I spoke yesterday at the morning plenary of GBC Health (formerly the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria), along with business leaders like Anglo American CEO Cynthia Carroll, Conservation International founder Peter Seligman, and Sarah Brown, health care activist and wife of former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Our discussion centered on health as an integral part of sustainability. At first glance, this is one of those topics that might seem obvious. But in fact, all too often, we overlook the health dimensions of sustainability.
For starters, many of the topics we quickly categorize as being about the environment are really about human health, such as the nexus of food, energy, water, and climate. Thinking about questions like these as just environmental challenges misses the point. Water and food are basic necessities of life, and all measures of human health decline when they are unavailable or polluted. Climate disruption means more precarious livelihoods, which also interfere with health and well being. And these challenges will only grow more acute as global population expands from 6.9 billion today to 9.2 billion in 2050. As many like to say, saving the planet isn't the main point -- it will survive. It's human sustainability that is under threat as our natural resources decline.
This concept of taking a holistic or systems-based view is being embraced by GBC Health in pursuit of its mission. The evolution of the debate over fighting HIV during the organization's ten-year history proves the point. Ten years ago, discussions were mainly about getting anti-retrovirals into the hands of those infected. That, to be sure, was no bad thing. But we are now more aware of the fact that doing only that won't get the job done.
Accepting an award at the event, GE Vice President (and BSR Board Member) Bob Corcoran, told a story that vividly made the point. Recalling a visit to an African hospital, he detailed the woeful state of the main facility -- which suffered from chronic underfunding -- with rickety equipment unsuited to meet the needs of its several hundred patients. He then noticed -- on the other side of a chain link fence -- a gleaming new building, with top-flight (and underused) diagnostic equipment and two sparkling new SUVs. He saw immediately that generous donors somewhere had over-invested in a specialized facility while the general purpose facility deteriorated. The lesson Corcoran took from this: tear down that wall (borrowed from Ronald Reagan's challenge to Mikhail Gorbachev to dismantle the Berlin Wall.)
As we say in the upcoming BSR Report 2010, "Redefining Leadership," which we publish next week, taking a systems-based approach is an essential element of success for any business aspiring to true sustainability. Without building the conditions for a comprehensive approach, single issue interventions will never reach their potential. It was good to see this same kind of thinking on display at the GBC Health conference.