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”.

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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?

The Right To Work

Do we have a right to a job?

The International Bill of Human Rights, the fuller expression of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, includes a ‘right to work under just and favourable conditions‘, together with a ‘right to an adequate standard of living’.  But does the community have an obligation to provide employment? Yes, if we believe that humanity is one – and it’s through the concept of trusteeship.

This was one of two particularly interesting discussion points at an exhilarating Bahá’í summer school this week.  I had enrolled on a course studying The Prosperity of Humankind, a statement prepared by the Bahá’í International Community for the UN Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen in 1995.  What became apparent through our study over the week was that its themes are possibly even more relevant now than they were then.

I will get to the point, but first let me share the context, which contributed to the richness of the discussions. This event was organised by the UK Bahá’í community (this one was at Wellington College; the other English summer school this year was held at the equally beautiful Ampleforth College) but wonderfully diverse. My small study group included people from China, Malaysia, Italy, Australia, Egypt and Switzerland. They included a physics teacher, a surgeon, a first year undergrad student, an art teacher, a prosthetist and orthotist, an unemployed architect, an engineer and a development academic (breast-feeding her young one). Ages ranged from twenty to eighty years, and it wasn’t simply Bahá’ís either. And our consultation was especially illumined by two young women who had taken courses with the Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity.

The Prosperity of Humankind statement is immense and nearly impossible to summarise. Its starting point is that we are living at an extraordinary time, a time of a profound transformation in human consciousness: “The history of humanity as one people is now beginning’”.

The statement asserts that justice is the one power that can translate this “dawning consciousness of humanity’s oneness into a collective will through which the necessary structures of global community life can be confidently erected”. It proposes that consultation – freed from prejudice and partisanship – must be “the operating expression of justice in human affairs”. It calls for the empowerment of humankind through a vast increase in access to knowledge, and a fundamental redefinition of human relationships. And it discusses the nature of power and authority in the “world that is struggling to be born”.

The statement asserts that we all share responsibility for every child born into the world:

“Since the body of humankind is one and indivisible, each member of the race is born into the world as a trust of the whole.”

This trusteeship, it says, constitutes the moral foundation for most of the economic and social rights which the United Nations has attempted to define.  It goes on to extend the notion of the right to work, beyond simply the rights to work under just conditions or an adequate income (ie through unemployment benefits) :

“The security of the family and the home, the ownership of property, and the right to privacy are all implied in such a trusteeship. The obligations on the part of the community extend to the provision of employment, mental and physical health care, social security, fair wages, rest and recreation, and a host of other reasonable expectations on the part of the individual members of society.” [italics added]

This right to employment has to be understood within the context of concomitant responsibilities for the individual to seek work and to give of their best. It’s not a call for state-sponsored sinecures but a recognition, as the statement also points out, that work is special.

“Unlike animals, which depend for their sustenance on whatever the environment readily affords, human beings are impelled to express the immense capacities latent within them through productive work designed to meet their own needs and those of others. In acting thus they become participants, at however modest a level, in the processes of the advancement of civilization. They fulfill purposes that unite them with others.”

We are, the statement asserts, so much more than simply consumers demanding goods and services that support employment within a circular economic system. We are spiritual beings and within human consciousness lie limitless latent potentialities.  We yearn for meaningful work. To the extent that work is consciously undertaken in a spirit of service to humanity, it is a form of prayer. And it is the capacity of every individual to see himself or herself in this light that can call up the magnitude of effort and commitment that the economic tasks ahead – in particular, the eradication of poverty – will require.

We need, in short, to re-conceptualise work and to develop new economic models appropriate for humanity’s future. And that’s not a question that should – or can, any longer – be left to the elites. This is a challenge to which we are all called. Women in particular have a crucial role to play – and that’s the second particularly interesting discussion point, to which I’m going to need to return in a future post.

Your comments, as ever, warmly welcomed.

And What Is It To Work With Love?

“And what is it to work with love?

It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn

from your own heart,

even as if your beloved

were to wear that cloth.

It is to build a house with affection, even as if your beloved

were to dwell in that house.

It is to sow seeds with tenderness and

reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved

were to eat the fruit.

It is to charge all things you fashion

with a breath of your own spirit.”

– from Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

I attended my first EBBF conference this weekend, slightly daunted by its title Co-Creating The New Enterprise.  I needn’t have worried.  Re-discovering Kahlil Gibran was just one part of a rich programme of presentations and discussions that stretched from Building Altruistic Capital through Nudging Condom Adoption To Combat HIV to Building High Performing Teams Through Authentic Collaboration.

It was heartening that at least a third of the 150 attendees – from 16 countries – must have been under 30 years old. And yet quite a few of them seemed to have already founded, or been involved in creating, some form of social enterprise.

EBBF is, of course, just one small example of the extraordinary ferment of ideas around how, in the real world, we can envision enterprises and economic systems that can deliver for humankind prosperity in its fullest sense.

What distinguishes EBBF perhaps is that it is comfortable with spirituality, drawing freely upon religious insight.  It is Bahá’í inspired but also a genuinely inter-faith space, where agnostics and atheists too can feel equally at home.

It also has experimentation at its core. Its purpose is to create meaningful conversations that will stimulate a continual cycle of learning through consultation, action and reflection.

I came away with some answers and many new questions.  One is the mystery of why if, as the data suggests, many of our deepest motivations at work centre around the desire to serve others, and if, as again the data suggests, it’s when we feel we are serving others that we work at our peak performance, then why is service so rarely at the foreground of our work culture?  Why would I sound almost crazy tomorrow if I were to suggest at the water-cooler that, to quote Gibran: ‘Work is love made visible’?

Why are our deepest motivations so often hidden, and how might we surface them? These are themes to which I would like to return. Meantime, congratulations to the EBBF team of volunteers for arranging a great conference.  If you can be in Barcelona in October, you might want to consider attending the next one.

Coming Up…

Here’s some of the kind of questions that I’d like to explore here:

Craftsmanship. Meaningful work and craftsmanship seem to be connected. We can easily recognise craftsmanship in a potter or a furniture maker. What does it mean in the world of knowledge workers in global enterprises, and how do we foster it?

Women at Work. Sheryl Sandberg has reignited a debate – and been castigated for founding Feminism, Inc.  Does her Lean In prescription move us in the right direction?

The Collaborative Economy.  Can we shift towards an economy that is less competitive and more collaborative?  Is it desirable and feasible?  How would it affect our working life?

Ethics. Perhaps the greatest ethical challenges in global enterprises come in the sales organization. To some, ethical B2B sales is an oxymoron. If so, what can we do to move the ethical needle?

Quiet Innovation. Does a corporate culture that prizes dominance systematically overlook the potential contributions of introverts?

Faith Perspectives. How does religion contribute to the search for a new work ethic? Is meaningful work somehow spirit in action?

The Bottom Line on Happiness.  What’s the ROI on meaningful work?

This being my weekend blog, it’s going to take some time to address these issues.  But I hope you’ll agree that they are interesting lines of enquiry, and want to join the discussion as it unfolds. Stay tuned!

Beyond The Culture Of Contest

Beyond_the_Culture_of_ContestImagine we live in a world of delusion. A world where everything we do and see, even the language we use, are based on a delusion. And the delusion is so complete that we see this as the only reality. In fact, it never even occurs to us that there could be anything else.

That’s the theme of Beyond the Culture of Contest by Michael Karlberg.

He makes the case that the delusion of western-liberal societies is normative adversarialism – the culture of contest, and its corollary, the culture of protest, grounded in the belief that human beings are incorrigably aggressive and selfish:

“Throughout the contemporary public sphere, competitive and conflictual practices have become institutionalised norms. Indeed, contest models of social organisation and protest models of social change have become so ubiquitous that they tend to appear normal, natural and inevitable to those raised in western-liberal cultures.”

So it becomes difficult to imagine alternatives to partisan politics, to legal advocacy and to unfettered aggressively competitive economies.

This is a serious book, meticulously researched and intricately woven. What excites me about it is its breadth – it draws upon Marx and Gramsci and Habermas and feminist thinking and communication theory, and far more.

It explores the hegemonic dominance of adversarialism and its destructive impact. It explains the concomitant marginalisation of mutualism. It suggests that much feminist and ecological thinking, as well as the work of systems theorists and others, has as its start point, or is converging towards. the ideas of mutualism.

It suggests that the core of adversarialism lies in three interlocking sets of institutional contests: political contests, legal contests and economic interests. And that the economic contests dominate.

Published in 2004 (no idea why it took me so long to find this book), this is much more than an academic book. It’s a convincing argument that the culture of contest has created, and continues to maintain, a socially unjust and ecologically unsustainable world. More controversially perhaps – for many sincere people are involved in this – it argues that the culture of protest ultimately reinforces adversarialism and has reached a point of diminishing returns. It makes the case that, in an age of increasing interdependence, social change can be pursued more effectively in a non-adversarial manner.

A final word of caution to atheists: this book works even if you ignore chapter 5, which looks at the experience of the worldwide Bahá’í community as a model of a non-adversarial community. I think it’s quite a compelling case study – an experiment that will take generations to evaluate – but this book’s analysis of the iron grip of adversarialism, and its devastating impact, is fascinating without the case study and stands by itself.