Lessons from BP and bankers: The need for a more sustainable future

Image: Aja

I woke up this morning and read this post by Robert Kuttner in Huffington Post. I think his opening points are spot on. He tells us that Wall Street and BP demonstrate the same problem.

In both cases, a powerful, politically protected industry invented something that could not easily be repaired when it broke. We seem to be entering an age when complex technologies, whether financial or physical, sometimes literally have no solutions when they go haywire in unanticipated ways. We thought this might happen with nuclear power (and it still could); but for now deepwater drilling is the bigger menace.

Secondly, in both cases the proverbial ounce of prevention was not applied. Had existing laws been enforced, and had the political process not corrupted the regulatory process, these man-made calamities didn’t need to happen.

Building a system that could not be fixed when it is broken is symptomatic of a far deeper problem – a disregard for the future. Whether as a function of four-year or two-year election cycle, or quarterly projections for corporations, or an average 2.3 year tenure for CMO’s in major U.S. corporations, too many mainstays of how we run our world are irresponsibly short-term in their perspective. Obviously you need to be in power to create change, so there has to be a balance, but in my opinion that drive for positive change has been overwhelmed by the desire to stay in power.

What’s inexplicable to me is that such an approach in fact ignores the long-term well being of a corporation. Economists call such unforeseen, long-term costs negative externalities. This either means a corporation does not pay the full cost of a decision and society and consumers are left holding the bag.

Only today such negative externalities have far graver consequences. We now live in an interdependent world in which we are both aware and affected by what someone else does on the other side of the planet. What’s more we face so many concurrent crises – disease, child mortality, environmental degradation, the disparity of wealth, climate change, and so on – that the urgency for solutions is compounded.

It is a wonderful to live in a global community connected in new ways by social media. The flip-side is that selfish, short-term corporate behavior, on top of government debt and limited philanthropic resources, can be our undoing. We do not live in a world of unlimited resources. We cannot expect profit to rise ever upwards. We can no longer use ignorance as an excuse to disregard the plight of billions of less fortunate people around the world. We, and the corporate entities that we work for and support as brands, need to take responsibility for our future. Not simply because it’s a good thing to do, but because our own survival depends on it.

As consumers with buying power and corporations marketing their brands we need to wake up. As President Clinton said: “We should leave our children with a different set of problems”, not worse ones. We have been given the awareness and tools to do that. We can be the difference between continued loss and suffering and sustainable prosperity. The is our chance to make a lasting difference and it starts now.

Do you think corporate behavior will ever change? What can consumers do to ensure they help rather than hurt the planet?