This is a remarkable book, and fascinating from a Bahá’í perspective. Remarkable in that it’s a radical critique of sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility programmes – and, more widely, of 21st century capitalism – co-authored by two US business school professors and published by Stanford University.
The book is a set of interviews around eight papers by John Ehrenfeld, former Director of the MIT Program on Technology, Business and Environment and still, in retirement, a Senior Research Scholar at Yale. The interviewer is Andrew Hoffmann, Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan.
Dr Ehrenfeld believes that our current understanding of sustainability, and its promise of a sustainable future, is a delusion:
“Hybrid cars, LED light bulbs, wind farms and green buildings, these are all just the trappings that convince us that we are doing something when in fact we are fooling ourselves, and making things worse….Reducing unsustainability, although critical, will not create sustainability.”
He proposes instead a wider, richer definition: “sustainability-as-flourishing”. “Sustainability is the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on Earth forever.” It has implications for the individual and the community, for every organization and institution. The “new story” that embeds sustainability-as-flourishing in our culture and our everyday behaviour must attend to both the individual and the system.
Dr Ehrenfeld describes himself as an atheist – “I’m hesitant to talk about some inner state because I really am not convinced that anything like that exists” – but one of his recurrent themes is that we have forgotten what it is to be human. Materialism is blinding us to our reality, and our true potential. We obsess over the economy: “Growthism is our religion and the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is our god”. We neglect human well-being and focus overwhelmingly on material goals – “Our metrics of success are now principally measured in material terms” – so that “in making ourselves rich, we are making ourselves existentially and psychologically poor”.
Echoing Amartya Sen, he calls for wider definitions of poverty, beyond subsistence, to include poverty of protection, of participation, even ‘poverty of affection’, where oppression and exploitation undermine dignity and well-being: “The way mainstream neoclassical economists view our humanness is the crux of our sustainability challenge”.
It’s not, he assures us, about stopping consumption; it’s about how we consume. Our pervasive consumer culture is a choice that we’ve made: “This behaviour is so embedded that it appears to be human nature… But it is a cultural phenomenon”.
Sustainability-as-flourishing, he says, requires the re-conceptualization of our lives around two big ideas. We need to shift our dominant mindsets from Having to Being, from Needing to Caring.
“Having is not a fundamental characteristic of our species. We are not creatures with insatiable wants and desires…Truly authentic living comes when one accepts that he or she is rootless, that there is no physical thing or nature that grounds our Being.
“Need is based on a deeply embedded insecurity that is fed by our modern culture telling us that we are incomplete or inadequate unless we acquire whatever thing will fill that artificial hole…Caring reflects a consciousness of our interconnectedness with the world – the web of life – and that wellbeing depends upon acting to keep these relationships in a healthy state. Institutions built on this premise will be very different from those of today.”
And at the centre of this interconnection is love: “Sustainability-as-flourishing without love is not possible”.
Wrapped around and flowing from these ideas is so much more. The championing of intelligent and compassionate pragmatism over ideology, for instance, and a belief that spirituality is at the core of sustainability. It’s a soaring vision which also recognizes present day realities.
So radical a shift in our thinking can only, the authors accept, happen over generations. But the impact of re-imagining ourselves and our world in the light of care and love will affect every aspect of our lives and our society, including of course businesses, which will strive “to provide a more secure and enriching working place” and to ensure that ideals of care and service drive their activities.
Dr Ehrenfeld’s prescription so closely aligns with Bahá’í perspectives – as, for example, set out in The Prosperity of Humankind statement to the 1995 UN Social Development Summit – that it jars slightly when he castigates “organized religions” for not having “caught up with the modern world… They have a hard time getting beyond good and evil, but the problems we are talking about are more about how to live in a finite, complex world.”
It’s easy to see what he means, of course. But it’s fascinating too that when ‘Abdul-Bahá, eldest son of Bahá’u’lláh and his appointed successor, travelled to North America in the summer of 1912, he stopped for two nights in Boston, Massachusetts. He spent his first morning meeting friends and enquirers, and gave three public talks. At an evening gathering in the Hotel Victoria on the evening of 23 July, he spoke to those early members of the US Bahá’í community on “true economics” – founded on love, kindness and generosity – ideas with which, a century later, the concept of sustainability-as-flourishing seems to fit entirely comfortably:
“The fundamentals of the whole economic condition are divine in nature and are associated with the world of the heart and spirit…Hearts must be so cemented together, love must become so dominant that the rich shall most willingly extend assistance to the poor and take steps to establish these economic adjustments permanently. If it is accomplished in this way, it will be most praiseworthy because then it will be for the sake of God and in the pathway of His service. For example, it will be as if the rich inhabitants of a city should say, “It is neither just nor lawful that we should possess great wealth while there is abject poverty in this community,” and then willingly give their wealth to the poor, retaining only as much as will enable them to live comfortably.
“Strive, therefore, to create love in the hearts in order that they may become glowing and radiant. When that love is shining, it will permeate other hearts even as this electric light illumines its surroundings. When the love of God is established, everything else will be realized. This is the true foundation of all economics. Reflect upon it. Endeavor to become the cause of the attraction of souls rather than to enforce minds. Manifest true economics to the people. Show what love is, what kindness is, what true severance is and generosity”.