Sustainability As Flourishing

FlourishingThis 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”.

The Motherhood MBA

c_figueres_v3_biggerI’ve been seized with writer’s block since last summer. But I just have to share this because I was thrilled to read it.

This week’s New Scientist has an interview with Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. She has the extraordinary task of getting 194 governments to sign a deal in Paris in December next year. This will be a global treaty that sets how we, humanity, are going to get to carbon-neutrality by the second half of the century.

The much-criticised and effective collapse of the UN climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009 demonstrate how extraordinarily difficult it is to achieve alignment on global issues. What makes Ms Figueres’ task even more challenging is that the global treaty under negotiation “is the basis for a global transformation the likes of which the world has never seen”.

Describing her job as ‘one of the most intractable on the planet’, the New Scientist’s reporter asked ‘where do you even begin?’, to which Ms Figueres replied [italics added]:

“Well, first, you can’t get overwhelmed by it. It’s a matter of setting the stage for conversations to occur, building confidence recognizing progress and continually setting the next milestone. It’s not much different to having children. You can rear them in an antagonistic environment or in a facilitative one with a good combination of love and discipline. It’s about supporting them, and recognizing achievements and contributions, but also saying, “that’s fantastic but it’s not enough, here’s the next thing”. Honestly, what was my best training for this job? Being a mother.”

It’s so true. I worked long hours on a professional career but I always knew, and I hope I showed it, that my wife had an incomparably more difficult and challenging time in the career which she chose, as full-time carer for our three sons until the youngest went to school.  Fathers matter enormously too but mothers do have unique capacities.

Consultation is the only way we can deal effectively with all the challenges bearing down upon humankind – wars, resource shortages, inequality, climate change – and it’s where women’s natural capacities in communication, empathy and nurture come to the fore.

The supreme MBA – from the true alma mater (in it’s original sense of ‘nourishing mother’) – is in Motherhood.

New Economics: Women’s Crucial Role

We need a new economics. The Prosperity of Humankind statement suggests that women have a “crucial” role in developing it. At summer school last week, we looked at how and why this might be.

In my previous post – fresh from that study class – I attempted to summarise The Prosperity of Humankind, the statement published by the Baha’I International Community as a contribution to the United Nations Summit on Social Development in 1995.

In a nutshell, the statement asserts that “the history of humanity as one people is now beginning”. It sets out a vision of a world based upon the consciousness of the oneness of humanity, and the principles of a framework for action in building it. It calls for a revolution in our thinking to reflect humanity’s coming of age: “An old world is passing away, and a new one is struggling to be born”.

Noting that “the principle of the equality of the sexes is fundamental to all realistic thinking about the future well-being of the earth and its people”, it continues:

“A commitment to the establishment of full equality between men and women, in all departments of life and at every level of society, will be central to the success of efforts to conceive and implement a strategy of global development.”

But – and here’s what, at first, might seem surprising – the statement goes further, asserting that women have a ‘crucial’ role in the development of new economic models; a role beyond simply being equally involved.  How, we wondered, might this be?

It’s clear that humanity needs a new economics. The prevalence and persistence of poverty, unemployment and apathy, as well as the gross inequalities in income, wealth and opportunity, can leave us despairing.  If we want a just world, we need a new mindset – and the consciousness of the oneness of humanity has surely to be its starting point.

In that context – as humanity recognises its oneness and moves to build a just world – our old ways of thinking about work and employment are clearly inadequate, based as they are on assumptions of inherent conflict and contest. As the Prosperity statement puts it:

“The classical economic models of impersonal markets in which human beings act as autonomous makers of self-regarding choices will not serve the needs of a world motivated by ideals of unity and justice.”

We need to develop economic models that transcend simply the demand and supply of goods, services and labour; that escape materialistic pre-occupations to focus on human well-being in its fullest sense.  Our conceptualization of work and employment needs to reflect what really matters for our true prosperity:

“Society will find itself increasingly challenged to develop new economic models shaped by insights that arise from a sympathetic understanding of shared experience, from viewing human beings in relation to others, and from a recognition of the centrality to social well-being of the role of the family and the community.”

Women’s full engagement in this fundamental rethinking, the statement avers, will bring into play “a range of human experience and insight hitherto largely excluded from the discourse”.  And it’s clear that women’s voices are seen to bring something very special:

“Such an intellectual breakthrough—strongly altruistic rather than self-centered in focus—must draw heavily on both the spiritual and scientific sensibilities of the [human] race, and millenia of experience have prepared women to make crucial contributions to the common effort”.

A moment’s reflection and it makes perfect sense. If the well-being of the family and the community are to be central to our thinking about economic issues, then who’s especially well qualified to contribute? Who has so often – across centuries and cultures – been left to carry the burden of nurturing family life and building communities?