Sustainability and Self-Interest

Article excerpt

Sustainability and Self-interest ZERONAUTS: Breaking the Sustainability BatTier John Elldngton 304 page s Routledge, 2012

John Elldngton is an optimist In his new boolç, Ellcington, an authority on corporate responsibffity rate responsibility and coiner of the term "triple bottom line," argues that a new set of entrepreneurs in business, government, and universities are stepping up and taking actions that will help us to reinvent capitalism, combat climate change, and reduce our exposure to toxics.

Let's start with the definition he provides early in the book.

ZERONAUT, n. 1. An inventor, innovator, entrepreneur, intrapreneur, investor, manager, or educator who promotes wealth creation while driving adverse environmental, social, and economic impacts toward zero. 2. Someone who finds, investigates, and develops breakthrough, footprint-shrinking solutions for the growing tensions between demography, consumerist lifestyles, and sustainability. 3. Pohtical leader or policymaker who helps to create the regulatory frameworks and incentives needed to drive related "i-Earth" solutions to scale.

Although Darth Vader would not aspire to join this club, many other people would like to be part of the solution. In a world of 7 billion people, there are a huge number of potential producers of game-changing ideas. Some work on discovering medical breakthroughs, while others focus on creating Facebook-Iike Internet startup companies. How do such ambitious, talented people choose which hard problems to work on? Put simply, when would the profit motive alone-without any virtuous Zeronauts-be sufficient to give us the "green capitalism" that Elkington argues is on the horizon?

Consider the challenge of male baldness. As a 46-year-old man without much hair, I have thought about this issue. If I were the only bald man in the world, then no for-profit drug company would spend a cent researching a solution to my problem. But when millions of people have this problem, there is huge aggregate demand and a jackpot for the company that can develop a solution (Le., Rogarne). Old-fashioned capitalist price signals direct this entrepreneurial activity. Although some efforts will fail, some firm will succeed, and millions of men will smile again. This example highlights that anticipated desperation creates a profit opportunity and then triggers efforts to find a solution.

So what's the difference between baldness cures and innovations that enhance sustainability? Elkington argues that status quo capitalism lacks imagination and ambition. Zeronauts, he writes, "aim to get our competitive juices flowing with a 'Race to Zero' framing of their initiatives- whether it applies to toxics, greenhouse gases, or poverty. …