Book Review: Peter Senge's “The Necessary Revolution”

Book Review by Davinder Aulakh

The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals And Organizations Are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World does an excellent job of describing both the need to integrate sustainability into business strategy and the methods by which individuals and organizations can make this happen.  To do this, Peter Senge et. al. first lay the groundwork for subsequent sustainability discussions by making a powerful comparison of the ongoing Industrial Age to the internet bubble and times of irrational exuberance. 

Like all bubbles, the Industrial Age bubble cannot expand forever.  Many resources are not replenished by natural processes, or are being used or fouled at unsustainable rates.  If we continue on our current path with greenhouse gas emissions, for example, there will come a time when even an immediate cessation or severe reduction of worldwide carbon emissions will no longer be sufficient to avoid dramatic climate change.  When the Industrial Age bubble bursts, humanity and every other species will pay the price.

However, Senge is optimistic; he writes that not all hope is lost – far from it!  A social sustainability awakening is occurring, and it poses risks and opportunities for individuals and organizations of all types.  In addition to “doing the right thing,” those businesses that integrate sustainability into their business strategies will be poised to achieve competitive advantages relative to more reluctant competitors.  In fact, The Necessary Revolution presents memorable case studies demonstrating that many organizations have already secured these advantages.  

As a bonus to readers directly affiliated with businesses, Senge presents, and then elaborates on, a number of guiding principles to help us think about sustainability in a business context and how to integrate sustainability into our business decisions.  In particular, systems-based thinking, collaboration, and proactive creation of desired outcomes are recurrent themes throughout the book.  Senge elaborates on these themes at great length, and provides a number of helpful analytical toolkits for readers who might otherwise struggle with how to implement his suggestions.

Due to its emphasis on systems-based thinking, The Necessary Revolution generally eschews short-term solutions to problems, favoring instead a longer term, life cycle approach, which is best effectuated through a proactive, collaborative mentality.  Senge takes care throughout to explain not just the rationale and structure of sustainability goals, but also how to achieve them.  For this reason, his book substantially advances the state of sustainability literature.

Despite its strengths, The Necessary Revolution would benefit from more explicit consideration of ”marginal” business cases, e.g., where the business benefits of sustainability are arguably not large relative to the direct and indirect costs of implementing sustainability, or where the industry function performed by the company itself is not sustainable.  Further, although not a serious flaw, time-pressed business readers are likely to gloss over some important points made in the text due to the length of the book.  The Necessary Revolution is a great compendium of information on a variety of subjects, but a truncated “salient points” version might be more valuable to overworked executives.