Business and the “Planetary Boundaries” (Part 5): Interacting Boundaries, Interacting Risks

MBS Planetary Boundaries
© NosUA – iStock.com

In this, the latest of our blog series around global sustainability and business, we highlight the interactive nature of the Planetary Boundaries. As businesses need to be “part of the solution”, understanding risks beyond climate change is essential. As stated by Johan Rockstrom and his team, biodiversity, nitrogen, water use, land use, the ozone layer etc. can be seen as biophysical limits containing “thresholds” that cannot be transgressed. In our MBA teaching experiences in Munich, Australia and other locations, our students have experimented with amateur documentary-filming – “on the ground” – to learn deeply about these issues.

So, the framework represents an unconventional lens in which to visualize the connections between business and science. Unconventional in a sense that to our knowledge, it is not utilized in the mainstream of business schools – however, it is without question a concept that is increasingly at the core of global sustainability debate. Not unexpectedly, the Planetary Boundaries proved to be a concept our students had never before been exposed to in their learning journeys. Few outside the readership of Nature and Science would have engaged in a discussion that included it however, it is starting to gain ground outside the parameters of the scientific dialogue.

Are We in the Correct Classroom?

Undoubtedly, many of our students were taken aback by the heavy scientific inference, wondering in fact if they were in the correct classroom. Our introduction to this information had no aim to promote them to be environmentalists nor social scientists, but to very purposely demonstrate this framework as an effective lens in which to consider the impact of collective human activity (and specially, business activity) to the current state of our global ecological Earth systems. More specifically, this framework facilitates a way for us to show how human (and poignantly economic) development has necessitated a need for “resilience thinking” – a fundamental “rethink” on how business decisions effect our ecosystems.

Further discomfort was imposed on our students through the assignment of group work that required them to create their own short, ten-minute video using a tool that is readily attached to their hand – a smartphone. This arts-based assessment asked them to look at industry linkages with one or two planetary boundaries. As they examined the opportunities evident in their own cities, limiting their selection to just one or two proved to be additionally challenging, as the strong inter-connectivity between boundaries soon became apparent. For example, extensive land-use for urban development by major developers frequently comes with deforestation and loss of biodiversity.

Climate Change Has No Boundaries

Most groups were drawn to the topic of climate change – not surprisingly from their familiarity with the term although perhaps with limited knowledge of what it actually entailed. Although all the boundaries were touched on throughout our collection of dozens of videos, climate change was the predominant chosen “story”. A less predictable discovery for one hundred students, across four business schools, in three cities, was their discovery that this “boundary” has, in fact, no “boundaries” and that its social-ecological influences are far reaching.

Exploring climate change in a business context encouraged students to first examine economic factors, focusing on the evaluation of risk, e.g. from unseasonal weather occurrences such as flooding caused by heavy rainfall. Precise measurement soon became very complicated with their discovery of the direct and indirect compounding effects and the multiple threshold spillover considerations. Setting aside the complexity, the link was firmly made between the climate change boundary and the financial stability of global business with a realization that no pockets of the world were immune nor untouched by climate change.

MBS Planetary Boundaries

From the Arctic Circle to Australia

An excellent example of the limitless scope of climate change was one student’s recording of his leisure expedition to the secluded regions of northern regions in the Arctic Circle. Here, it was seen that the traditional livelihoods of the Sámi people had required significant adjustment due to the increasing “blurring” of seasons – previously quite distinct. Through a casual kitchen table conversation with a local guide, we learn that where once lakes/rivers were easily crossed in winter, the quality of the ice is now weaker, shallower, causing challenges and risks to travel.

Rising average temperatures have negatively influenced the growth cycle of food supplies for animals, e.g. lichen, and are forcing them to migrate further north in search of vegetation that grow at lower temperatures. The warmer temperatures bore direct reflection too on social changes, e.g. reindeer herding and hunting that coincide with cultural festivals. It was clear that they were vulnerable to the increased volatility of nature – their major asset providing for their needs. In turn, their growing reliance on tourism continues to place pressure on the relationship with their native wildlife, now conveniently corralled and put on display for tourists as novel attractions in a “petting zoo” arrangement rather than being witnessed in their natural environment.

Adding to the knowledge gained from the narrative information, we also received strong auditory messages depicting climate change outcomes. Thunderous water flows (from early spring time ice melts) juxtaposed with serene panoramic ”stillness”, were evidence of the experience actively sought by tourists seeking the tranquility of the wilderness. Ironically, the pristine serenity was frequently interrupted with the polluting noise emitting from modern day machines – skidoos and ice drills – confirming that there is no place on Earth untouched by man. In addition to climate change, the Sami people’s inability to manage their “natural capital” due to uncontrollable external influences showed direct bearing on another boundary – changes in land use. Scenarios such as these, gave students first-hand accounts of boundary interconnectivity (and risks).

Recognition of the interrelatedness with other crucial Earth systems such as biochemical pollution (from nitrogen and phosphorus run-off) and the rate of biodiversity loss were also prominent issues tackled through our student videos. These were linked closely with anthropogenic activities such as the rapid pace of urbanization (or suburbanization) and exponential population growth. The transgression of these boundaries and the subsequent scope of their impact, often began with small inklings of recognition. At individual citizen levels, they explored everyday behaviors and expectations, such as the availability of clean water from our household faucets and the ready supply of water to fill our backyard swimming pools. This was measured against industry’s use of fresh water, with one group identifying Australia as having the 12th largest water footprint in the world primarily due to their dominant mining industry. Frequently, this new-found knowledge, followed through to a bigger discussion, challenging notions on what constitutes prosperity (Jackson, 2009) and how we are often carelessly using a precious resource without consideration for where it comes from.

Examinations at Local Levels Extended Further Afield

Close examinations at local levels did not take long to extend further afield. An example of this is groups that took a look at how the agricultural practices of local grape growers can extend further afield, often having devastating effects at regional levels as a result of chemical pollution. The excessive run-off of nitrogen and phosphorus into marine systems was seen as a major contributor to the poor health of over 85 % of the Swan River in Western Australia. The practices of large scale agricultural operations were identified only one of the contributors however, a domino effect has resulted when combined with the clearing of native species from river embankments (to make way for either urban development or agricultural land use). These actions at local levels in turn made their way to regional river systems flowing into even larger marine coastal eco-systems such as the Great Barrier Reef.

MBS Planetary Boundaries

Some groups looked specifically at the wine industry in Western Australia and the negative influences of heavy phosphorus and nitrogen run-off into water systems over several decades, discovering through discussion with government scientists, that “even if this practice was stopped today, it would still take decades for positive influence to be felt.”

Less frequently – however significant to note – were realizations made in reverse order, i.e. how planetary distortions such as stratospheric ozone depletion were bearing direct influence on everyday lives and business operations. Looking at the bigger picture first and drilling down to what they could then “see and touch”, made for an interesting and unique storytelling approach perhaps indicating that they saw their own vicinities as being very connected to “global citizenship”.

Responsible, innovative managers and business people are precisely in an excellent position to lead or influence positively the path towards global sustainability. A (basic) understanding of the planetary boundaries and their interactions – and associated risks – is a good place to start. We hope that our engaging learning experiences will contribute to that aim. The impact we see in our MBA students is, in our eyes, an encouraging sign.

Prof. Dr. Jose M. Alcaraz
About Prof. Dr. Jose M. Alcaraz 10 Articles
Prof. Dr. Jose M. Alcaraz is the Faculty & Academic Director at the Berlin School of Creative Leadership, and a (part-time) Professor at Munich Business School, where he directed the full-time MBA General Management during 2017 and 2018.With a PhD on the Digitalization of Human Capital Management, Dr. Alcaraz has developed his academic career at IESE Business School (in his home town, Barcelona), Raffles Design Institute (Shanghai), University of Dubai and Leicester University (Dubai), Barna Management School (Santo Domingo, where he directed the VICINI Industry-Endowed Chair of Sustainability), and Murdoch University (Perth). His research interests focus on leadership, creativity, sustainability and innovative pedagogical practices.Prof. Dr. Alcaraz has published widely in diverse media outlets and peer-reviewed journals, including the Academy of Management Learning & Education, the German Journal of Human Resource Management, Information and Organization, Organization, Business & Society, and The International Journal of Human Resource Management.Before moving to academia, Dr. Alcaraz had several Leadership and HR roles in the software industry, and collaborated closely in Spain and Latin America with The RBL Group (a consultancy firm, co-founded by Dave Ulrich, at the forefront of strategic HR transformation, leadership capability development, and strategy implementation).
Keary Shandler
About Keary Shandler
Keary Shandler is a lecturer and researcher at Murdoch University Dubai.