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Sustainability as oracle: Future generations as stakeholders


Dead Fish Cape Cod Center for Sustainability

Over fishing on Cape Cod has continued to be a problem for the region.

Nearly 400 years ago, the pilgrims landed in what would become Provincetown, Massachusetts, today called one of the favorite towns in America.

Ptown’s colonial anniversary in 2020 is prepping to be a big celebration, but it also affords us a look back to what has changed because of human enterprise over those 400 years: The changing of the shoreline ecology, the stripping of the forests and the loss of the local fisheries, among the impacts that compromise our overall sustainability in the region.

Had our ancestors here made different choices, might we not have to deal with as many environmental concerns as we do today? What is the lesson for the region and what is the lesson for the world?

Of course, in 1620, the pilgrims were in survival and growth modes, establishing a new colony and creating wealth and opportunity in a new land. Depending on their beliefs, the Cape’s natural resources might have been considered a divine right. There were local resources to be used and, for very good reasons, they were thinking of their own well being first.

Those few pilgrims that may have thought ahead to how generations 400 years in the future might be impacted, are as rare as the people today who consider their actions as impacts on generations 400 years from now.

We’ve learned little in four centuries about how to manage for the people who come after us – which is a next wave priority in the roll out of more comprehensive sustainability.

In fact, the idea of stakeholders like future generations or, even, Mother Nature getting a seat by proxy at the decision-making table today is still a fringe idea in building sustainability strategy, despite the advice of senior sustainability organizations.

One classic definition of “stakeholder”, as defined in the early 1980s works of Edward Freeman, an innovator of the communications concept, is “any group or individual who can affect or is affected by the achievement of the organization’s objective.”

Typically, stakeholder categories include employees, customers, regulators, competitors and vendors. Innovative thinking includes representatives for The Future and Nature, given that both future generations and our present environment might have something to say about our current choices. It’s not as crazy as it sounds, has precedent, and could be a way to engage in more effective sustainability in society.

In 1995, Mark Starik, then a professor of strategic management at George Washington University, asked, in all seriousness, Should trees have managerial standing? in a paper that called the lack of recognition of nature as a stakeholder a serious omission.

Another study, from 1997, points to the aftermath of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska as an early example of nature gaining stakeholder status. “We can show that several stakeholder groups had urgent and legitimate claims, but they had little or no power to enforce their will in the relationship,” say the authors of Toward a Theory of Stakeholder Identification and Salience. “Included in this category were local residents, marine mammals and birds, and even the natural environment itself.”

For its part, the Global Reporting Initiative is explicit about the need to broaden consultation.

“Stakeholder engagement… identifies the interests of stakeholders who are unable to articulate their views (such as future generations, fauna, ecosystems),” advises GRI’s G4 implementation guide. “Disclosing the nature and likelihood of such impacts, even if they may only materialize in the future, is consistent with the goal of providing a balanced and reasonable representation of the organization’s economic, environmental and social performance.”

In modern sustainability practice, this translates best as a “materiality assessment”, a well-known sustainability tool that can measure business impacts through stakeholder expectations – though Nature and The Future are notably absent. With scant exception, modern sustainability only takes care of real-time stakeholders.

“We borrow environmental capital from future generations with no intention or prospect of repaying,” asserted the UN’s original sustainable development document called Our Common Future in 1987. “They may damn us for our spendthrift ways, but they can never collect on our debt to them. We act as we do because we can get away with it: future generations do not vote; they have no political or financial power; they cannot challenge our decisions.”

What advice would today’s regional fishing industry offer to generations past, whose practices led to overfishing? How do we pay that lesson forward so that resources remain vital here on Cape Cod for generations beyond us?

The implications for the next phase of strategic sustainability become clearer when key stakeholders, like the planet that creates our wealth and the future generations with less and less a share of it, are at the table.

“Extending stakeholder theory to include nature and future generations puts sustainability squarely into a business process that would be done anyway”