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”.

Craftsmanship and Full Employment

There seems to be a growing unease about the digital economy and its implications for employment.  The Bahá’í Writings extol craftsmanship. Could craftsmanship be one small part of the solution to the problem of mass unemployment?

Economies may be very slowly recovering from the Great Recession but unemployment stubbornly refuses to fall. In the US, 12 million people are registered unemployed, a quarter of them for more than a year.  In Spain, the unemployment rate now exceeds 27% of the workforce, and is much higher for younger people. There is good reason to think that things will get worse.

In Race Against The Machine, Brynjolfsson and McAfee showed how automation and robots are eliminating jobs. From the macro perspective, it’s a process of creative destruction that is delivering significant benefits.  We need technological advances to solve many of mankind’s most pressing problems – poverty, hunger, water, climate change, population. But for many people, and across almost every occupation, it feels like a race against the machine – and the machine is winning.  Even in low wage China, the iPhone manufacturer Foxconn recently announced an investment in one million robots to replace much of its workforce.

Even worse, it’s a race that’s really only just started: it’s estimated that only 1% of all the things that will be one day be connected are currently connected. Brynjolfsson and McAfee made a convincing case that there’s a third industrial revolution under way, and, just like the steam engine and electricity before it, the computer is rapidly and fundamentally restructuring our economies and our work.

As ever, some people are winning – and big time.  Brynjolfsson and McAfee quote a study finding that over 100% of all the wealth increase in America between 1983 and 2009 accrued to the top 20% of households.  The other four-fifths of the population saw a net decrease in wealth over that 25 year period.

In a recent TED talk, Brynjolfsson made the case for the optimists, though he readily conceded that ‘we’re not doing a great job of coping with the social implications’ of this revolution.

For the poorly educated and lower income groups especially, the outlook verges on tragic. Mass unemployment looks set to remain for the foreseeable future. Thinking beyond the narrow confines of economic efficiency, continuing mass unemployment is a human tragedy, a complete waste of human potential, a blight upon the wellbeing of individuals and families.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee do offer a prescription. But their focus is on the US, not on global solutions. And their approach is focussed on making the US more competitive, which effectively just shifts the unemployment downsides elsewhere.

Against this bleak backdrop, we might reflect on the very high station of craftsmanship from the Bahá’í perspective:

“Arts, sciences and all crafts are counted as worship. The man who makes a piece of note-paper to the best of his ability, conscientiously, concentrating all his forces on perfecting it, is giving praise to God. Briefly, all effort and exertion put forth by man from the fullness of his heart is worship, if it is prompted by the highest motives and the will to do service to humanity.”

“It behoveth the craftsmen of the world at each moment to offer a thousand tokens of gratitude… [and] to exert their highest endeavour and diligently pursue their professions so that their efforts may produce that which will manifest the greatest beauty and perfection before the eyes of all men.”

“The source of crafts, sciences and arts is the power of reflection. Make ye every effort that out of this ideal mine there may gleam forth such pearls of wisdom and utterance as will promote the well-being and harmony of all the kindreds of the earth.”

There’s a lot to unpack here (way beyond the scope of this post) but we might note immediately that the concept of craftsmanship applies to every occupation. It’s not the case that potters are good, computer engineers are bad. There is a craft of software engineering. Craftsmanship in this sense is more of an ideal to which we can all aspire.

But still, I can’t help wondering if, as consumers, we came to value craftsmanship more highly – outside of the digital economy – then we would surely create many new jobs for artisan bakers, dressmakers, portrait artists, rug weavers, potters, interior designers, tailors, wood sculptors, jewellers and furniture makers – to name the more obvious possibilities.

It’s a long way from a complete or even immediate solution but perhaps a renewal of craftsmanship can play some part in re-creating secure and creative professions for those least able to participate in the digital economy, who are currently the losers in the race against the machine.

Give and Take

giveandtake-coverGivers or takers? Which group is significantly over-represented at the top of organizations?

Surprisingly perhaps, it’s the givers. And that holds true across all sorts of professions, as Adam Grant shows in his superb book Give and Take.

So why isn’t everyone a giver? Well, one clue may be that givers also dominate on the bottom rungs of organizational hierarchies.

Grant explores why it is that givers tend to succeed in the long run – or fall precipitously.  The book has practical wisdom about how to give without getting burnt out or being exploited by ambitious takers. It makes a totally convincing case for giving as default behaviour. Beyond the individual, it also explores how to nurture a giver culture in an organization.

It’s thorough – Grant is the youngest tenured professor at Wharton – but it’s a story superbly told, drawing on a rich landscape of examples from Lincoln through LinkedIn and Def Jam Records to The Simpsons creative team.

The funny thing, as Grant notes, is that most of us want to be givers. He quotes a seventy country survey,for instance, in which giver values emerged as the number-one guiding principle in life to most people in most countries.

Outside of work we behave much more often and more naturally as givers. Grant quotes recent neuroscience evidence suggesting that giving activates the reward centres in the brain. There’s a wealth of evidence too that giving is associated with happiness, satisfaction and well-being.

But at work, givers tend to hide.  Giving is often associated with weakness. Grant quotes one executive who was convinced that it would undermine her authority if it became known that she was in fact a giver.

Why have we developed this compulsion to hide our inner giver when we go to work? The evidence suggests it may be partly because we systematically under-estimate the number of people who are willing to give. But mostly it’s because we frame work as a competitive environment.

“Workplaces and schools are often designed to be zero-sum environments , with forced rankings and required grading curves that pit group members against one another in win-lose contests. In these settings, it’s only natural to assume that peers will lean in the taker direction, so people hold back on giving…

“As a result, even when they do engage in giving behaviors, people worry that they’ll isolate themselves socially if they violate the norm, so they disguise their giving behind purely self-interested motives.”

The end result is that givers hide: “In my experience,” writes  Grant, ”plenty of people hold giver values but suppress or disguise them under the mistaken assumption that their peers don’t share these values”.

Grant notes that perhaps it’s especially an American thing. He quotes de Tocqueville, the French philosopher, after his visit to the United States in 1835, expressing his surprise that Americans help others freely but find it very hard to admit: ‘they enjoy explaining almost every act of their lives on the principle of self-interest. They often do themselves less than justice’.

Brilliant book, I can’t recommend it enough.

Lean Together

Lean InIt has been hailed as a turning point in the feminist debate. It has also been written off as an apology for Big Business. And everything in-between. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead has created the media whirlwind that its author intended in her quest to disrupt the status quo.

One hesitates to add yet more words to those column inches. But there’s an important connection that seems to have been overlooked. It’s why this fine book is ultimately flawed.

And it is a fine book. Sandberg may be wildly rich, absurdly well-connected and bossy – but it’s easy to like her [just watch her TED talk]. She’s clever and sincere and kind and, in some places, LOL funny. And she’s trying to be a peacemaker: “The gender wars need an immediate and lasting peace”, she writes.

Lean In is helpful. It abounds with nudges – ideas on how we can dismantle the barriers that our subtle prejudices create. From the Goldman Sachs partner who cancelled his dinner schedule and insisted on holding one-to-one meetings with his team only at breakfast or lunch – so that he could mentor women equally and without any hint of impropriety. To the story of the hospital physician who decided never to ask for a show of hands when he turned to his junior medics on the ward rounds (men being typically far more confident of their own abilities) but instead would ask his questions directly, and always evenly between the male and female junior doctors. And the CEO of American Express who, knowing that women are more likely to interrupted, will always stop a meeting to point it out when it happens.

Sandberg cites, as an example of what can be done, an initiative at Harvard Business School to address the under-performance of women and international students. The school’s culture was rigorously examined and ‘soft’ adjustments introduced to foster collaboration and respect. In just two years, the performance gap virtually disappeared – and overall student satisfaction levels rose. In a more equal environment, everyone was happier.

Sandberg is not blaming anyone in particular – we’re all complicit. She’s trying to inspire us all to engage in a ‘final push’ that will give birth to a world where there are no female leaders, just leaders. And she’s optimistic that things are changing as younger people, both men and women, look for new models of family life.

But ultimately – as The Times reviewer described it – Lean In is a manifesto for ambitious women. That’s not meant unkindly. Sandberg recognises that everyone should be able to make their own choices, and that most women don’t have anything like her resources or opportunities: “I am fully aware that most women are not focussed on changing social norms for the next generation but simply trying to get through each day”.

To change the world, says Sandberg, we need women to reach leadership positions. Women at the top will, she believes, lead to fairer treatment for all women, and a whole new dynamic in the workplace.

It’s a worthy aim. But is it as ‘simple’ as this? Is it maybe even a mirage?

The work environment within which Sandberg operates is brutally demanding. ‘Commitment’ boils down to being what we used to call a workaholic. It’s received wisdom that only the paranoid survive. Sandberg cites research that 69% of corporate managers can’t even go to bed without checking their inbox. OK, she is a self-styled alpha – so she enjoys the pressure. But this increasing addiction to work is not confined to Palo Alto. Crazy hours are expected across many professions nowadays. And it seems to be going global as well.

Interestingly, it’s not necessarily because employers demand total commitment, overtly at least. Sandberg quotes a McKinsey managing partner calling a town hall meeting to urge the entire team in his office to take their vacation. Most of the people who were resigning reported that they felt ‘burnt out’ – but they all had unused vacation that they had chosen not to take.

Almost wherever we look, the workplace is becoming relentlessly competitive. It’s an assumed ‘passion’ that jeopardises family life. And as work becomes more hyper-competitive, women’s opportunities shrink. Pregnancy and maternity leave especially become huge issues. Sandberg acknowledges her own fears that – even at her level and with her talents – her job and prospects at Google would be diminished if she took ‘too much’ time off [that is more than a week or two] after her first child was born.

Sandberg acknowledges that it’s a rat race. “A career is a marathon”, she writes. She believes that getting more women to win the race will change things. Maybe that’s true, but there’s surely a delusion here? We can’t all be leaders. Indeed, by definition, very few of us can. We’re still stuck in a rat race.

What if we try instead to slow down and step off this devilish hamster wheel that we’ve created?

First off, I think, we would want to reflect on the culture of contest that is embedded into our societies and so into our working lives. We have to recognise the myth of the inevitability of all–pervasive competition.

The irony of course is that the attitudes that enable this, the behaviours that can best shift our work environment from hyper-competition towards cooperation are precisely the ones in which women typically excel: humility, empathy and compassion.

To be fair, Sandberg isn’t asking women to drop these qualities. Her focus is on developing assertiveness. [And, as someone who often struggles with assertiveness, I have to say that I found her advice wise and helpful.]

But even if Lean In assertiveness can win the day for women, it’s likely only to further increase hyper-competitiveness. Women can’t fight their way to the top and then work 9-5 (unless they start their email at home at 5am, and continue to work late into the night after the kids have gone to bed).

The real challenge, surely, is to escape the culture of contest, to create new forms and structures [Enterprise 3.0?] that reflect the accumulating evidence of the desire for work that is characterised by reciprocity, sharing and collaboration.

If we can do that, we can really change the world. Because in a workplace built on cooperation and reciprocity, women’s contributions would be naturally and unremarkably accepted. Mothers would be able to follow Sandberg’s advice to ‘Do What You’d Do If You Weren’t Afraid’ and take whatever maternity leave they think is right for their child – without paying a big career penalty. It would be the world for which Sandberg is calling, where “expectations will not be set by gender but by personal passion, talents and interests”.

Sandberg says that: “I have written this book to encourage women to think big”. It’s a book from the heart, and well worth reading. But to truly change the world, maybe we must all think bigger.

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.