It is late November. I have joined a long line of pilgrims, porters, and yaks trudging through a deep river gorge in western Tibet. Sheer granite cliffs of Mt. Kailash fly high above us—a Himalayan cathedral. As I slowly move through the blue Tibetan atmosphere I have ample time to reflect on a journey that has brought me thousands of miles through the manic metropolises of coastal China to the high deserts and jagged massifs of the Himalayas.

Funded by the Thomas J. Watson Foundation, I have been exploring sustainable business in China and India, the nebulous pivot point on which the demands of the environment and capitalism are precipitously balanced; and I have specifically come to China to get a glimpse of the future.

Why then, am I in Tibet? It’s a reasonable question. All I know is that after four months traveling through some of the largest cities in the world, I have gotten the glimpse of the future I was looking for—and it does not leave me feeling hopeful. 

Three decades of uncontrolled growth are impacting every aspect of our world; sustainable business is no exception. China is positioned to become the world’s largest producer of wind turbines and photovoltaics, as well as the market leader in pure electric vehicles. This trend will only continue and spread into other sectors; the national government has recognized the massive global demand for green technologies and has created the perfect economic environment for Chinese companies to become the global leaders in the field. But as I traveled around China and experienced the profound environmental degradation caused by the unprecedented economic rise of 1.3 billion people, I became concerned that China’s path towards sustainability — one that the entire world may one day tread — is a futile one. From my perspective, the solutions being created by China do not at all address the dire problems our species has created. 

Revolutionary ideas are going to be needed to stop the damage, not new technologies or marketing schemes. But the solutions China is offering are market-based notions that fall very neatly into the standard model of modern capitalism—they reinforce our destructive culture of consumerism and materialism. And because these solutions are going to be inexpensive, plentiful, and very profitable, truly innovative economic models will never be successful—the market will make sure of that. Yes, China is taking steps towards green tech and sustainability, but it is “too little, too late,” and I fear that the world will follow China’s lead, not because it is the right thing to do but because it is the cheapest thing to do. 

To process these intense experiences, I have come to where I usually go for solace and peace—the mountains. A four-day jeep journey from Lhasa, over some of the most rugged roads Tibet has to offer, has brought me to the base of Mt. Kailash, the most sacred mountain in the Himalayas. Early the next morning, after an energy- (and fat-) laden pre-dawn breakfast of roasted barley porridge and yak butter tea, we start our three-day trek around the great mountain. Every so often, when the angle is just so, Kailash appears, an intense stream of snow blowing from its windswept summit like a daytime lighthouse. I am told that the second day will be the hardest but the most rewarding: climbing an eighteen-thousand-foot pass, only three thousand vertical feet shy of the summit itself. I sleep well in the shadow of the mountain and start the arduous push up the pass well before sunrise with Venus shining in the golden light of the eastern sky. 

I have been hiking alone for hours when my guide Jam Yang, a native Tibetan and former Buddhist monk, joins me on the trail. Since I don’t have the physical ability to simultaneously walk and talk at that altitude, I am eager to stop and chat while catching up on my oxygen. I am also interested in learning more about the significance of the Kora (the Tibetan word for a religious circumambulation) and ask Jam Yang if he can tell me more about why Tibetans walk around mountains. His answer is one of the most profound yet simple insights into the crisis facing humanity I have ever heard articulated: “The Kora is a way of honoring a relationship, honoring our relationship with the mountain.” 

Honoring a relationship. These three words not only hold the key to understanding the tension between humans and the environment, they also illuminate a clear path toward a more harmonious relationship with our world. “The pilgrims on this mountain understand the infinitely complex relationships that sustain them,” continues Jam Yang. “They understand their place in the greater system; they understand their relationship to Kailash.” Because of their sensitivity to this symbiosis, these pilgrims are not trying to conquer the mountain, they are not trying to conquer the environment—they are trying to honor a relationship. 

We stare at the mountain for a few more minutes and then make the thirty-minute climb to the top in silence, a rainbow of flying prayer flags greeting us as we crest the pass.

Honoring a relationship. Is it as simple as that? Is the solution to humanity’s crisis as simple as honoring the very relationship that sustains all life on earth? I believe it is. And not only is it that simple, but without this essential first step, I believe all other actions will ultimately be futile. 

China presented me with two very different solutions to humanity’s crisis—a traditional, market-based approach and a renewal of humanity’s relationship with the world—but my travels over the past seven months in China and India have made it very clear that only one of these is appropriate if our species is to survive the coming decades. Creating a new, innovative economy will be an essential step for our society to live in balance with our environment, but it is not the first step. The directions that globalization and development are taking us cannot be sustained by our environment; ultimately it is jeopardizing our own species. To survive, we must undergo a cultural shift. We must recognize and honor the relationships that sustain us. 

Humanity does not lack the intelligence or means to live sustainably—what we lack is perspective. We don’t perceive the vast web of life-sustaining relationships that we fundamentally rely on; because we lack this crucial perspective, we see no harm in pillaging and destroying our planet. But if we recognize these relationships and honor them, the society we could then build would be fundamentally different—and fundamentally sustainable.