What can Apollo 13 teach business about global sustainability?

Matt McGeehan CA By Matt McGeehan CA

6 July 2016

Matt McGeehan CA discusses why Apollo 13 is a parable for global sustainability and the important lessons for business.

When people question our awareness of sustainability we may say that we recycle at home, buy eco-friendly lightbulbs and even recycle the bath water in the garden! Even if we do create some waste, we feel satisfied at having done our bit for sustainability as the binman comes and “takes it away”.

When asked to introduce sustainability criteria into our business supply chain decisions, then life becomes more challenging. Of course we may factor in “green questions” when vetting potential suppliers. 

However, this is seldom the key criteria for contract awards and it’s a brave accountant who recommends that the board chooses a more costly option because more of its components can be recycled.

So, it is fair to say that most business decisions are still made for short-term profit rather than long-term global sustainability. This is perfectly understandable. We are faced with the results of our profit decisions through our P&Ls and KPIs. 

We don’t face the results of our sustainability decisions in the same way. The trouble is that all of our decisions are at a relatively micro level and it is difficult for us to see their global sustainability effect.

Apollo 13: A parable for modern times

In biblical times, whenever people needed to understand major concepts in a simple way then a parable was the answer. 

Maybe what is needed to grasp the message of global sustainability is a parable for modern times? 

We can take our modern parable from a real life crisis, immortalised in a gripping Hollywood movie and which neatly parallels the global sustainability agenda.

Apollo 13 was launched on April 11, 1970. It represented mankind’s technological confidence. Look at us, we can go to the moon. 

This parallels today’s technological complacency. I have the world in my hand on a smartphone, so what can go wrong?

Apollo 13

Image credit: By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Houston we have a problem!

Two days into the mission an oxygen tank exploded, crippling the spacecraft. This crisis exposed the fragility of life on board and challenged man’s ingenuity to sustain it. 

It is difficult to say what the parallel crisis for global sustainability will be. However, contenders include climate change, energy and commodity shortages and population growth. 

At some point one of these, or more likely a combination of these, may threaten our ability to sustain ourselves. Houston, we do have a problem.

In fact, they had four problems

The crises facing the crew resonate with critical aspects of the sustainability agenda in four key areas.

  1. The Lunar Module consumables were intended to sustain two people for thirty-six hours, not three people for four days. This parallels the twin global pressures of finite resources and expanding population growth.
  2. Carbon monoxide poisoning became a grave problem on board due to depleted oxygen supplies. They used ingenuity to filter air with components they had on-board. Air quality is a growing problem for many parts of the world and one which demands a long-term solution.
  3. Energy resources on board were limited. Conservation was the key and processes were re-engineered to optimise energy efficiency. In the same way, energy efficiency and conservation are key to the global sustainability agenda.
  4. The crew had to ration water and this parallels the water shortages which are high on the sustainability agenda for many countries.

And the moral of the story is….

That week in 1970 the world held its breath and wondered if Apollo 13 would survive. Complacency gave way to concern. Despite the various crises the crew returned safely to Earth.

So what does the parable of Apollo 13 teach us about the sustainability agenda? 

It teaches us that complacency must give way to concern and, when it does, then we have the technical ingenuity to solve sustainability problems. It also teaches us that there are two simple truths imposed on us globally which are not imposed on us individually.

1. There is no such place as “away”.

When we create waste at home someone comes and “takes it away”. However, when we think globally there is no such place as “away”. Our waste stays with us and we must deal with it.

2. When they’re gone they’re gone.

When we need anything we simply visit the supermarket or call a supplier. We never question that there will be more on the shelves tomorrow. However, when we think globally, then resources are limited. When they’re gone they’re gone and no one can bring us more.

A quiet night in

The next time you plan a quiet night in I recommend the excellent Tom Hanks movie “Apollo 13”. Don’t just watch it as a Hollywood thriller, but also watch it as a parable for global sustainability.

Matt McGeehan CA is a Technical Adviser at ICAS.


  • Sustainability
  • Accountancy

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