AP Photo - Kirsty Wigglesworth
Debbie Dembecki is the program manager for Business Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.
I cannot help but think about our climate crisis. Changing temperatures, extreme weather conditions, California’s recent preemptive power outages, increasing threats to livable conditions, and the loss of entire species top my list of growing concerns. My newsfeed overflows with accounts of our current reality, and courageous young activists, like Greta Thunberg and Ella Shriner, frequently give voice to the most powerful of messages about these issues. I am inspired by the lengths these extraordinary young women have gone to bring climate awareness to their generation and mine, highlighting one of the starkest examples of intergenerational justice we’ve been offered.
It turns out, my teenage son thinks about these issues too. He may not be as well informed or devoted to the cause, but he does care, and he worries more than I realized about what the future holds for him and his peers.
After a full day of school, dinner on the go, and multiple hours of extracurriculars, he was struggling to finish all his homework and had, not surprisingly, reached that wall of exhaustion.
“What’s the point?” he said.
Does it matter if I finish my biology outline if the world is just going to combust into flames in a decade anyway? What’s the actual point?”
What I wanted to say was, “Maybe it is time to call it a night and get some sleep?” Instead, I gently said, “Tell me more about what you are feeling.”
His face grew serious, he took a deep breath, and blurted, “It doesn’t matter what I do if the adults who are actually in the position to start making the right decisions, the people who could actually make choices and take actions to resolve these problems, are too busy denying that there is even a problem to resolve!”
In that emotional moment, I hugged him and reminded him there is a movement among his generation demanding that all of us take action to find solutions. I reminded him that there are people young and old, listening to what research-based data is saying and that he can join with those fighting against policies and practices that negatively impact our sustainability. I reminded him of the remarkable young people who are taking a stand, and who refuse to accept a sentence of becoming the last generation.
That seemed to be enough to relax his fears and he finished his homework and went off to bed. I wasn't as lucky.
We shouldn’t be surprised to learn that there is a rise in eco-anxiety, particularly among students and young workers. The weight of the climate crisis is riding on their shoulders; they are aware of the burden older generations have placed upon them, and are frankly and rightfully mad at us for forcing this to be their responsibility. Consumers across the board are looking to corporations to improve environmental conditions and globally that expectation is highest among consumers ages 15-34, with more than 80% demanding efforts in corporate sustainability.
I lay awake comparing the impassioned differences between my own generation and the youth of today and assessing how my own actions contribute to our crisis. Do I make the best environmental choices some of the time? All of the time? Am I willing to sacrifice modern conveniences that are negatively contributing to our climate crisis? Do I demand ethical environmental policies and do my part to advance them in both my personal and professional life? Am I willing to adjust my way of living and working to embrace greener standards? What is my responsibility toward fixing this crisis for future generations, and perhaps most importantly, do my actions encourage and inspire others to do the same?
This young generation expects corporate leaders will facilitate and encourage ethical environmental actions within their businesses. Do our leaders model ethical leadership around climate-related issues and set the standard for others to follow? Which businesses and leaders are creating practices, products, and services that aim to improve and mitigate current climate challenges? What steps are individual leaders, and their corporations taking to affect impactful climate change?
My thoughts shifted to our Santa Clara University student population, just a few short years ahead of my son in their academic pursuits. We place Business Ethics interns, students who are charged with working and learning in major corporations here in Silicon Valley, applying their studies and knowledge in the areas of ethics and compliance. Thanks to my son, Greta Thunberg, and the Santa Clara students with whom I work, I can see the opportunity we have to expand our program more broadly to pair students seeking and expecting corporate action in the area of climate and environmental ethics with companies who recognize the need to evaluate their corporate contributions to the crisis and its solutions. Ethical analysis happens all over corporations and especially in the realm of sustainable business practices.
SCU business ethics interns are poised to evaluate and encourage ethical environmental actions within a company. They recognize ethical leadership action around climate-related issues and seek employers who model that leadership. Today’s college students want to work in companies that create practices, products, and services that aim to improve and mitigate current climate challenges. Companies that are proactive and have a strong environmental record, demonstrate actions to promote sustainability, and have clear practices and policies around pollution mitigation have shown higher net margins past research suggests. It is time to actively seek the opportunity to include students in roles where they can learn from and contribute to companies operating with an intentional sustainability practice. It’s the least we can do for the next generation.
Globally, young people are taking a stand and demanding change on climate-related matters. They possess both knowledge and intuition about the forces against their future, and their collective voices will influence decisions about the products they buy, the companies where they choose to work and their intent as leaders. As business leaders, teachers, and parents we have a responsibility to listen to the call for systemic change and to provide the educational and occupational platforms to empower this generation to influence and impact their future.