The industrial revolution took hold of our economy and evolved over time. Such inventions as the steam engine, which powered railway transportation and shipping had miraculous effects. Around 1850, a light bulb was introduced, which provided the general population with access to safe indoor lighting. Then, in the last decades of the 1800s, the automobile was invented and eventually gave millions of people the ability to travel long distances, easily and in relative comfort.
The story is far more detailed and complex, but these examples make an important point. Man spent huge sums to develop these technologies, but had little regard for the true costs of these developments.
We are so proud of our accomplishments and have developed symbols to represent them. We have built mammoth homes and we continue to marvel at the ever-taller skyscrapers that tower over our cityscapes.
All the while, we do not stop to think about the true price we are paying for ‘progress.’ Habitat degradation, species loss, pollution and massive amounts of waste are just a few of the costs that most of us do not assess. Even fewer of us are engaged in a fight to fix these problems.
The question that remains is: why have we disregarded the environment for so long? The answer seems to be that we are not educated to think about it. Very few of us are taught to consider the ethical treatment of the environment before we go out into the world and begin our professional careers. We are not educated about sustainable development, which is defined by the United Nations as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’
Our institutions of higher education should provide mandatory courses in sustainable development if we are going to change the cycle of destruction for production. Most of us know by now that our planet is in serious trouble, but very few of us have the knowledge to do anything about it. The good news is that educational opportunities are available at GW and other top universities.
At GW, especially for graduate students, we have a strong strategic management and environmental policy program in the business school and a well-rounded, highly regarded energy management and systems engineering department. Taking classes from both of these departments, I crafted an interdisciplinary concentration called sustainable business management. For undergraduates, the curriculum is being assessed and will soon be updated. Other institutions such as Carnegie Mellon developed an education and research effort called the Green Design Institute geared for students in many different degree programs and Stanford recently introduced a joint MBA in Environment and Resources. Now, we just have to act.
We are not paying the true cost, or the economic, social, environmental and health-related costs for the structures we build or for the products and services we buy. What’s worse is that we have significant proof that environmental degradation would be reduced if we paid prices with environmental and other protections built in.
For example, when it comes to green building, developers and other stakeholders are often not willing to pay more, perhaps even as little as one percent more, to green the buildings they build (which still doesn’t account for true cost). Existing quantitative information does little to provide a convincing argument because our contractors believe they already know how to build, to meet requirements. In the private sector, especially, after the sale, a developer rarely thinks about the fact that his building and other non-green counterparts use 68 percent of electricity, 40 percent of total U.S. energy, consume 12 percent of potable water and account for 38 percent of carbon dioxide emissions.
Perhaps the argument we are left with is that there is very clear evidence that green business has a persuasive marketing message. Also, green business is proving to be profitable, especially when life-cycle costs are considered. The point then is, unlike our inventive forefathers, we will need to treat our environment with considerably more care and respect if our future achievements as a capitalist society are to enable us to reach even greater economic success in the future.
The writer is a graduate student in the School of Business.