You may have heard this week that the University of Michigan was ranked number one among America’s public universities according to US News.
And, according to THE, the U of M is ranked seventh in the world for the social sciences, and twenty-first globally overall.
Not too shabby, right? Not so fast.
Being number one, or seven, or twenty-one means there are hundreds, if not thousands of schools behind us.
If, while we’re moving forward—which is critical if we want to push ourselves to be better—we can’t also look back and help lift others up, we have failed.
And while these rankings refer to universities, they apply more generally to our lives and to our work.
In my view the biggest sustainability challenge that faces us today isn’t climate change. It’s not air pollution, or clean water. It’s ever-widening gulf between the rich and the poor; rich and poor in financial terms, but also in terms of vulnerability and opportunity.
In my position, I often get to hear about how so-and-so isn’t living up to our standards; about how such-and-such isn’t as good as we remember, or as good as we want it to be. I hear it when I’m at work. And, increasingly I’m hearing it from our self-proclaimed “leaders”.
I recognize that I’m far from perfect as an individual, but increasingly I find myself asking of myself, is there anything I can do to help so-and-so or such-and-such to close the gap? Even just a little bit? More than that, if I really care about sustainability in the broadest sense, isn’t it my obligation to try?
And, when I think of why we’re all here, doing what we do, isn’t that what it’s all about? Aren’t we here to help people to be more caring? More safe? More healthy? More equal?
Listen, I’m not so naïve as to think that we can help everybody, nor do I think that learning experiences are always the result of positive outcomes.
But I have started to think that, if we can’t pause and at least try to help others to pick themselves up, then our own individual and collective quest for betterment will fall well short.
At our community gathering last year, which was my first as Director of the Erb Institute, I talked about the power of the private sector in helping the world to become a more sustainable place. I quoted from Spider Man, when I said “with great power there must also come great responsibility!”
I still believe that.
But, for this year’s theme, I’m going to reach for the contribution to the Western canon that is Batman:
You may be here because, underneath it all, you care. You told us before you came here that you care about the health of the planet, and that you care about the people who live on it.
But it’s not who you are underneath that matters. It’s what you do that defines you.
I’ll end with a reminder:
Businesses aren’t beings that wake up in the morning and decide to good for the world and those who live in it. Businesses are comprised of people who will make those decisions. Ultimately, you’ll be the ones to make those decisions.
Why not start today?