A speech

On October 11, I was formally invested with the title Steven Grossman Endowed Chair in Sustainable Business.  I was invited to give a brief speech, and here is the transcript.


It’s a great honor to be standing before you today.  I can state, with certainty, that I have never received an honor of this magnitude.  How can you be so sure, you might ask me.  It’s a good question, and, as a social scientist, I try to provide evidence for my claims.  The answer is that I have never been asked to give a speech until now.  Presentations with slides, yes, class lectures, oh so many, but a speech – never to this day. 

So, to ease my way into this, I’d like to - humbly – reference President Obama’s speech upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.  {{ I miss President Obama }}.  He was uncomfortable receiving the prize so shortly after being elected, without yet having accomplished much of substance. He felt that he was - and I quote – “at the beginning, and not the end, of [his] labors on the world stage”.  At a smaller scale of course, I feel the same way, seeing this chair as a contract for future work and not merely a recognition of prior accomplishment. 

I’d like to briefly describe what this future work might look like.  There will be three parts: acknowledgement, commitment and plea.

In terms of acknowledgement, first and foremost, my gratitude goes out to Steven Grossman, who has endowed the chair.  I truly stand on the shoulders of a giant in the field of sustainable business, Stu Hart, who held this chair before me.  I would not be here today if not for Dean Sanjay Sharma, another of the pioneers in sustainable business research who has, remarkably and with a great deal of foresight, made it the centerpiece of this school.  There are too many colleagues to name – faculty and staff – that have open-heartedly welcomed me to the college, and brought me into the fold.  I DO see you. And a word of congratulations to my new friend Felipe who is also being honored today.  I thank you all.

But speaking of acknowledgement, I also feel it necessary to mention several painful truths that lurk, somewhat ominously, as a backdrop to today’s celebration.  As the climate news-site Grist wrote, this was the summer that reality caught up to climate fiction. People got third-degree burns from simply falling onto hot pavement in Arizona, filling up all the beds in Maricopa County’s burn center. Off the coast of Florida, the ocean warmed to hot tub temperatures. More than 1,000 fires burned across Canada’s forests, scorching seven times the acreage that usually burns in a year. Smoke traveled south and smothered New York and other cities.  The Maui fire  killed approximately 100 people, and was one of the deadliest in American history.  The Great Vermont Flood caused 13 fatalities and $2.1 billion in damage.  All that was just this summer, and just North America.

These facts are uncomfortable to recite.  I know from experience that they make audiences squirm.  Climate anxiety is a pervasive, profound, mental scourge that afflicts many of us. But bear with me, for I believe we do ourselves a disservice by looking away, by not acknowledging.  Not just because we ignore these signs at our collective peril – and the peril of our kids and grandkids - but because we forego an opportunity to find fulfillment, perhaps even redemption, in their resolution.  

The great Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci popularized the adage that our path in troubling times must be guided by pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.  Pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.  I take this to mean that we must recognize that climate change is, truly, a tremendously hard problem to solve, that our human minds, in all their brilliance, struggle to set forth meaningful and effective solutions.  But if we nurture the optimism in our will – our collective will - to strive for a just, safe and healthy planet, we might, with luck, just figure it out. The journalist Kiley Bense puts it best, when she invites us to “seek solace in the clarity of action”.

This recognition of both the intellect and the will, and putting them both in the service of action, epitomizes my commitment to you, today, in this investiture.  I plan to use my intellect – in other words, my training as a social scientist, and my adherence to the scientific method – to draw insights - valid, reliable, tested truths - about how to pursue sustainability in organizations (and how not to).  At the same time, I hope to keep my will unbowed.  This is the way I personally combat my climate anxiety – by speaking, mentoring, advocating, and supporting.  Several years ago, in an article with Joel Gehman, I beseeched business school professors to “go public”.  By that we meant to engage more meaningfully with people outside the ivory tower, in the tradition of the public intellectuals of the 20th century.  When it comes to climate solutions, so many of them will come from new business models, new forms of organizations, new ways of collaborating and thinking.  We scholars can and should contribute to this discourse. I view this as an important responsibility, and will make it central to my role as the Steven Grossman Endowed Chair in Sustainable Business.  

I’ll end with a plea for help.  Seth Klein, the Canadian activist has shared the message with which he welcomes people to his organization, the Climate Emergency Unit.  He says to them, with brutal honesty: “The path to victory is very narrow. And we’re probably gonna lose. But what else can we do but give it our best shot, in the company of other good people.”  I understand this to mean that a journey that is unbearable alone might, just might, be made possible with the help of others.  

I seek this help from all of you in the audience, but perhaps most of all from our students.  I am acutely aware that we are bequeathing upon you a world that is fast becoming nearly uninhabitable.  So, in this situation, to ask anything of you is to add insult to injury.  But I can’t help myself, for I have witnessed the unflagging commitment, the moral certitude, and the infectious enthusiasm of students confronting, head on, with grace and dignity, the challenges and opportunities of our time.  I am always in awe.  It’s been said that youth is the ultimate source of renewable energy in the world, and I hope you will allow me to draw upon this source of power in my new role.

Thank you all for coming out to celebrate this special day with me.