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It’s hard to imagine a better way to kick off the SAP Sustainability Summit in Toronto this week than a keynote from Dr. David Suzuki, Canadian, academic, scientist, broadcaster and outspoken environmental activist.  Although he began by suggesting that he’s not well-versed in the world of business, the 250+ business people in the audience were captivated for over an hour.

He spoke with passion and humour.  His opening line was:

“Fifteen years ago you would have locked the door before letting me in a room with you.”


Beginning on a positive note, Suzuki indicated that he’s encouraged by the shift to a more cooperative relationship between environmentalists and corporations, and is pleased by the momentum that is building for sustainability in business.  He did, however, quip that we need to move past the easy stuff, and speed up our progress towards the more difficult challenges. 

Re-Thinking the Triple Bottom Line

He then moved on to question what has become the sustainability mantra of the corporate world:  the triple bottom line.  He rejected the typical representation of three circles of equal size representing economic, social and environmental sustainability.  His perspective is that one big circle represents the biosphere, a smaller one inside that represents society, and an even smaller one within society represents the economy.  In his words, “If we continue to think that the economy is as important as the environment, we’re doomed.”

Suzuki called for a rethink of our economic system and our overwhelming focus on growth, which he believes is driving destructive behaviours and practices.  In a finite world, we cannot continue to believe that indefinite financial and population growth is feasible.

I can’t begin to do justice to the whole talk in a short blog.  But there was one big take-away for everyone I spoke to, and it’s a story that Suzuki has used for some years…

Minute 59

Making his point that growth isn’t always good, he used the example of a system that is analogous to the planet (in that it is finite):  a test tube full of food for bacteria.  A single bacteria cell is introduced into the test tube, and divides every minute.

At minute zero there is one cell, at the end of 1 minute there are 2 cells, at 2 minutes there are 4, at 3 minutes there are 8, etc.   At 60 minutes, the test tube will be completely full of bacteria, there’s no food left and they all die.

This means that the test tube is only ½ full at 59 minutes.  Even though it has taken the entire 59 minutes to fill the test tube up half way, a minute later it’s completely full.  At 55 minutes it’s only 3% full.  If one of the bacteria spoke up at that point and said “we’ve got a problem”, everyone would have said he was crazy, even though they are only 5 minutes away from total annihilation. 


Then he said…

“We’re at “Minute 59”.

The most interesting thing for me was the impact this had on so many people at the event…  and the value of a great story, told by a great story-teller.  I will definitely go and see Dr. Suzuki speak again.


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