Making sense of sustainability in a political world
- June 1, 2023: Vol. 10, Number 6

Making sense of sustainability in a political world

by Geoffrey Dohrmann

It is a wee bit ironic that the term “sustainability” has been associated with a liberal political orientation, when the act of “sustaining” something is an essentially conservative one. Sustainability is designed to preserve the status quo or restore a prior state of equilibrium or resource availability.

Sustainable agriculture, for example, is defined by US Code Title 7, Section 3103 as “an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long-term,” do five things, including: “satisfy human food and fiber needs; and enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agriculture economy depends” — a clearly conservative process.

According to MIT, “The real estate industry can be a catalyst for the rapid mobilization of a global transition to a greener society.” And a recent research report by CBRE states, “To meet globally agreed targets, nearly 40 percent of all buildings across the world will need to be decarbonized over the next 10 years.”

Most, if not almost all, investment managers — prodded by their own altruistic motives as well as by the insistence of their investor clientele — have adopted sustainable development and building management policies and practices.

But the work of creating sustainable built environments is never done. New challenges as well as new technologies ensure that to be effective in the long run, any policies and practices put in place need to be as dynamic as possible to adapt to the requirements of an ever changing physical and technical environment.

There are still some (my brother-in-law is one of them) who believe all the research supporting the contention that climate change is real is the result of a misreading of the data. These climate change deniers argue there are normal cyclical changes in the earth’s climatic conditions, and to conclude the changes we have been experiencing are a life-threatening part of a permanent, irreversible trend unless checked — and solely the result of man-made influences — is flat out wrong.

I love my brother-in-law. He’s a trained metallurgical engineer, a scientist by profession, who has worked in the petrochemical industry since earning his engineering degree, and most likely his thinking has been heavily influenced by the petrochemical industry’s world view. I know he is not alone; there are many climate change deniers out there in the world that harbor beliefs along similar lines.

Of course, whether climate change is heading in a life-on-earth threatening direction, and whether any climate change we’re experiencing is man-made, it simply makes common sense (at least to me) to do everything we can as soon as we can to make the built environment we own and develop as carbon neutral as possible. We should do whatever we can to avoid exacerbating what is going on climatically right now, regardless of its severity or causes. It certainly cannot hurt to preserve what limited, nonrenewable natural resources we have left (we have depleted a meaningful percentage of the earth’s store of these resources over the centuries). It also makes sense to rely more on renewable sources of energy than nonrenewable sources as, by definition, when the nonrenewable resources are fully depleted, it otherwise will be game over for life as we know it. And it certainly makes sense to reduce the carbon content of the air we breathe and that our children and grandchildren will breathe.

I know a handful of investors still believe their performance has been enhanced by not establishing and mandating sustainable practices. (This is not because I have seen evidence; I only have heard these investors voice claims to that effect.) What I think they are ignoring is the invisible long-term costs of disregarding their obligation to deploy their investment capital prudently and responsibly in this regard. Their thinking, in my opinion, is very shortsighted and, I believe, will prove to have been “penny wise and pound foolish” over the long run.

For those of you who do embrace principles of sustainability and are working hard to ensure the future of your investments is sustainable, both in terms of its effect on our climate and environment, as well as in terms of investment performance, good on you. In this case, you are being very conservative, in the best possible way for the betterment of all of us who must coexist on this planet.

But it’s still important to be careful. Be very, very careful. It’s a wacky world out there.


Geoffrey Dohrmann is president and CEO, publisher and editor-in-chief of Institutional Real Estate Inc.

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