“The birds are louder than usual this spring,” said my wife.
This comment brought back memories from my own teaching and research. It took me to a time before the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970—51 years ago.
It took me back to the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, published in 1962. A controversial book at that time, its title was Carson’s experience one spring—she did not hear loud and cacophonous birds; it was silent. She was also a scientist.
Carson spent over six years documenting the misuse of chemical pesticides and their harm to ecosystems. DDT and birds were especially linked. Industry attacked her book, but the evidence was clear.
Later in the 1960s the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire. Smog was in our cities. Poison was flowing into our rivers. These events did not go unnoticed.
Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wisc.) established Earth Day to bring attention to these and other environmentally damaging events emanating from the post-World War II economic and industrial boom.
Over the next few decades, environmental issues and concerns of industry shifted from meeting compliance to going beyond compliance. That is, companies started to drop the notion of doing just enough to meet environmental regulations. They sought out ways to become more environmentally sound and gain competitive advantage.
It is these and related stories, with multiple business and social case writings that guide the learning in my Sustainable Operations and Supply Chain classes.
The story is more complex and intricate than I have presented. It has many directions, with a stammering and sputtering of initiatives—including rollbacks in business practice. Corporate environmental management and sustainability did not have a linear path.
The scope of challenges during this time evolved from local, “give a hoot, don’t pollute” to global carbon trading schemes.
But this past year was special. We all lived through it. The COVID-19 pandemic arrived and another story emerged.
My own personal story (each of us may have encountered something similar):
March 15, 2020, was the last day I went to my office. I've barely left my home since then. I lightly drove my car, maybe a dozen times during this period.
The world slowed down for weeks and then months. Nature started to take over. For about a month I barely heard any vehicles. The birds returned, louder than ever. I took many nature walks. I am lucky enough to live near some conservation lands.
Throughout the world, smog-filled skies started clearing.
The birds even sounded different—a study showed this—as the noise pollution was reduced. Birds actually sang a different tune. Wild animals were coming out into the open. As a society, we changed our ways. Overnight.
2020’s ‘Overshoot Day’—the day that resource usage exceeds the Earth’s biocapacity—had an unprecedented increase of almost a month to August 22 (see overshootday.org).
These results and experiences showed us that transition to a more sustainable world CAN be done quickly. There are challenges and we have to consider overcoming these challenges in a just way—but it CAN be done.
Can we continue to do this? Can the world be better? Can we live with a little less damage to our natural environment? This crisis allowed us to be more contemplative about our personal relationships with nature.
Society took a collective deep breath.
It has not been easy. Many changes occurred and the crisis remains stressful. Many people lost their loved ones and their livelihoods. Yet, we are living in another crisis situation, an environmental one that is not as obvious, but still as pernicious. Human pressures on planetary boundaries pains our environment. We will also feel this pain—we are not separate from the natural environment. We have to mitigate this pain. It is our only Earthly home.
In my classes and in my writings, I consider potential solutions—including green and sustainable supply chains; circular economy; carbon mitigation; degrowth. All of these are opportunities. None are easy. The environmental sustainability problem is a "wicked" one, as are most broad-based and generational social and environmental problems.
The first step is that we have to educate ourselves, our organizations, our communities on why and how to best achieve a more sustainable world—transitioning to a world whose biggest ‘annoyance’ is being awakened by ever louder tweets, coos, and caws.
Joseph Sarkis is Professor of Management within the Foisie Business School at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. His teaching and research focus is on operations and supply chain management, especially with a focus on sustainability, technology, and decision making.