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Bursting the industrial-age bubble


Business writer Peter Senge says tackling climate change requires a revolution in business thinking


By Jessica Knoblauch



The industrial-age bubble—that take, make, waste way of thinking—is about to pop. At least, that’s the message in bestselling business writer Peter Senge’s new book, The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organizations are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill climate change doomsday tome; it’s a business book, although an atypical one. To solve the sustainability crisis, it focuses on sustainability and systems thinking—recognizing the larger systems in which companies operate. For example, Citigroup recently announced a $50 billion green initiative, which includes investing in wind farms, biofuels, solar panels, and other eco-friendly technologies, to minimize its enormous environmental footprint. This revolutionary mindset may be difficult to grasp, says Senge, but it's absolutely necessary to address our ailing planet's suffering from a bottom-line world.

Senge motivates us to tackle today’s sustainability crisis through inspirational stories of unlikely companies adopting some green practices. For example, Coca Cola recently committed to using no more water than it replaces and is collaborating with World Wildlife Fund to conserve clean water worldwide. But he doesn’t stop there. The book also serves as a guide for individuals and groups, providing them with tools for creating a more sustainable world. Most importantly, says Senge, is that everybody take part in avoiding this crisis. After all, in an interconnected world it doesn’t matter whose end of the boat has a hole.

Plenty recently chatted with Senge about the end of the industrial age, the organic dilemma, and why young people will save us all in the end.

What do you mean by Industrial Age Bubble?

The bubble metaphor seemed to fit because it’s most often been used to describe these periods of time where there’s a wild growth of financial investing that goes way beyond what can be sustained. The dot-com bubble is just one example. When looking at these situations, you ask yourself, “How can a lot of smart people be so stupid?” But in fact this phenomenon happens again and again because there’s an artificial reality created inside this bubble where people are talking to each other using the same jargon and it starts to feel very real.

The world that we’re living in today is another artificial bubble because it defies nature. In nature there is no waste. But we live in a fanciful world, constantly buying stuff, using it, and then throwing it away. The industrial age cannot be sustained. All of these symptoms that are starting to become difficult to ignore, like water and food issues—these things are all interconnected because it’s not a long distance to connect food, water, energy, terrorism. If we continue to fight these symptoms individually, we’re losing the larger point.

How do you hope readers will react to that notion?

There are two reactions I hope people will have. One is that they’ll step back and really make intuitive sense of the situation we find ourselves in and appreciate that it’s urgent. But the other part that may be even more important is to convince people that they can do something. When people start to look at all these problems, they’re very pessimistic. There’s a tremendous cynicism and pessimism that sits below the surface of our society. We need to do is inspire people to create a different future. That’s what these stories are meant to do, and that’s why there at least one or two stories that almost everybody can relate to.

You talk about going “beyond reactive problem solving.” What does that mean for a society like the US who is more used to being reactive rather than proactive?

Well it may mean more in changing the language that we use. The first reaction to a problem is to see it and say that we need to fix it as opposed to changing the system around it and asking, “How am I going to be part of the change process?” One of the strengths of the US has always been entrepreneurialism. And along the way of creating something, you solve problems. But if you start a company just to solve a bunch of problems, you don’t stay around very long. Focusing on problem solving only and not thinking about the entire process is not taking a long term perspective.

A lot of the tools in the book build on what we’ve been doing over the past 25 years--how to build a sense of shared vision and generate creative tension so people can be honest and simultaneously passionate about what they want create. We also focus on the whole systems perspective, helping people see larger systems and realize that what we are doing now is at best like using a band aid. These tools have always been around, but they’re specifically shaped to deal with sustainability problems.

Why do you consider the popularity of organic food the last nail in the coffin for struggling farmers?

First off, organic produce has the classic problem of a big fad--everybody is trying to claim that they’re organic. There are a lot of people jumping into organic because there’s an opportunity to make money, not necessarily because they have a long-term vision. That’s part of the problem. But the other problem is that the whole agriculture sector has really been pushed to the brink by industrial thinking so we don’t have farms, we have agricultural assembly lines. Because of that nobody has farms that can make money any more. The key with both organic and conventional farming is that those farmers need to have a livable income; otherwise those farming communities are going to collapse whether they’re organic or not.

You put a lot of stock in young people’s ability to take the lead on a future of sustainability.

There are many examples of movements going on in college campuses right now. Just Google “youth and climate change,” and you’ll see all kinds of youth-organized climate change groups. I was at a meeting of one of these groups at Middlebury College. The students devised a very clever plan that involved driving up to Detroit in cars that gets at least 40 miles per gallon, which basically means Priuses and other foreign dealers. Over the cars, they drape signs, saying things like “We rather it was a Ford.” They wanted to show their support for US industry but also criticize US car companies for not bringing high-mileage cars to market. And that’s just one example. I think that young people are really going to be key in this movement because they’re very clever and they’re well-organized.