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Sustainability Points Of View

January 17, 2010 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 89, ISSUE 3

I loved Marc Reisch’s article (C&EN, Nov. 1, 2010, page 12) and found it most encouraging, except for the views expressed by the guy on Wall Street, which provoked me to write the following blog item on the CORE LinkedIn group in Denver, an item I intend to post to numerous other sustainability LinkedIn sites across the country.

C&EN’s article did a fine job of showing how important sustainability thinking (and acting) is to major chemical corporations. We see this clearly throughout the article and notably in the final sentence. And yet ... this from the folks that control the money! No wonder we had a financial meltdown in this country!

Blog post: The article “A Love Affair with Sustainability” indicates that many of the world’s major chemical companies are very serious about implementing significant sustainability initiatives and letting their stakeholders know it by making sure they’re ranked in sustainability rating systems like the CDPLI and DJSWI.

Unfortunately, however, it also reveals some of the problems we face in getting Wall Street and other investors to understand why sustainability is important. In the article, one Lewis E. Gasorek of Listowel, a private investment firm, graciously acknowledges: “We have to figure out a way to be sustainable over the long term, otherwise we won’t survive.” Great thinking, Lewis, but, since our time horizons on Wall Street are anything but long term, we can afford to ignore it for the time being. And who cares if our children and their children have to fix the mess we’ve created, right? I’ll be just fine, thank you.

The article goes on: “He doesn’t invest according to what the sustainability indexes show, partly because … ‘they are not predictive of a company’s future performance.’ When Gasorek makes an investment, what matters are a firm’s financial position, cash flow, business performance, and strategy.” I dare say Gasorek thinks a company’s financial reports, unlike the CSR reports and indexes, are what we should rely on to choose our investments—after all, those looked pretty good just before Enron and Countrywide Mortgage blew up, didn’t they? Of course, those reports and indicators were based on their financial position, business performance and strategy!

I continue to be stunned that otherwise apparently intelligent folks in the financial community not only cannot see the connection between sustainability-based strategies and financial upside, but don’t even see the financial implications for a corporation whose strategy is to cut costs at the expense of environmental and/or social risk. Perhaps Gasorek didn’t notice the 50%+ reduction in BP’s market cap this summer! Or the collapse of Mattel’s share price when the lead content of their toys was exposed some years ago.

BTW, I couldn’t find much information on the Web about Listowel. It’s disappointing that C&EN—which is a fine magazine—would dig up such a chump to offer comment on a subject that most of the world’s major chemical corporations are taking very seriously, as confirmed in this fine article.

J. Graham Russell
Site Moderator

Rudy Baum’s article on sustainable growth deals with a number of issues and various interactions as a result of climate change due to the buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere (C&EN, Nov. 8, 2010, page 44). There are those who claim that this is a natural process and not caused by man. Unfortunately, the proposed solutions are just treating the symptoms of this looming catastrophe.

The root cause is that there are simply too many people on this planet. The booming economy in China, and to a lesser extent India, has led to their citizens wanting more of the benefits of this prosperity. Chinese people are giving up their bicycles and buying cars. The Chinese are aspiring to have the same lifestyle as the West, which is energy-intensive and wasteful.

Unfortunately, this is not sustainable, as Baum notes in his piece. More people will need more land, minerals, energy (mostly fossil fuels), water, etc., which will place a strain on the environment. The U.S. enjoys a lifestyle that consumes more than its fair share of the world’s resources, but we are only a small fraction of the total population. There is no way this planet can support such a lifestyle in China and India with their projected populations, even with recycling.

The major focus today has been on the declining supply of oil in the world. However, the availability of water could ultimately be the rate-limiting resource. There are already water-supply issues in the Middle East, and these will only be exacerbated with population growth. Although it is true that desalinization can provide drinking water, it is an energy-intensive process that will just further increase the CO2 levels in the atmosphere. There are also adverse environmental side effects associated with desalinization. Building dams is just a stopgap solution. The large number of dams for power generation in China has already displaced more than a million people and caused severe environmental problems.

In the past, when the population of the planet was small and spread out, in the event of an ice age or other natural catastrophe, people would pack up and move on. Obviously, with our current infrastructure and population density, that is not an option. The only way to save this planet involves development of a steady-state economy, not one premised on unlimited growth. With a smaller population, there is hope that people can live in harmony. In the end, if we can’t work out our problems among ourselves, Mother Nature will. She always has the last word.

Ron Guidotti
Minden, Nev.

Why is it that Baum never mentions the problem of global overpopulation as the root cause of most of the world’s problems? Al Gore flying one Learjet around the world is not a problem, but a million Al Gores flying a million jets around the world may be a problem. One Escalade driven across the North American continent is not a problem, but a billion Escalades constantly traversing our highways is a problem.

The sustainable astronomical growth of human population is as much an oxymoron as sustainable economic growth. One is as bad as the other, and one is just as unsustainable as the other in a finite world. The health of human sojourners on planet Earth is more dependent on the long-term sustainability of the solar cycle than it is on so-called unsustainable growth powered by fossil fuel consumption as long as basic biological and chemical balances are maintained.

Population control is critical to the maintenance of that balance. It has been so since the beginning of time, and it will continue to be so until our sun becomes a dead star spinning out of control. It is better to concentrate on the sustainable few who can enjoy their Escalades, Learjets, and other advantages of modern society rather than take away advantages from the sustainable few to give to the unsustainable many. It would be nice if Baum would concentrate his energies on solving the real problems of our world and leave those unsolvable problems that are out-of-this-world alone.

Errol Bonner
Little Rock



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