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Can a Systemic Approach to Sustainability Help Avoid Unintended Consequences?

Over the last few decades, society has started to take on some of the environmental problems caused by industrialization. But sometimes solving one problem creates or aggravates another. Yale environmental chemist Paul Anastas argues that managers who take a systemic approach to sustainability are needed to create lasting solutions.

In a master class on sustainability, Paul Anastas, faculty director for sustainability in Yale SOM's MBA for Executives program, pointed out a dilemma for those trying to improve the environment: What if in trying to fix one problem, you make another worse? Unclean water kills millions of people each year, but treating it with chlorine can create dangerous disinfection byproducts. Biofuels could replace fossil fuels and help reduce greenhouse gases significantly. But growing biofuel crops leaves less land to grow food, a resource that is already in short supply in many parts of the world. Then there are fluorescent lights, which use less energy than traditional incandescents but contain the neurotoxin mercury, and solar power, which uses rare, toxic metals.

"How did we get here? Through some kind of evil cabal?" Anastas asked. "Of course not. These are urgent and necessary challenges, and people respond with noble goals, technical and scientific brilliance, and inventiveness. It merely boils down to that if you have the best intentions but don't have a systems perspective, you're going to be playing whack-a-mole. You're looking in a fragmented way rather than systematically."

Anastas stressed that while innovation is necessary to make significant advances in sustainability, managers can't assume that just any innovation will lead to improvements. "The frameworks of sustainability, the thinking of sustainability, is trying to make those leapfrog innovations, those transformative innovations, point in a sustainable direction," he said. "And that's what a lot of the management decisions that we need to make are all about. How do we form those frameworks for thinking? How do we form those metrics? How do we form those drivers, those incentives toward sustainability?"