Sustainability at a Tipping Point?

We all love to throw that phrase “tipping point” around now, and we greenies love to think that we’ve reached one in terms of sustainability. One of our best thinkers on the business front, Gil Friend, makes a pretty persuasive case that we may be on the mark:

Momentous change is not always visible at the moment it happens — in fact it doesn’t always happen in a discrete moment. And a change can take on a nearly irreversible momentum long before it becomes the dominant phenomenon.

The “sustainability trajectory” I’ve tracked over the past 35 years (since long before it was called that) has looked to me like a fairly consistent exponential curve of uptake. Whether the time span is the last three decades, or one decade, or five years, or two, the curve charting the uptake and penetration of these ideas has been exponential. (See diagram.) We’ll see even more progress in coming years — and still have major challenges ahead (see below). But 2005 may be the year of critical mass (to use another popular metaphor).

Gil procedes to tick off some of the major corporate developments of 2005 in terms of sustainability, from GE’s ecoimagination to Goldman Sachs’ pledge of $1 billion to fund renewable energy development to (and you knew it was coming) Wal-Mart’s recent moves. Of course, Gil also realizes that we may have reached other tipping points of environmental significance, namely ecosystems destruction by a variety of means. The challenges we face are huge, but we may also be incredibly well-prepared to face them. Will the private sector act on that knowledge and preparation? Let’s hope so…

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