We Should All Strive to Become Mutant Bacteria: How Rodrigo Zeidan’s Educating for Sustainability Talk Opened My Eyes

Last week, intrigued students, faculty, and New Yorkers filed into Kimball Hall for Pragmatic Actions and Policies for Sustainability with NYU Shanghai’s Professor and researcher, Rodrigo Zeidan.

I was baffled when I saw the first slide of Professor Zeidan’s presentation: a video about bacteria mutating and spreading through a petri dish of increasing concentrations of antibiotics! What could this possible have to do with sustainability in finance and business? However, as he explained, it became clear that humans need to adapt and become resilient like the mutant bacteria, and take small steps to achieve larger goals in sustainability.

Professor Rodrigo Zeidan speaking
Professor Rodrigo Zeidan

Zeidan has made waves in the world of sustainable finance and business through extensive research that has been published in journals including Nature Sustainability, Journal of Corporate Finance, Harvard Business Review, Energy Economics, Journal of Environmental Management and Journal of Business Ethics. He has also had articles published in the New York Times, Bloomberg, Financial Times, and World Economic Forum. I knew going in that I would witness ground-breaking brilliance and ideas.

 Zeidan’s emphasis on taking a bottom up approach to promoting sustainability among businesses especially intrigued me. I have always believed that large, publicly listed companies have the most influence in taking action for sustainability, and that smaller companies would follow suit. He suggests that, like the mutant bacteria that take small steps to become more antibiotic resistant, implementing sustainable practices should be a bottom up approach: that is, start by convincing those you know, to become more sustainable, and eventually the larger companies will observe these trends and work towards more sustainable goals.

Another particularly interesting finding that Professor Zeidan’s research demonstrates is that it is more cost effective for not just large companies, but everyone, to execute more sustainable practices. However, the largest hurdle is the initial cost, and that the cost is only recovered in the long term. An example he gave was switching from incandescent lightbulbs to LEDs. While LEDs are more expensive than incandescent lightbulbs initially, incandescent lightbulbs cost more over their lifetime than LEDs do because LEDs are more energy efficient. He followed up by saying banks can assist this bottom up approach to improving sustainability by providing loans to small, non-publicly listed companies so that they can cover the initial expenses to be more sustainable and recover the costs later on.

Furthermore, as the author of the world’s first Economics of Global Business textbook that incorporates a chapter on climate change, Rodrigo Zeidan shared with us the mind boggling statistic: If tariffs are lowered for 7 products in the European Union, we would save the oil equivalent comparable to the amount of energy consumed by a country like Estonia! He reiterated, however, that these changes won’t happen overnight: baby steps must be taken such as convincing the people you know to live more sustainable lifestyles.

Professor Zeidan left us by evoking the H.L. Mencken quote: “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” Complex problems have complex solutions, and we, like the mutant bacteria expanding to reach their goal of antibiotic resistance, must also take small steps to reach a more sustainable world.

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