04/08/2012 11:23 EDT | Updated 06/08/2012 05:12 EDT

When Profit and Social Responsibility Collide


Albert Einstein once famously said, "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." It may very well have been the great thinker's most prophetic warning ever. Here we are, faced with some of the gravest existential threats in the history of our species, and all we've been doing is throwing conventional thinking at the problems -- and then we wonder why things keep getting worse.

The most obvious of those problems? Climate change, of course. The conventional thinking? Incremental, uninspiring, regressive "sustainability" strategies. In blatant disregard for the great thinker's teachings, we are continuing to stick our head deep in the sand and convincing ourselves that if we simply do a little less bad, the whole thing will go away like a bad dream. We have even packaged up our brilliant thinking into neat little sound-bites: recycle a few more paper cups, build a few more green office buildings, drive a few more hybrid cars, buy a few more carbon offsets, and it will all be fixed! Really? Has anyone ever done the real math?

A long time ago, as our parents and grandparents began to worry about some of the side effects of uncontrolled capitalism, society's response was to build up a system of important checks and balances: health and environmental NGOs, government regulations, media watchdogs, etc. The explosion of prosperity in the Western world through the second half of the last century naturally resulted in an equivalent increase in the strength and pervasiveness of the counter-balancing systems. NGOs became huge and global, governments grew massive regulatory teeth and the media became angrier and sharper. And we went on with our happy lives, believing that we live in a beautifully balanced world...

Clearly, we had it wrong. We thought the model was balanced, but in reality it was just polarized -- and the wealthier we got, the more polarized it became. By birthing "forces for good" and giving them the simplistic mission to mop up the mess that we created with our for-profit businesses, we actually made things worse! We fuelled a very well-entrenched belief among all participants in our capitalist society that you can't make a profit without harming the world -- and that the only people who can do good for our world are the ones who don't make a profit. In our obese, lazy, polluted, climate-threatened 21st-century society, "giving back" has become one of the most fashionable lines -- as if to imply that we really must have stolen something from the world as we were making a profit!

It's time to hit the reset button. Time to heed Einstein's advice. We're in trouble. Our "balanced" model isn't working. Our planet is getting sicker by the day; our children are already assuming they will have a lower standard of living and that their lives will be shorter and less healthy than ours. Could it be that we actually allowed ourselves to become the "peak" generation in the history of our species?

We need real solutions, not yesterday's ineffective incremental stuff. We need to ignite the imagination of our 7 billion fellow passengers if we stand a chance to really turn this thing around. A few recycled cups and carbon offsets, when some estimate we're making more than a billion new babies a decade, is not the solution -- it was just a nice, cute start. It's time to re-invent our path to profit and wealth, because that's what it will take to excite and drive our fellow passengers. We are creatures of nature and that makes us greedy by design. Yesterday's sustainability preachings were all about suppressing our instincts and our nature. Tomorrow's solutions need to be about prosperity through innovation and about practical ideas about a new kind of capitalism, like Michael Porter's shared value model.

It's time for new, big thinking. Time to kill our polarized old models. Time to intertwine profit and good in such a way that you can't generate one without the other. Time to start creating real value and prosperity and time to ban that awful line about "giving back"...