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"These are unexpectedly deep and moving conversations about where we can go, and where we must go, both as individuals and as a planet. It's a hardheaded account of the sacredness of the earth, and what that implies for our work and society."—Bill McKibben, author of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
"This is a deeply illuminating conversation between two sustainability thought leaders on whom I wish I had been able to eavesdrop. Now, happily and inspirationally, we all can."—John Elkington, Co-founder of ENDS, SustainAbility and Volans, and author of The Zeronauts: Breaking the Sustainability Barrier
"For those who are familiar with Ehrenfeld and Hoffman's arguments, the conversational approach in this book develops nuances that take key messages about sustainability and flourishing to a new level. Those not yet familiar are also in for a treat with this easy-to-read, yet critically important manifesto."—Jennifer Howard-Grenville, University of Oregon and author of Corporate Culture and Environmental Practice: Making Change at a High-Technology Manufacturer
"John Ehrenfeld's thinking about our species and our place in the world is indeed a thing of beauty, as Andrew Hoffman's intelligent dialogue with him brings out on every page. If you're tired of stale books on 'sustainability,' read this for new insight and inspiration."—James Gustave Speth, author of America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy
Sustainability has gone "mainstream." Firms develop sustainability strategies, create sustainable products and operations, produce sustainability reports, and appoint "chief sustainability officers" who espouse sustainability to be their core mission. University administrators promote sustainability as central to their curricula. Scholars pursue sustainability as a field of research inquiry. Consumers buy sustainable products, drive sustainable cars, stay at sustainable hotels, and are seemingly bombarded with sustainability marketing campaigns. Indeed, sustainability has reached into all areas of business, politics, and society. The world, it would seem, is on the road to a sustainable future. Or is it?
John Ehrenfeld doesn't think so. And, after thinking, writing, and teaching about sustainability for over twenty years, he has a vantage point from which to make such an indictment. In the words of GreenBiz executive editor Joel Makower, "John Ehrenfeld has been pondering sustainability longer and more holistically than most." And John is very concerned about what he sees. While he admits that many good things have come out of our society's pursuit of environmental protection, he sees our efforts as merely a Band-Aid that masks deeper, cultural roots of our sustainability challenge. He writes, "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."
And things are getting worse. According to the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, "Humans have changed Earth's ecosystems more in the past 50 years than in any comparable historical period." We have increased species extinction rates by up to a thousand times over rates typical for Earth's history. Almost 25 percent of the world's most important marine fish stocks are depleted or over-harvested, while 44 percent are fished at their biological limit and vulnerable to collapse. As we extract the world's riches, we contaminate its atmosphere, altering our global climate through the unabated emission of greenhouse gases.
And these impacts are not evenly distributed. According to the UN, the richest 20 percent of the world's population consume over 75 percent of all private goods and services, while the poorest 20 percent consume just 1.5 percent. Of the 4.4 billion people in the developing world (more than half of the world's population), almost 60 percent lack access to safe sewers, 33 percent have no access to clean water, 25 percent lack adequate housing, and 30 percent have no modern health services.
These issues have caught John's attention and his concern. "If a just society is defined by the relationship between the well off and the very poor, we have big trouble. U.S. Census data for 2010 show the widest income gap between rich and poor on record. In 1968, the top 20 percent of Americans had about seven times the income of those living below the poverty line. By 2008, that disparity had grown to about thirteen. By 2010, it had grown to more than fourteen. That the rich get richer while the poor get poorer can seem a timeless cliché, yet something is steadily corroding America. The mythic land of equality has the largest income disparity of any Western nation. How can that be?"
The answer, John finds, lies in who is defining sustainability and what agenda they are pursuing. While the Brundtland Commission Report, Our Common Future, popularized "sustainable development" as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs," the concept has been reconstructed by everyone with a stake in the issue: governments, businesses, non-governmental organizations, foundations. You name it, they've used it. But of all these groups, it is perhaps business that has taken the strongest role, embracing the concept as an issue of corporate strategy. And the problem with that, in John's eyes, is that sustainability has become a slave to business interests. It has become merely a label for strategies actually driven by standard economic and institutional mechanisms around efficiency. As a result, sustainability is everywhere, but exists as a demoted and diluted notion, one that is far from its meaningful intent.
CEOs strive to prove "the business case" for sustainability, and in doing so, fit sustainability into the dominant beliefs embedded within the market economy—those very beliefs that caused the problem in the first place. Sustainability in this form is merely a witness to ongoing ecological and social problems without the ability to address the deeply held beliefs that create them. Present-day efforts at sustainability, and indeed society's foundational values themselves, have been corrupted and subverted by utilitarian values that turn them into a marketing pitch. In drifting toward unsustainability, we have lost our vision, and efforts at correction do not go far enough. John writes, "Sustainability still has not entered our consciousness in spite of the torrent of its use and that of its distant cousin, green. The world of business and government moves merrily along selling its meager efforts as sustainability, avoiding any meaningful appreciation of the fundamental problem or any actions that would make a difference."
And without that meaningful appreciation, John's greatest concern is complacency. "Far worse than sustainability becoming fashionable is sustainability losing its meaning. Our attention-addled culture has moved on; the topic no longer has the urgency, or at least the headlines, that it did several years ago. This has no correlation whatsoever to things being better by any set of data. It's just that there seems to be a bit of sustainability fatigue out there."
To John, sustainability is not some new "green" technology, triple bottom line metric, or series of strategies for corporations or consumers to adopt. John looks beyond the economic or technological aspects of sustainability and focuses instead on its behavioral, cultural, and institutional underpinnings. In fact, he is skeptical of "sustainable technology" and "sustainable products" as often fooling us into thinking we are solving the problem, when in fact we may be making the problem worse. In his words, "If we learn to make a product or service more sustainable, all we've probably done is figured out how to make the wrong thing last for a longer time. What we need to learn is to make not just any thing, but the right thing, and make it to last for as long as possible." To him, most of our efforts to address sustainability are focused on reducing unsustainability, which is not the same as creating sustainability.
If we are going to address sustainability fully and meaningfully, John explains that we must make fundamental shifts in the way we think and the way we organize our society. What's needed is a deep shift in values that is on a par with the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, or the Industrial Revolution. These are "paradigm shifts" (in the words of philosopher Thomas Kuhn), changes in the way we think about ourselves, each other, and the world around us. In short, sustainability takes a movement to reexamine who we are, why we are here, and how we are connected to everything around us. It's really that big a change, and any change that is short of that scale will not solve the problems we face. The transformation must be based on a recognition that the old way of thinking no longer works; otherwise it will not solve the problems that it has created.
It would appear that an awareness of this failure in our ways of thinking is growing, as systemic breakdowns in mainstream institutions of society become visible: BP's massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; Royal Dutch Shell's dealings with the repressive Nigerian regime; Nike subcontractors' labor practices that approached slavery; Walmart's practices of sexual discrimination, low wages, damage to local economies, and inadequate health care; Coca-Cola's over-use and contamination of groundwater in India; and corporate governance failures at WorldCom, Arthur Andersen, Enron, and the many banks at the center of the 2008 financial crisis. In the face of this growing litany of problems, innumerable people are advocating change; the Occupy protests, the Tea Party, and the Arab Spring are all manifestations of societal frustration with the status quo. They are calls for sustainability in its truest sense.
How does John reach such a conclusion? He reads, he writes, he thinks, and he experiences the world around him; all very deeply. To build his ideas, John uses a complex and imaginative blend of a multitude of voices. As the late Ray Anderson, founder and chairman of pioneering green company Interface, Inc., described him, "Drawing from the works of other giants, and adding his own deep insights, John Ehrenfeld has lit the path that can lead humankind away from the yawning abyss that lies so close before us, toward a wholly appealing goal: an ethical human relationship with Nature and technology." At times John is meditative and reflective, quoting poets and writers such as Emerson, Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Blake, and Whitman. At other times, he is philosophical and academic, drawing from the works of Heidegger, Maslow, Jung, Fromm, and Maturana. And still further, he can be inspirational and hopeful, drawing spiritual support from the writings of Gandhi, Leopold, and Thoreau.
As he puts it all together, John calls for transformational or "subversive" change in the foundational structures of our society. He is highly critical of modern culture, and most critical of the marketplace becoming our central orienting structure, one that promotes an imbalance and disharmony with the world he so deeply cares about. We have become, in John's eyes, a "culture of commerce," in which consuming has become a central tenet of our lives; in fact, for many, the very purpose of their lives. But to John, this path to personal satisfaction is a mirage, an unfulfilled promise, and an unsustainable myth. Recalling organizational scholar William Whyte's The Organization Man, John laments a great loss in society as our sense of being and purpose is oriented to our role as consumer and worker. John points out the failure of the predominance of "Economic Man," the archetype of human being that we have adopted, one that is based on measuring value in purely economic terms, sees relationships as primarily transactional, and extols utility (aka wealth) maximization as the ultimate goal in life. "Technology and its marketing, in all its sexiness and allure, feeds our insecurities about who we are and pulls us down the dead-end of feeding that insecurity through further consumption."
John wants us all to recognize that today's society is addicted to certain unsustainable beliefs and practices and that, until we cease the "habitual ways of acting individually and societally," we cannot move toward a sustainable society. He stresses that "sustainability needs to avoid becoming just another thing to measure and manage" and vociferously argues against sustainability ratings of companies and products, mocking the idea that sustainability can be captured by a numerical score, as if this is some kind of contest. For John, it is simply not that simple. The challenge we face in creating sustainability demands a lot more of us as individuals and as a society. It requires, in the words of early twentieth-century ecologist and author of A Sand County Almanac Aldo Leopold, an "internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions."
Sustainability comes only with a reorientation of our way of thinking. It is about returning to what it means to be human, and pursuing what is truly desirable and satisfying. John's thinking takes us well beyond the tired Brundtland Commission definition of sustainable development, which simply, but more efficiently, continues on the same path of economic development. Instead, he asks us to consider his own, more nuanced definition, which he builds around a rather unusual word: flourishing. Not a word that is in regular use within common discourse, flourishing means not only to grow, but to grow well, to prosper, to thrive, to live to the fullest. It is a dynamic word, representing change and striving, not the static sentiment that is projected by the word sustainable. For John, sustainability is not a fixed end state to be achieved but a constant reaching for what it truly means to be a human being living in an interconnected and complex world. It is a desirable future; one built not just on technological and material development but also on cultural, personal, and spiritual growth.
So, John defines sustainability as "the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the Earth forever." Through this definition, he says that he is "trying to elaborate and elucidate the theoretical and philosophical nature of the issue, something that is missing from the sustainability discussion and, I believe, something that people want." As a result, John does not refer to sustainability per se; he refers to sustainability-as-flourishing. This modified term adds a culturally meaningful end to our act of sustaining; we strive for a context in which all life can flourish.
To elaborate his definition, John offers two levels of distinction. The first level is that of the individual, at which sustainability-as-flourishing challenges us to shift from defining ourselves by the materials we possess—a mode he calls Having (following the work of German-American humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm)—to defining ourselves by the extent to which we act authentically—a mode he calls Being. Concurrent with that shift is a change in our focus from attending to our Needs to one of attending to our Cares.
The second level is that of the system, at which sustainability-as-flourishing challenges the notions of "rationality" upon which our society is built, but which are practically speaking nothing more than accepted methodologies designed to win arguments, not to find the truthful path forward. John calls us to move away from the pure rationalism of René Descartes and the Enlightenment and toward more balance with pragmatic thinking. As described by people such as nineteenth-century American philosopher William James, if an idea works to explain our experience of the world around us, use it, cultivate it, and allow it to inform our lives until something better comes along.
Consistent with a belief in pragmatism, John builds his ideas by drawing from relevant personal experience and knowledge. "It has always been my opinion that getting involved with the natural world, including a bit of poking and prodding, dirty hands, and new smells is for most people a more intimate and more lasting experience than just looking at it and experiencing it as scenery." To communicate his points more poignantly, he uses personal stories, such as this one about his love for fishing.
"I always release the stripers, facetiously hoping to catch them a second time. The purported purpose of my fishing is to catch fish, but that's not the real story. I fish to find a quietness, to learn ever more about the world as it exists without human intervention, to sharpen my powers of observation, all of which are difficult to work on in the busy, noisy world I spend most of my life occupying.... I believe that fishing involves love. Humberto Maturana, the Chilean biologist and philosopher, claims that love is a basic emotion that determines how humans relate to themselves, others, and the world. The primary feature of love is acceptance of the existence of everything and everybody in the world on their own terms. Love in this way shows up in the world as care. When we love the world, we take care of it, not merely use it. Life requires interacting with it. Fishing brings me closer to the world so that I may discover its essential values and be more care-ful in all of my actions that involve it. Not just the non-built world, but also other people and even myself. Self-love, not the narcissistic kind that is so prevalent today, is an essential foundation for flourishing. It promotes authenticity, and an acute awareness of the interconnection to the web that makes life itself possible."
Excerpted from FLOURISHING by John R. Ehrenfeld. Copyright © 2013 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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1. Introduction.................... 1
I. CLARIFYING THE ISSUE....................
2. Sustainability Means Nothing Without an End in Sight.................... 15
3. The Myths of Our Modern Culture.................... 29
4. The Wrong-Headed Solutions of Corporate Sustainability.................. 49
5. More Is Not Better.................... 67
II. LIVING WITH A DIFFERENT STORY....................
6. Reexamining What It Means to Be Human.................... 81
7. Returning to Our Place in the Whole.................... 99
III. LOOKING TO THE FUTURE....................
8. Reasons to Be Hopeful.................... 119
Recommended Readings and Bibliography.................... 138
About the Authors.................... 143