Friday, March 25, 2022

Sustainable Earth – Part II

Sustainable Earth: A New Destination for Western Culture?

A two-part blog post that explores how our modernist culture got us into the mess we’re in, and a small suggestion of how to proceed to an Earth that can sustain the possibility for human and all other life to flourish for generations.

Read Part 1 here.

Part II: A New Destination – Sustainable Earth

Getting Real About Humanity’s Situation

So, what is the alternative to trying to reach the modernists ‘perfect’ Globe?  In part one we came to understand that in any real sense we have never been modern, it was ‘only’ an idea.  Further, we recognized that the destination of the modernist ‘perfect’ Globe was an impossible conceit. It can never be reached.  But at the same time, we also recognized that we cannot and do not want to go back to the ‘Land’, despite the fact it had some positive points.

This is Your Captain Speaking

Bruno Latour, one of the pre-eminent philosophers of science alive today tells a great story to make our predicament clear.  To paraphrase:

Some years ago, we Westerners all got on a plane called ‘modernism’, that took off from the Land airport. After take-off, the Captain tells the passengers just how amazingly perfect their selected destination is, to expect continuous uneventful progress on the flight to the Globe, and that the flight will be short. Even though this is the first and only flight from Land to Globe, the captain's voice exudes confidence and excitement.  The captain gets updates from the destination, the Globe, and passes these on to the passengers: more details of how amazing the Globe is compared to pre-modern Land.

But just as the passengers were getting more and more excited about just how clever they were to get on this flight, the Captain announces turbulence and that a small diversion is required, but the course to the modernist Globe destination would be resumed soon.  Some passengers start to get nervous.  But what can they do at 10,000m?  Jump?  And even if they could find a parachute and jump, where would they come down.  The Land is far in the past, but the destination Globe is still far in the future.

Then the Captain receives the news the Globe airport is now closed due to a massive storm that would last longer than the fuel left on board.  The Captain, as the person responsible for everyone's well-being, naturally plans a course back to the Land airport, and announces this plan to the passengers, knowing most will be very upset – everyone wanted to progress to the amazing and perfect Globe.

But upon turning the plane around and radioing Land airport there is no reply; it appears that the airport has been demolished and no landing is possibleThe Captain gets on the intercom again: “Modernists, the Globe is closed due to bad weather, and the Land no longer exists. We have fuel for just two more hours. You need to decide where you want me to land and how to get there!  I’ve heard rumors that we may be able to land at a destination I'm becoming aware of called Earth.  You might want to consider this possibility and what it could entail; perhaps the cabin crew can help?” <pause>  “1 hour 55 minutes” <pause> “1 hour 50 minutes”…

What will the modernists decide to do, and how to do it? Will everyone perish, or will the Earth present new opportunities? Stay tuned for next week’s episode in the exciting story of humanitys' futures!

A Path Forward to Sustainable Earth

So, could a path forward be to bring ideas from the Land, ideas from the Globe, and new ideas to a new place?  What if we called this new place "Earth" or "Gaia".  Can we recognize that now, in our current situation, some parts of the Land world-views and cultures are relevant to our circumstances today? (World-views and cultures that peoples who managed to retain their indigeneity against the onslaught of colonization often still live and breathe every day).  Can we recognize that not everything about the modernist project to perfect ourselves is inherently 'bad'; that there is some baby in the modernist bathwater?

Perhaps in this new place, this Earth, we can invent new world-views, new ways of being, new visions of desirable futures, new cultures.  Cultures that recognize our planet, and all life, including us humans, are not the same everywhere. Cultures that recognize diversity as normal and a source of strength.     Non-modern cultures.

Starting Our Journey to a Sustainable Earth

So how might we start such a project?  A project to save ourselves and future generations from our modernist selves.  Bruno Latour has a suggestion here too.  Perhaps we should start by understanding just where it is that we live, where it is that all life exists? 

Now for modernists, the answer is easy and clear.  We live on the Globe - literally and figuratively.  And of course, although we know it’s only a “pale blue dot”, we think of our planet as being huge.  But what about for us attempting to be non-moderns?  Attempting to chart a course to the sustainable Earth.  How should we think of our planet?

Perhaps we can take a lesson from one of the most well-known modernist projects: the moon shot.  One of the key cultural icons from this project were inspiring pictures.  For example, Apollo 10 took humanity's first complete picture of the whole of the globe.  And the modernists loved it: here was evidence that humanity lives altogether, that in some sense the Globe is real and that the perfect global village was in clear sight, just a few years in the future.

The Earth from Apollo 10 (© NASA, 1969)

But there are other pictures, much less well known, that call into question this reading.  At around 17h04 UTC on Nov 24, 1969, as Apollo 12 approached the earth at 12,000km/h, astronaut Allan Bean observed Fantastic sight. What we see now is the Sun is almost completely eclipsed now, and what it's done is illuminated the atmosphere all the way around the Earth.”, then a few minutes later “You can't see the Earth. It's black just like space”.

“You Can't See the Earth, it is Black, Just Like Space from Apollo 12 (© NASA, 1969)

So perhaps we don't live on a globe at all.  Perhaps the globe is in fact dark like space.  Perhaps we live in the 6km high thin sliver of the atmosphere that supports life?  If you like a 'critical zone' for all life.  Imagine if we conceived of our home, of Gaia, as this tiny space. Could this be a good way to start to conceive of our new destination, Earth?  A destination that we want to sustain all of us.  Could this perspective ground new cultures, new ways of knowing and being?  Could this perspective allow us to solve what for modernists are increasingly looking like unsolvable problems?

Just how tiny is the critical zone?  Let's put into perspective in two ways: (1) many of us have commutes to work that are longer than 6km (2) If the planet was the size of a basketball, the critical zone would be the thickness of a piece of paper.

The Tiny Critical Zone in Context (Derived from © NASA, 2010)

Our current modernist culture and journey to a ‘perfect’ Globe is making the critical zone less and less able to sustain us, let alone enable us and all other life to flourish for generations to come. Could the idea that we actually live, and can only live, in a tiny, fragile, 6km high critical zone be a useful mental frame for the Earth we actually live within?  What cultures do we need to create that will promote human behaviours which result in a critical zone amenable to the flourishing of all life?  What should we bring with us from the Land?  What should we bring with us from our ideas of the 'perfect' Globe? What role would human organizations, businesses, enterprises, governments play in such a culture?

We’ll continue to explore these questions in future blog posts.

Credits and Sources

With full credit to the Land, Globe, Erath/Gaia ideas of one of the pre-eminent philosophers of science Bruno Latour, author of “We Have Never Been Modern”  Go deeper with this curated YouTube playlist of some of Latour’s ideas.  Latour is often not so easy to follow, so expect to have to work to get these videos… but the effort is worth it.

Sustainable Earth – Part I

Sustainable Earth: A New Destination for Western Culture? 

A two-part blog post that explores how our modernist culture got us into the mess we’re in, and a small suggestion of how to proceed to an Earth that can sustain the possibility for human and all other life to flourish for generations to come.

Read Part 2 here.

Part 1: From Pre-Modern Land to Modernist Globe

Back in Time Before Modernism: The Land

Imagine you are back in the middle of the middle ages... before the Renaissance (1400s), before the Christian reformation (1500s), before the age of enlightenment (1600-1799)... before the ideas of modernism were imagined into existence. 

Before modernism, wherever you were living, Europe, Asia, Africa, Americas, human prosperity depended on the land - crops for food, plants for medicines, animals for food and raw materials (wool, leather), woodlands for fuel and construction materials, rivers and the sea for fish, and so on.  Humanity had to live with an understanding of its total and immediate inter-dependence with the land.  For communities who farmed, crop failure literally meant starvation.  For hunter-gatherers failure of a plant required as food for a hunted animal meant fewer animals to hunt.

And the Spirit (for monotheists) and the Spirits (for polytheists) were everywhere.  They were immediately connected to everything in and on the land: rocks, trees, woods, mountains, streams, rivers, oceans - and to everyday events - storms, rain, snow, wind, birth, death, and everything in between.  Humanity was connected to nature and each other practically and spiritually.  In many respects, much of humanity was living in balance with nature.  It would not be too much of a stretch to say that, to a great degree, this human life was sustainable.  That is, if these behaviours and worldviews remained they could have done so for a very long time. 

But, this is not some romantic past that the majority of humanity who have lost these sustainable ways would wish to return to.  Back then, life was hard; life expectancy compared to today was short; pain, death and loss were everyday experiences.  Further, just feeding our current and expected population prevents us from returning in practice.

To help us, let's give this cultural and practical environment, this world-view, this way of knowing the systems in the world and spiritual plane, this way of being, a label. Let's call this 'place' that humanity the world over found itself "Land".   And recall, back in the middle ages there was no sense that humanity was on some journey away from this ‘place’.  The Land was all that there was, and all that anyone could imagine would and could ever be.  

The Modernist Journey Away from the Land – Benefits and Harms

So what happened?

The processes of Western modernization gathered strength through the renaissance, reformation, and enlightenment caused Westerners to leave this 'place'.  The new big idea was that humanity was destined to progress to higher and higher levels of 'perfection'.  Humanity could know everything about everything and apply this knowledge to 'perfect' itself.  In the eyes of Western Modernists, that old place, the Land, was clearly less than perfect in nearly every way, and so needed to be condemned to history as a failure, with no redeeming features. It suffered that ultimate modernist damnation: the Land and its Spirituality was simply old-fashioned.  It was to be discarded as simply an early highly imperfect stage of progress.

If the most powerful idea of modernism was that all humanity was ultimately destined to go on an inevitable journey towards 'perfection', what was the ultimate destination?  The modernist's answer was that the journey was to a single 'perfect' global humanity, living in a single homogenous 'perfect' culture, in the 'perfect' global village.  Most recently we've called this journey 'globalism', or the process of globalization. 

And let’s be clear, very large swathes of humanity have benefited enormously.  The ideas of modernism were not some "bad" thing that now needs to be replaced wholesale so we can once again be sustainable.  Perhaps the key statistic to demonstrate the benefits of modernity is life expectancy.   For centuries the average life expectancy of a human was around 30 years.  And this didn't start to change until modernism had really gotten hold of the Western imagination.  By 1950 it was up around 40 years.  And by 2017 it was 72 years.  A remarkable achievement. 

And the averages mask massive inequalities.  Terrible injustices were and still are systematically committed.  These were and are driven by systematic processes such as forced colonization, that in turn were driven by belief in the modernist ideas of 'perfection' and globalization. 


Modernism… the Greatest Conceit of Western Culture

Let's unpack those quotes around 'perfection'.  The modernist idea was that humanity could 'perfect' itself.  But, isn't this the very definition of a conceit – excessive pride in oneself?  Or the definition of hubris – an excessive level of confidence?  I believe so. 

What are the major conceits of modernism? (1) progress towards the destination of the homogeneous 'perfect' global village is inevitable and cannot be halted or changed, (2) it is possible to know everything about everything and that will enable humanity to be 'perfect', (3) those who consider themselves more 'perfect' (aka 'civilized') are superior to those perceived to be less 'perfect' because they have supposedly made less "progress" and knew "less", (4) that capitalism, as it is now practiced, is the only possible economic system (5) there was nothing of value in 'older' ways of knowing, the 'older' ways of being.

And let's be really clear: modernism is 'just' a set of ideas. A very powerful set of ideas yes, but also a set of interlinked conceits.  Modernism is not real in any sense of that word.  You can’t actually be modern.  There is no such thing as 'progress', it’s a fiction, albeit a powerful one.  The ideas of modernism are 'just' in some human’s hearts and minds.  It is 'just' a world-view, a way of knowing and being in the world.  It is 'just' the basis for the ever-increasingly dominant human culture.

Again, to help us, let's also give this cultural and practical environment a label. Let's call this 'place' that modernist humanity the world over is aiming for the "Globe".  Today, for much of humanity, the 'perfect' Globe is all that many can imagine would and could ever be.  It is all that is worth trying to attain.

Trouble in the Modernist Paradise

Today the modernist conceit is slowly being called-out.  It is becoming clear that the modernist emperor doesn’t have any clothes.  From one perspective this is evidenced by a large range of philosophical intellectuals trying to claim that modernism is over, indeed that it must be over in order for humanity to survive.  These intellectuals are using labels like post-modern, ecologically modern, or reflexively modern.  From another perspective, social scientists are highlighting the current inequities systemic in our culture, education, the criminal justice system, opportunities for advancement, material well-being, and more.  And lastly, from the perspective of the natural sciences' nearly universal findings.  Our current journey to the ‘perfect’ Globe is literally reducing the natural environment’s ability to provide humans with what is necessary for our well-being, and the well-being of future generations.  Things like a stable climate, soil that can grow our food, clean water to drink, and so on.

Yes, we could continue to try to aim for the Globe and our 'perfect' selves.  We could try to use our undoubted capabilities for innovation to solve any problem 'just-in-time' to avoid mass human suffering.  Even when those problems are the results of our own past actions to reach the 'perfect' Globe.  But, given the scale and interconnectedness of our self-inflicted problems, this bet seems increasingly risky.  The likelihood of mass human suffering is becoming more likely.  For example, is it really possible that we're going to mitigate and adapt to climate change by innovating from the same modernist culture and worldview that created the climate crises in the first place?

In Part II we’ll explore a key idea that could provide a foundation for a new human journey to a new destination: Earth

Read Part 2 here.

Credits and Sources

With full credit to the Land and Globe ideas of one of the pre-eminent philosophers of science Bruno Latour, author of “We Have Never Been Modern”

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Five Reasons for Enterprises to Aim-to-Flourish

Aiming to flourish means that all parts of human societies, including businesses and other organizations, will 

Strive to sustain the possibility for humans and all other life to flourish on this planet for generations to come, enhancing the integrity, beauty, and regenerative capacity of living communities.

(with thanks to John Ehrenfeld, MIT and Michelle Holiday)

This goal can be summarized as "sustainability-as-flourishing".  This is a radically different idea of sustainability from the more common "sustainable development" that prioritizes the sustaining of (economic) development not of flourishing.  This idea is also radically different from the financial profit-centric definitions currently popular: Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Environment Society Governance (ESG).  These both continue to prioritize sustaining financial profit and not flourishing.

Enterprises that aim-to-flourish, that aim to sustain the possibility for flourishing, do not just prioritize financial profit, though they, of course, must be financially viable.  Instead, enterprises aiming-to-flourish attempt to maximize multiple streams of benefits: for society, the environment upon which society is utterly dependent, and the economy created to help members of society better meet their needs.  Enterprises aiming-to-flourish generate social benefits, they regenerate the environment for all their stakeholders and they are sufficiently financially viable to continue to exist.  These enterprises excel because people are thriving and the environment is flourishing.

There is another important aspect of the aiming-to-flourish goal: this goal is an example of what Dr. Russ Ackoff described as an "ideal goal" back in the 1970s.  By ideal, Russ did not mean impossible or utopian.  An ideal goal is highly practical.  It is a goal that can be approached without limit, and, in making this attempt, generates a considerable ongoing stream of benefits.  For example, one might say humanity has an ideal goal of exploring our world and the universe beyond.  Clearly, we will never explore everything everywhere, so there is no limit to our exploration.  But by striving to explore everywhere much of humanity has received, and hopefully, all of humanity will also receive tremendous benefits: increased life expectancy and improving levels of happiness.

So why would entrepreneurs and leaders of established enterprises want to adopt the ideal goal of aiming-to-flourish as a core of their business's purpose? (Sometimes, called a vision statement, or a statement of why).  Why would a business want to adopt sustainability-as-flourishing as their practical definition of sustainability?

There are five reasons leaders are adopting aiming-to-flourish as the core purpose for their enterprise.  I will briefly introduce them here and expand on each in future blog posts.

One: Aiming-to-Flourish is Exciting.  Aiming-to-flourish passes a key marketing test: does it inspire and excite the desired audience to action?  There is no point in adopting an organizational purpose or a  definition of sustainability, individually or organizationally, that is boring, uninspiring, and blah!  This is a major problem with current definitions of sustainability.  Instead flourishing offers people an inspiring and hopeful vision for their personal future and their renewed relationships with organizations.  How powerful would your brand be if it authentically aimed to help stakeholders flourish?

Two: It is Practical. Science is now clear in physics, chemistry,  biology, ecology, and even in the social sciences on two points: (1) There is an understanding that the only constant on this planet is change.  This means it is a practical impossibility to keep things the same, to sustain any thing.  So what can we aim to sustain?  We can strive to sustain a possibility for all – flourishing.  Flourishing, unlike sustainability, is not an event at a point in time.   (2) There is an understanding that the processes of life will result in ecosystems that flourish – they exist at their highest level of potential. So flourishing is an unfolding process that occurs naturally in living systems as the world changes.  These two realities make sustaining flourishing as a possibility highly practical.  How much benefit could be realized for stakeholders by working with the flourishing forces and processes of nature, including human nature?

Three: It is the Right Thing To Do.  Philosophers from Aristotle to, most recently, positive psychologists have described flourishing as the process of attaining and retaining the highest possible level of our inherent potential.  Whether as an individual or an enterprise aiming to flourish is striving to be the best that we can be.  From personal goals of self-knowledge to attaining spiritual enlightenment to honor a deity,  aiming to flourish creates the best possible chance to realize these in practice.   How attractive would your enterprise be to all its stakeholders if it declared an authentic intention to help all of them to flourish?

Four: It is the Best Way to Gain and Retain Financial Viability.  Unlike financial profitability, flourishing applies to every facet of human lived experience.  Aiming-to-flourish implies exploring not only traditional sources of financial profit but also exploring opportunities to create benefits socially and environmentally.  And Aiming-to-flourish also implies going beyond traditional sources of risk to become aware of new sources of risk emerging from the social and environmental perspectives.  In today's world, where increasingly opportunities and (financial) risks emerge from the social and environmental perspectives, adopting flourishing brings in the social and environmental with the financial to organizations strategy development and execution processes.  How many new opportunities could your enterprise find, and how much risk could be mitigated, by strategically working with all your stakeholders to flourish socially, environmentally, and financially?

Five: It Maximizes the Possibility for Innovation to Better Face an Uncertain Future.  It is well known that the most innovative innovations come by bringing together highly diverse people, ideas, and situations.  New inspiring ideas are much less likely to emerge from the same people, with the same ideas in the same situations. Further, the potential for significant innovation comes from appreciating current situations and asking how good could we make them, rather than looking for problems to fix.  Since aiming-to-flourish means always striving for the ideal, innovation processes in enterprises that adopt this purpose automatically become more effective.  How many new ideas to enable sustainability-as-flourishing could your enterprise find and bring to market, by innovating with all your stakeholders socially, environmentally, and financially?

To close let's return to the observation of Simon Sinek:  "People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it".  People buy based on the alignment of their purpose in the world with yours.  Would could be a better why, a better more exciting, and inspiring purpose, for all your stakeholders than aiming to help all of them flourish?  To help sustain for them the possibility for flourishing.