I had to take responsibility for writing the first post on our new blog. Deciding the topic has not been an easy task. I was looking for something that could be at the same time relevant and inspiring. A topic broad enough to let the spirit of our project emerge in its entirety. I got lucky, after all, it is not often that some 15,000 scientists issue an ultimatum to the humanity…
In 1992, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which is a non-profit science advocacy organization based in the United States, made a universal appeal to the world entitled World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity. The appeal was endorsed by some 1,700 scientists, 104 of which were Nobel laureates. The document stressed how, already twenty-five years ago, human beings and the natural world were on a collision course. This because of the irreversible damage to the environment and critical resources inflicted by human activities. In particular, the scientists focused on the intolerable level of air pollution, exploitation of world’s surface water resources, depletion of fish stocks in the oceans, degradation of soil productivity, deforestation, irreversible loss of living species, and overpopulation. As a result, the scientists pleaded with all countries (especially the developed ones) for reducing pollution, overconsumption, and in general the pressure on natural resources and the environment.
On the 13th of November 2017, a “Second Notice” of the warning was issued and published in the scientific journal BioScience (Volume 67, Issue 12, 1 December 2017, Pages 1026–1028). On this occasion, 15,364 scientists from 184 countries endorsed it.
In this second warning, the scientists have highlighted how, with the sole exception of the stratospheric ozone layer, which appears to be stabilized, since 1992 humanity “has failed to make sufficient progress in generally solving these foreseen environmental challenges, and alarmingly, most of them are getting far worse.”
In particular, the scientists warned of the current trajectory of potentially catastrophic climate change due to the usage of fossil fuels, deforestation, and agricultural production, as well as of the mass extinction event we have triggered wherein many current life forms could be annihilated or at least committed to extinction by the end of this century. As they affirmed we “are jeopardizing our future by not reining in our intense but geographically and demographically uneven material consumption and by not perceiving continued rapid population growth as a primary driver behind many ecological and even societal threats.”
In this second notice, the scientists also included interesting examples of steps humanity can take to transition to sustainability such as: establishing well-funded and well-managed natural reserves for a significant proportion of the world’s habitats; halting the conversion of forests, grasslands, and other native habitats and at the same time restoring forests at large scales; reducing food waste; promoting dietary shifts towards mostly plant-based foods; promoting new green technologies and massively adopting renewable energy sources; and estimating a scientifically defensible, sustainable human population size for the long term.
We widely share such an approach. The danger is serious, and the scientists are no alarmists. Their perspective is based on the straightforward and long-recognized rule of sustainability, which was brilliantly explained by George Perkins Marsh in Man and Nature as long ago as 1864: “Everything that humans require for their survival and well-being depends, directly or indirectly, on the natural environment.”
Although in 1992 the scientists expressly asked for the help of the world’s business and industrial leaders, and in the Second Notice they affirmed that “to prevent widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss, humanity must practice a more environmentally sustainable alternative to business as usual,” it seems to me that a major emphasis on irresponsible corporate behaviour is actually missing.
Pointing the finger at the humanity as a whole, the document has adopted a collective responsibility approach. Taking into consideration the nature of the report, this is of course understandable. However, we are duty bound to attribute to each major player – governments, consumers, and corporations – its own responsibilities.
It is true that government intervention through policies and regulations serves a fundamental role in establishing the playing field in which all business actors conduct their activities. It is equally true that theoretically speaking governments by themselves have the power to change things and direct our society towards a sustainable economy. However, one need not be an expert to realize just how far the reality differs from the theory. Governments in developed countries are increasingly being held hostage by corporations through lobbying practices, and this situation worsened in recent years in the wake of the historic US Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which prevents the government from setting limits on corporate spending for political advertising. In an inspiring speech published online by the New York Times on 9 October 2013, President Obama underlined how, as a consequence of the more aggressive corporate lobbying, “ordinary Americans are shut out of the [political] process” and stressed the reasons why “we have seen a breakdown of just the normal routine business done here in Washington on behalf of the American people.” Moreover, the lack of a political, economic and cultural homogeneity among the countries seriously hinders any initiative aimed at establishing a greater global sustainability. Suffice here to mention phenomena like the so-called “race to the bottom,” by which countries competitively undercut each others standards in order to attract foreign capital, the “resource curse,” by which many countries with an abundance of natural resources tend to have less economic growth, less democracy, and worse development, and the continuing reluctance of the most industrialized nations to give up part of their economic privileges (see for instance the decision of President Trump to withdraw from the Paris climate deal).
It is also true that many unethical practices that are adopted throughout the increasingly complex global supply chains are directly linked to careless consumer behavior. Taking into consideration the world population prospects issued by the United Nation’s Population Division (the world’s population, which numbered nearly 7.6 billion as of mid-2017, will amount to almost 10 billion in 2050) and the phenomenon of systemic overconsumption, which characterizes our societies (see the striking pictures published by the Guardian in that regard), we must work hard in order to change consumer behavior to benefit the environment. Whilst in America and Europe an increasing number of consumers has started to translate environmental preferences into purchasing behaviors (e.g., already in 2006 a survey in the U.K. showed that 83% of the interviewed consumers believed that a company’s social responsibility is an important consideration when they are purchasing a product or service), in Asia and, specifically, in China the translation of green purchasing intention to corresponding behavior is still ineffective. As a perfect example, suffice here to mention that, as the award-winning documentary “Revolution” has illustrated, due to the increasing consumer demand for shark fin soup in mainland China, sharks are teetering on the verge of extinction.
The arguments mentioned above cannot be used to de-emphasize the circumstance that irresponsible corporate behavior is the major cause of the global environmental degradation. Multinational corporations have acquired power and wealth that exceed that of many countries. Just to make an example, it is possible to mention that the sole US company Wal-Mart in 2016 generated some $486 billion US dollars in revenues whereas the GDP of Poland amounted to around 469 billion US dollars. At the same time, there is no doubt that companies and, in particular, multinational enterprises play a crucial role in the environmental damage. Over the course of last two decades, too many corporations have not proved their worthiness to be responsible members of our societies. On the contrary, on many occasions, their direct involvement in unsustainable business practices has been unveiled. If we consider, for instance, the phenomenon of overfishing and its consequences (i.e., several fish species are currently on the brink of extinction), it has been underlined how just 13 companies control 40% of the largest and most valuable fish stocks. Keeping at bay corporate greed will be the most effective solution to save our invaluable marine life. After all, as a recent research has highlighted, it is far easier to improve fisheries management by involving a few dozen companies than by targeting millions of shoppers in consumer campaigns. Similarly, the massive use that corporations are making of palm oil in the food supply chain is at the root of serious problems like deforestation, threat to species survival, environmental damage, social impact on indigenous communities, and potential health risks.
Taking all the above into consideration, it is evident that to address the burning environmental issues that the humanity is currently facing, we have to change the way in which corporations conduct their business operations. Until they learn how to be morally reflective and responsible, we will be all at risk. In such a context, solutions based on corporate social responsibility and business ethics may play a key role and become a driver for change. After all, this is the reason that inspired us to create this blog.