Sustainability Is a Systemic Issue

Bjørn Lomborg is adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School. He is the founder of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, which brings together some of the world's top economists, including 5 Nobel laureates, to set priorities for the world. In 2008 he was named "one of the 50 people who could save the planet" by the UK Guardian; "one of the top 100 public intellectuals" by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazine; and "one of the world's 75 most influential people of the 21st century" by Esquire.
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: What can we as individuals do to promote sustainability? 

Bjørn Lomborg: I very often get asked, what can you do personally? And I wish there were very, very simple, easy answers. Unfortunately, it turns out that most of the things that we’re talking about when we talk about global problems, global warming as well as many of the other problems in the world, are much more systemic. We can’t sit down and invent a vaccine for malaria, we can’t distribute mosquito nets to avoid malaria, and likewise, it’s very hard for us to make really radical choices that will cut back our carbon emissions dramatically. 

Now, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be changing our light bulbs and we shouldn’t be driving a Prius if we can, but we should recognize that the solution is not predominately with individuals, it is with systems and societies. Likewise, I think businesses need to focus on doing good, yes, but they also need to ask that the fundamental problem of tackling both sustainable growth and to tackle all the other problems in the world is a systemic issue, not just one that any one individual business can take on. 

Question: What can businesses do? 

Bjørn Lomborg: Business is often asked to do good on their own, to cut back on their carbon emissions and follow-up on other corporate social responsibilities. But what we have to realize is that it is systemic issues that drive what actually works in societies, whereas, business of course, can cut back on their carbon emissions, that’s going to cost them money. And so at the end of the day this is much more about having a society that sets a price on carbon so that businesses know what they’re supposed to do. Just like it’s not up to businesses to cure malaria, or to fix HIV or malnutrition, but businesses can help. And so we need to recognize that, yes, businesses should be cost effective when it comes to energy, they should certainly pick some choices where they say, we’re going to do good in the world. For instance, on malaria, or malnutrition, but we should also recognize that at the end of the day, this has to be a societal decision and not one that just any one business can do. 

Question: What types of organizations will benefit most from taking action? 

Bjørn Lomborg: Often the businesses that are the most successful are the ones that are first movers and picking the easy politically correct targets. Often targets that won’t actually do very much, but get a lot of PR. So we should be honest, if the corporate social responsibility is really just about PR, you should pick easy targets, you should pick targets that have high visibility in today’s discussion. But if you’re goal is to actually do good, you should be asking yourself, well where do we get the most return on social investments on the money that we’re going to be spending, and those are very often much less visible, much less interesting, but ultimately much more important issues, like persistent malnutrition from micro-nutrients. Something you don’t ever hear about, but something that affects half the world’s population. So, take your pick. Do you want to be popular in the press, or do you actually want to do good?

Recorded on May 6, 2010

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