CEF Spotlight

The Role of Business in the Anthropocene

By Andrew J. Hoffman, Holcim (US) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan

Scientists have proposed that we have entered a new geologic epoch; we have left the Holocene and entered the Anthropocene – the Age of Humans. This shift reflects a completely new type of environmental challenge. We, as a species, have grown to such numbers, and our technology has grown to such power, that we are altering the ecosystem on a planetary scale. What does this shift mean for society and, importantly for this audience, business? My colleague Dev Jennings and I have just published a new paper and book to begin to explore what are the rules, norms, and beliefs in what we call “Anthropocene Society” and speculate what this mean for business.

The Anthropocene as both a Biophysical and a Social Challenge

Planetary Boundaries: Rockström, J. et al. (2009), “Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” Ecology and Society 14 (2): 32.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that if we don’t come to terms with climate change in the next 12 years, damage to the global climate will be irreversible. But climate change represents just one marker of the Anthropocene; there are eight other “planetary boundaries” beyond which we should not go if we want to maintain a safe environment for life on Earth. We’ve crossed three of them already: climate change, species extinction and nitrogen pollution. Another five are being monitored. Only one is in decline: ozone depletion. But what does this mean for society?

In our work, we use organizational theory to look at where we’re going, asking questions like: Who has a voice in defining the problem, and who has a voice in defining the solution? To answer this question, we articulate four possible scenarios. The first is “Collapsing Systems,” a dystopian worst scenario in which segments of society continue to debate and clash over whether this is really happening and therefore, coming to no consensus that we need to address it. The second and third are “Market Rules,” where the market rules dominate, and “Technology Fix,” where we apply science and engineering to get ourselves out of our predicament. These two scenarios will make some progress, but won’t get us all the way. If it’s only corporations defining solutions, it’s going to be driven by money, and it will not focus on the core of the issue. If it’s only technologists, it’s only going to be driven by technology, and the result will be equally inadequate. At the end of the day, a Tesla’s a nice car, but it’s still another car. We need to think differently and address the underlying cultural and behavioral roots of the Anthropocene problem.

The fourth scenario, which we call “Cultural Re-enlightenment” is the most utopian, based on a full cultural acceptance of the problem as embedded in religious values, community, education, technologies and corporations all have a role to play in finding a different way of thinking; a cultural shift akin to the Enlightenment of the 18th century, a 100 year period in which our conceptions of ourselves and the environment, and the relationship between the two, were fundamentally altered.

If you take the Anthropocene seriously, the shift will be just as big. We now have a collective challenge as a global species to manage the global environment. So how does that manifest itself in values? The Papal encyclical letter starts to do that, challenging millennia of religious thought in Genesis and suggesting “a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature” to replace our modern cultural ailments of rampant consumerism, unrestrained faith in technology, blind pursuit of profits, political shortsightedness, and the economic inequalities that force the world’s poor to bear the brunt of an imbalanced system. Other religious leaders have made similar statements on the climate. If people connect environmental protection with what they espouse at the church, synagogue, mosque or temple, then society will shift in dramatic and meaningful ways.

Business in the Anthropocene.

There is an important difference between the Enlightenment of the 18th Century and Re-enlightenment in the 21st Century; the latter has the market and business as both the cause and the solution to this issue.

If society is to adequately address our sustainability challenges, the solutions must come from the market, and more specifically the corporate sector. The market (as comprised of corporations, the government, non-governmental organizations, as well as the many stakeholders in market transaction, such as the consumers, suppliers, buyers, insurance companies, banks, etc.) is the most powerful organizing institution on earth, and businesses are the most powerful organizations within it.  One may lament that fact but it is a fact. Without business, there will be no scalable solutions. Business possesses the resources to develop the buildings we live and work in, the forms of mobility we employ, the clothes we wear and the food we eat. Indeed, if there are no solutions coming from the market, there will be no solutions.

If a corporation can put itself into a longer arc—what the company will look like in 2050 or 2100—then the idea that we’re going through something as foundational as a Re-enlightenment gives you an opportunity to rethink some basic core assumptions.

For example, when a company announces a new carbon reduction goal, that’s nice, but it won’t solve the problem. It only slows the velocity at which we are heading towards a systems collapse. You have to go carbon neutral and to do that, you have to totally change how you think. Toyota has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050. How are they going to do it? Who knows, but they won’t find the answers if you don’t begin asking the really tough questions.

Two areas in which there will be rapid and extraordinary change in the next 50 to 100 years are the auto and energy sectors. In the very real future, personal car ownership will end (with exceptions in certain rural, farm or other applications). Your grandchildren will not get a license or own a car; their conceptions of mobility will be fundamentally different. Similarly, the way my home or office gets (and uses) its power will be transformed through distributed generation, smart grids, smart appliances, demand side management, localized generation, and many more. The days of the large baseload power plant will end in our lifetime.

What about food? Can the world’s 7 billion people, soon to be 9 billion people continue to eat as they do today? Perhaps the amount of meat we eat will diminish. Perhaps we will begin to think about alternative forms of protein, whether that’s insects, like crickets, or plant-based meat substitutes, or vegetarian or vegan lifestyles? Maybe that will bring about a new set of ethics. Perhaps, in the future, we will look at all animals with the same compassion that we hold for cats and dogs.

The market is showing signs of shifting in response to the growing awareness of the instability it is creating within both the natural and the social environment. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development has been asking the question: Is there such thing as sustainable consumption, and what does that look like? Through its Common Threads and Worn Wear initiatives, Patagonia encourages people to buy used clothing and teaches them how to repair clothing with its repair kits. WeWork announced that they will no longer reimburse business meals with meat in an effort to reduce their carbon footprint. Dell, Adidas, Method and others have taken steps to address the critical issue of ocean plastics.

All of these actions are part of an overall reexamination of the role of the corporation in society, and by inference the role of the executive. People in business have tremendous power to solve our social and environmental problems or make them worse; and with that power comes great responsibility. The Anthropocene will force us to accept that responsibility.


Andrew J. Hoffman
 is the Holcim (US) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan; a position that holds appointments at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business and the School of Environment and Sustainability. He is also a faculty affiliate and past director of the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise.

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