual-degree MBA/MS environment program was developed by Yale in 1986.  CEMP was the second in 1993 and other programs have been entering the field ever since.  Just in the past few years, Wharton, Boston College and Stanford have all started similar dual degree programs. So others are starting to join the game but they don’t have the long history and experience, the largest alumni base and the powerful culture that we have.  Just today, a reporter asked me “What is so special and distinct about this program?” I said that it is the culture and the people.  When we have prospective students come for visit day we know we’ve got them. Once they see our culture they’re going to stay.  That’s something that’s really special that we cannot change, it is what forms the foundation of who we are.  And we are working to strengthen it.  Terry will talk to you shortly about how we are developing new ways to keep you connected when you’re alumni.

But going back to the progression of time, when this program formed in 1993, it was tricky for a professor to focus on business and the environment.  People were suspicious, wondering if you were an advocate and not an objective researcher. I actually got turned down for a professor’s position at INSEAD and they said “We really love your stuff on organizational theory but we think you’re too focused on the environment.” That’s what it was like in the first decade of CEMP.  The field of Business and the Environment was just getting started and working to get recognized as a legitimate area for research and education. But today, it’s accepted.  Just this past year, Ross Dean Alison Davis-Blake announced in an Erb Strategic Advisory Council meeting that “Sustainability is table stakes in management education today.” John Erb nearly fell off his chair.  He said that his father never thought he would ever hear that when he founded this Institute. That’s how far we’ve come and we should feel proud and pleased that we are an accepted and valued part of the management curriculum and management practice.

But, as I look at this passage of time, I see an interesting problem and an interesting challenge; and that challenge is yours.  You’ve likely heard the expression, “May you live in interesting times.”  But how many of you know that that’s actually a Chinese curse? Well you, the students just embarking on a career in Business Sustainability live in interesting times.  On the one hand you’re coming into this when it is mainstream, and it’s exciting.  Businesses are publishing sustainable reports, they have Chief Sustainability Officers, you can stay at a sustainable hotel, you’re eating sustainable food, there’s probably a sustainable car out there.  It’s all there.  It’s all happening.  You can go into companies now and talk about sustainability and they’re not going to look at you like you have three heads.

But the problems continue to get worst. The concentration of greenhouse gas emissions continues to increase and we are now starting to see some of the effects of climate change become real.  Issues like water scarcity, food security, and chemicals in the environment are creating new kinds of problems and lead us to recognize that we are now entering the Anthropocene; a new geological epoch in which we cannot describe the environment out there without including the role that humans are playing in influencing how it operates.  This creates a whole new set of problems for those who care about business and the environment.  If you look at the past writings of people like Paul Hawken, Ray Anderson and others, they all talk about the idea that the market is within the environment. Ray Anderson used to say that “The market is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment” as a way to remind us that we cannot grow past the limitations of the environment. While that is indeed still true, it is also true that we are growing beyond those constraints with implications for which we are unprepared to deal. There is a wonderful line by Steven Jay Gould from Harvard who wrote “…we have become, by the grace of a glorious evolutionary accident called intelligence, the stewards of life’s continuity on earth. We have not asked for that role, but we cannot abjure it. We may not be suited to it, but here we are.” There is the challenge that you face.  This is why you live in interesting times.

As I think about this challenge for the Erb Institute as it enters its third decade, I think we face it in two ways. The first is by dealing with it as mainstream and fitting it into the market as it exists. That is one way to begin to take steps to mitigate the impact we are having on the environment.  It is polite and acceptable.  It fits with what it means to be a business manager today.  But the second way to deal with it is to be provocative and try to push people and institutions out of their comfort zone.  This is realm of creative destruction, changing markets, and challenging taken for granted metrics like GDP and discount rates.  This is about not being polite and acceptable.

I find this ironic, because it takes us full circle back to where we were in the first decade.  If you go back to the CEMP years, business and environment was in your face.  It was challenging and it made a lot of people uncomfortable.  And, I might add, Tom Gladwin was the master at it.  He would do things like have his students do sustainability audits of every one of their core courses.  And if you want to talk about a way to annoy your colleagues, that was a great way to do it.  So now, in the Anthropocene, the urgency of the issues compels us to become nuisances again, at least part of the time.  We have to challenge the status quo and make people uncomfortable, while at the same time knowing when to be polite and fit sustainability within the mainstream of the status quo.  We’re going to have to do both and know when each is warranted.

And I think that poses an interesting challenge for us as both change agents and as human beings. How can we push for change and be eco-authentic? Kim Wolske and I are starting to explore this question.  Think about it; here we are, a bunch of people who care about the environment, climate change, water scarcity and social equity. And yet, our lives are not really sustainable.  I, for example, give talks on climate change and yet I am a platinum frequent flyer for Delta. I drive a car, I have a house, I eat meat. How do I balance that lifestyle with my concern for the issues we face? That’s a very difficult challenge and it’s important for us to think about.  How do we live up to Ghandi’s challenge to “be the change we want to see in the world,”? How do we do that, and how do we change the world while also recognizing that we are a part of it? How do you push others to recognize the Anthropocene in the makeup of the market without also recognizing it in our own lives?

We need to know how to address feelings of dissonance, hypocrisy and depression in ourselves.  We need to know how to strike the right balance of living our values without pretending we are not similarly part of the problem.  And what do we tell ourselves to resolve that dissonance?  I tell myself that this is an institutional problem.  While individual virtue is great, we cannot solve the great sustainability issues without changing the overarching institutions of our society.  Is that a cop-out?  I don’t know.  But it can’t stop me from trying to work on solutions.  And that is important when facing critics who may challenge our sincerity by calling out our lifestyles as hypocritical. I’ve treated that kind of an attack as a red herring, a challenge that implies that the only way we can talk about climate change is to start wearing a hair shirt and living in a cave.  We can’t allow ourselves to be silenced by such critiques, but we need to ask the question ourselves to live authentically.

So, with that charge, the baton is passed to you.  You “live in interesting times.”  This is your challenge, one that is far different from the challenges for CEMP in 1993.  In facing it, you stand on the shoulders of those that came before you, and you will one day hand off to the next generation who will stand on your shoulders. I welcome you to this progression of time and the community that is living it. I’m excited that you’re engaged in it. Thank you very much and good luck.