Economists Address Environmental Sustainability Issues at Globalization TrendLab 2012

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Wharton’s Lauder Institute Brings Top Economists and Environmental Experts Together to Share New and Innovating Thinking on Sustainability

PHILADELPHIA — Top economists gathered at the Wharton School’s Lauder Institute at the University of Pennsylvania April 12-13, 2012 for the second annual Globalization TrendLab 2012 conference entitled, “Sustainability: New Perspectives and Opportunities.” The conference brought together economic and environmental experts from management, engineering, environmental policy, public policy, and the social sciences to learn from each other’s perspectives on environmental sustainability.

Environmental sustainability identifies courses of action for the use of natural resources that support life on the planet without placing onerous limitations on the availability of those resources in the future.  It has become a key topic of debate among policymakers, environmental advocates and business leaders who have differing approaches, attitudes and solutions to increasingly critical issues such as global warming, energy production and use, food production, essential water resources. 

Green business practices have played an increasingly important role as they gauge how far consumers are willing to go to protect the planet from irreversible degradation.  “In surveys, most corporate CEOs say they care about sustainability and are taking steps, however small, that make a difference. Yet, they are deluding themselves,” says John Elkington, founding partner and CEO of Volans and an international authority on corporate responsibility and sustainable development. “We do not need incremental change but a systemic transformation applied over a wide scope, not a narrow scope, of problems.”

“The most fundamental challenge for sustainability, however, is the number of people on the planet. We all need water, food, and energy,” said Hania Zlotnik, former director of the United Nations Population Division. “By 2050, there may be just over 9 billion human beings living on Earth, but keeping population growth to that level requires substantial reductions of fertility in low- income countries. Yet many governments of countries where the population is still growing fast think they have other more pressing problems to worry about and have failed to invest enough in expanding access to family planning so that all people have the means to have no more than the children they want.”

Environmental disasters have also helped shape the conversation about sustainability and society’s responses. They have triggered a vast array of government and corporate responses and have contributed to the debate over the concept of the “triple bottom line,” an expanded spectrum of values and criteria for measuring economic, ecological, and social success.  

“Disasters are tragedies, but they help wake us up,” says Andrew Hoffman, a professor at the University of Michigan. “In the 1960s, a series of environmental disasters led to the first debates about sustainability, then focused strictly on environmental issues.  Then regulators stepped in and that put the issue on corporate radar screens. Things quieted down until Chernobyl and Exxon Valdez. This opened up a second phase during which corporations realized that they could strategize, they could redesign products and processes to cope with the challenges of sustainability.  We should think about sustainability as part of a progression of social and cultural change that has gone through a process of punctuated equilibrium with disruptive disasters triggering new waves of sustainability thought and practice.”

Another topic in the analysis of sustainability is that of governance and how institutions need to encourage sustainability worldwide and to improve collaboration among governments, companies, and nonprofit organizations.

“Multiplicity of players, different agendas, and varying strategies can be a challenge, but also an opportunity to do things differently,” says William Clark, a professor at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. “Current arrangements to accomplish together what you can’t do alone in the field of sustainability are flawed and structurally misfit.  There is a presumption that one can make progress by enlisting a sufficiently large number of countries. But each country has other agendas in addition to the one being negotiated. What we need is to assume that government is a complex, adaptive system.  We must lay down barriers to the serious negative externalities and encourage innovation and diffusion.” 

A full copy of the report from the conference can be downloaded at: http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/special_section.cfm?specialID=122

About the Wharton School

Founded in 1881 as the first collegiate business school, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania is recognized globally for intellectual leadership and ongoing innovation across every major discipline of business education. With a broad global community and one of the most published business school faculties, Wharton creates ongoing economic and social value around the world. The School has 5,000 undergraduate, MBA, executive MBA, and doctoral students; more than 9,000 annual participants in executive education programs; and a powerful alumni network of 91,000 graduate

About the Lauder Institute and the Wharton School

The University of Pennsylvania’s Lauder Institute, founded in 1983, combines a world–renowned Wharton MBA with a Master’s in International Studies. Advanced language and foreign culture training, a two-month in-country immersion, and a Masters Thesis from the School of Arts & Sciences all prepare Lauder Fellows for the ever-evolving global economy. Graduates join the diverse, supportive and committed worldwide Lauder community – continuing a 25-year tradition of international business leadership.  The Lauder Institute also offers an MA/JD joint degree.  The Lauder Institute is also home to the Penn Lauder CIBER (Center for International Business Education and Research), funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, which provided partial support for this conference.  For more information, visit www.lauder.wharton.upenn.edu.

About the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Arts & Sciences

The School of Arts & Sciences provides a foundation for the scholarly excellence that has established Penn as one of the world’s leading research universities. The School enrolls 6500 undergraduates, admits approximately 250 students each year into its 32 doctoral programs, and offers a wide range of programs for lifelong learning. International studies are a vibrant enterprise at the School of Arts & Sciences. In addition to offering instruction in 50 languages, the school is home to an array of centers, programs and institutes dedicated to the study of world regions and contemporary global issues and conflicts.

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