Achieving a sustainable existence starts with our minds.
You may think this piece has something to do with mind-altering drugs. It doesn’t. What I mean by “emancipate the mind” has to do with the nature of human creatureliness and its role within the Earth system.
The human mind sets us apart from other life forms, but not necessarily above them. The human mind is something that ought to “harmonize” with the Earth system. What follows has to do with business, systems thinking, and our role, as human beings, at the present moment.
Of seminal importance to understanding the movement toward sustainable existence is systems thinking. This is especially so when it comes to business. I wrote about this in an earlier blog post, but it bears revisiting.
Systems thinking demands that we look beyond the linear, “theory of shareholder primacy” and see how the business fits within the Earth system itself. Maximizing profit at the expense of the environment and social capital is clearly unsustainable. This is where we get the notion of the triple bottom line, which defines a space, rather than a line – as in maximizing shareholder value. Life exists in space, not in lines.
Not long ago, the idea of the triple bottom line was simply an abstraction. Today, Elkington’s core notion of the triple bottom line, which came to be widely known in the late-90’s, has spawned all sorts of recapitulations. Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) is a variant of the triple bottom line; corporate social responsibility (CSR) is another and the list goes on.
I’m with Dr. Wolff, however, when he points out that one can put any modifier he or she desires in front of capitalism, and one will have the same thing. There’s little difference between the master/slave, feudal lord/serf, or employer/employee relationship. It remains the same, just like the song. We can call it “stakeholder capitalism”, but until we resolve the fundamental relational flaws of capitalism, the song will remain the same.
So, while we take Elkington’s idea of the triple bottom line, chew it for a while, and then come up with another way of putting it, we really have done very little. This is because we’re attempting to put his ideas to work within a system that resists them. I am not suggesting progress has not been made. But for as long as we’ve known about the problems we face today, we ought to be ashamed of ourselves for what little progress has been made. Malthus articulated the problems of limits to growth some 200 odd years ago; we didn’t pay attention then, and we’re not paying enough attention now.
To put just how far we have to go into context, consider this: Since 1997, the year Elkington published his book, Cannibals with Forks, wherein he described the need for triple bottom line thinking, we’ve seen an increase in atmospheric CO2, from 363 ppm to 415 ppm, for a rise of 14%. This is but one marker of where things stand; there are countless more (e.g., deforestation, plastic pollution, toxic waste emissions etc.) that are not headed in the right direction. So, why is it, when we see the writing on the wall, when a thought leader articulates an obviously cogent idea, we can’t seem to muster the work necessary to make substantive change?
To begin to grasp the roots of this challenge, we need to consider our role, as human beings, within the Earth system.
Science tells us Earth is 4.5 billion years old. In that time, the Earth system has undergone phenomenal change, from a primordial ooze of basic chemistries to the emergence of simple life forms, and eventually, modern human beings. These changes are marked by innumerable phases or transitions from one level of complexity to the next. Notwithstanding the mass extinction we are currently experiencing, much of which is caused by our behavior, this moment in Earth history marks the highest level of what the French, Jesuit paleontologist, Teilhard de Chardin called, complexification.
Central to grasping the concept of complexification is what are referred to in systems thinking as emergent properties. These are properties possessed by a system that are essentially greater than the sum of the system’s parts. For example, consider water, which is composed of two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen, both of which are gases at room temperature. When hydrogen and oxygen come together in the proper ratio, water is formed. Water is a liquid at room temperature and possessive of unique physical properties. Water’s unique characteristics are known in systems thinking as emergent properties.
The whole of the Earth system – the thing we call the biosphere – is filled with systems of varying size and complexity. All of these systems and subsystems possess emergent properties; in fact, life itself is an emergent property. From the inanimate molecules that gave rise to the simplest of life forms, bacteria, to dinosaurs, to mammalian life, and now us, each life form marks increasing complexification and therefore is possessive of emergent properties.
Go outside and spend a few minutes simply observing the various and complex forms of living things: the birds, the multitude of plant life, the crawling critters and all the rest. The nature we observe today took billions of years to reach this level of complexity and organization. That the biosphere is a phenomenally complex system of interconnected things ought to be easy to see.
Human beings emerged from this wondrous and complex place, and since we are a system within the biosphere, we possess emergent properties. The anatomical feature that gives rise to our emergent properties – a feature that has taken since the dawn of life to evolve and sets us apart from all other mammalian life forms – is our central nervous system, which in turn gives rise to our consciousness and ability to think. This isn’t meant to suggest other life forms are not conscious; however, what ought to be clear is that human beings are marked by the most evolved and complex of central nervous systems, and an ability to think that goes beyond other life forms.
So, why is it we seem to stand above and outside of the system on which we depend for our survival? Why do we seem incapable of taking what we know and using it to make the corrections that seem so patently obvious and necessary? The answers to these questions have to do with how we, as individuals and in a collective sense, integrate our emergent properties of consciousness and thinking within the Earth system.
Human Imagination and “The Machine”
Since the dawn of human history, we have communicated complex ideas one to another. From simple sounds, to paintings on cave dwellings, to language, Gutenberg’s printing press, radio, television, and now the Internet, human beings have leveraged communication to build our collective consciousness and retain bodies of knowledge. The trend has been toward greater access to this body of knowledge, which is a very good thing indeed. In our time, the digital revolution has led to an epoch of far greater access to knowledge. That individuals have the ability to convey a thought to another human being on the other side of the planet is amazing. But what is far more amazing is the access the Internet provides to learning. That we now have such access (i.e., a system for storing and retrieving knowledge that is accessible from just about anywhere on Earth) is an emergent property of the Earth system.
There is, however, another edge to the Internet sword: It is what the Internet, as a mediating structure, is doing to us.
In his book, The Attention Merchants, Tim Wu describes how advertisers, since the mid-nineteenth century, have been finding ever better ways to “get inside our heads.” Attention, the precursor to our thoughts and ideas, is seen as a commodity. If a business can get our attention, then the door will be open to selling us something. Never mind whether we actually “need” that something. The first step is to get inside our heads and draw our attention away from something else.
As Wu points out, we spend copious amounts of time on our devices and during much of this time – in fact nearly all of our waking hours – we are bombarded by advertising. And today, through data collection and sophisticated algorithms, those advertisements are laser focused on the individual. Many of us are being manipulated in ways that allow advertisers – and others – to get inside our heads without our even knowing it. All of this competition for attention, and the constant distraction it causes, is having detrimental effects on our central nervous systems, that emergent property which is integral to the Earth system.
One’s mind –the place where thoughts reside – is to be used in harmony with the Earth system. The tool we have for advancing our collective consciousness – the Internet – ought to be used for that purpose. Because it interconnects us, the Internet ought to be moving us toward harmonious existence. One cannot argue that it is not doing so, at least in some way; however, there’s plenty of evidence to indicate we are becoming more polarized and divided.
From mass manipulation through advertising, to the surveillance state of modern empire, the Internet – at least in part – functions to support the accelerated aggregation of wealth and power. This isn’t meant to suggest the Internet is evil, but it does speak to what has always been a problem with human organizations: their tendency to aggregate power. Neoliberalism, which is the intellectual breeding ground for global capitalism, dictates the primacy of the market as the medium through which all decisions must be made. It also demands each of us behave as atomized consumers, who simply buy stuff with little or no regard for how it was made, what it does to the human condition or what damage it causes the environment. To keep us consuming, we must first pay attention to advertising, which necessitates our being distracted. In our hyper-distracted state, it’s much easier to sell us just about anything, including how to think.
Being distracted means we are prone to relying on our reptilian brain, wherein the “fight or flight” mechanism kicks in. Sensory overload leaves us grasping for relief and seeking those things that will reinforce our world view, regardless of whether that view is connected to reality. It also leaves us lacking in the capacity to focus on the big things, such as what it will take to avoid a collapse of human civilization.
What we now confront is the mis-application of a machine – the Internet – that was motivated and born of our collective, creative power. It was not money that motivated the inventions that led to the Internet, but rather human imagination and drive to create. These are the emergent properties of our creatureliness. That this wonderous tool has been co-opted to serve moneyed interests is a symptom of decay. Like a metastasizing cancer, capitalism now covers the globe. And while it takes on more benign forms in one part of the world, and far more virulent strains in others, the prognosis is the same: an exploited Earth, in chaos and left to heal itself.
That we fall prey to the power of the corporate state, as it is transmitted through the Internet, is not our destiny. Life is not a machine. Because we are living creatures interconnected with the whole of life within the Earth system, we have something over machines: the capacity for insight and to create out of whole cloth.
In our zeal and self-centeredness, however, we seem enamored with our Internet and how it can be used to collect and crunch data. Ethical questions about the use of artificial intelligence abound and for good reason: When we confuse tools with living, breathing human beings we start down a dark alley. In becoming caught-up in our invention, we seem to have fallen in love with something that is not to be loved. We’ve become confused about the relationship we have with our machine. Love is reserved for living creatures, not machines. Love does not exercise power over another; the exercise of power is reserved for us to do with our machines what leads to the greater good. We choose whether to connect, with what to connect and when to disconnect. These are decisions reserved for human beings and not machines.
Decoupling and Reclaiming the Polis
So, what does all of this have to do with business? Everything. Business is a living thing; it’s an interplay between human beings and the human processes through which work is organized. Business is a system with multiple layers and interactions. And it’s how we practice business that must be radically re-thought – apart from the corporate state. In other words, we must begin the process of forming economies under local and human scale control. We must begin to “decouple” from global capitalism and become “hyper-local” in perspective. We must begin the process of reasserting the primacy of what the ancient Greeks understood to be the polis, the small unit wherein culture is formed and nurtured. And in this interconnected world, the polis must become the primary building block of a healthy democracy.
The ancients understood, through experience, the difference between what the polis represented on one side, and empire on the other. As Sheldon Wolin writes in Politics and Vision, the ancient Greek philosophers struggled with the problem of empire. “Even before the death of Aristotle in 322 B.C., the classical concept of the political was being undermined by a new set of conditions. The emergence of the Macedonian Empire in the fourth century inaugurated and era of large-scale organization which later reached its fullest expression in the Roman world-state”, Wolin writes.
The problem, as Wolin points-out, is related to “the revolutionary challenge to political thought posed by the fact that the polis had ceased to be the politically significant unit. It was overlain by giant state forms which lacked the attributes of strongly political societies and which, when judged by the canons of classical political thought, appeared as monstrous aberrations.”
Today’s global system of capitalism is the overlay and “monstrous aberration” of our day. It’s not an empire in the traditional sense, where a person or some body of persons hold power. It’s a species of empire that grew out of the Second World War and culminated with the so-called neoliberal triumph over state communism, as found in the former Soviet Union. It is not a world government, in the political sense, but rather a system of economics that is concentrating power among an ever-shrinking number of people. The power is ubiquitous, but we cannot seem to identify its agents and therefore have a hard time finding a place to redress our grievances. This is because, in the US, our systems of governance are in late-stage decay; they’ve become corrupted by corporate power and are rapidly losing the capacity to uphold justice. So, when we witness what’s taking place in our nation’s state legislatures, as Republicans push to suppress voting rights, we cannot seem to figure-out why we lack the political will to uphold our democracy. This is because it’s not about democracy any longer, but about raising enough money to stay in power.
To reassert the primacy of the polis as the seed for a healthy democracy necessitates building community – in the fullest sense of the word. Community is predicated on human relationships that are nurtured and grown; these relationships are called friendships. This form of friendship is refined in the crucible of intimate, vulnerable, transparent and honest conversation. Friendship is a network, of sorts, that can only exist between human beings. The “wiring” of this network is called trust.
Community is an emergent property that is uniquely human, and the thing that binds community is trust. While the tools we have to communicate can be used to build community, these tools are not community. In other words, because you have a “friend” on Facebook, doesn’t mean friendship exists. Community stands apart from the machine and can only come-about where love is found.
Re-establishing the polis is a nascent thing; we see it in the localism movement. Localism is a reaction to the dysfunction of the corporate state. It is a movement that has yet to congeal, in part because it’s taking place within a system that resists its formation and organization. This is why we need to come together, in community, to have those conversations necessary to further the localism movement. But this will take emancipating our minds from the machine. In other words, we need to disconnect ourselves from the distractions of the machine, and earnestly practice civil, respectful and open conversation. This takes time, but there is no other way. The time spent on this activity – engaging in face-to-face conversations and building friendship – is antithetical to the distracted, frenetic behavior required by social media. In the machine world, time is compressed and one is led to believe taking time for conversation is wasteful. Nothing is further from the truth.
Anyone who has experienced small-group conversation will recognize the transformative power it holds. When a small group comes together, without distraction, and is free to take time to listen and converse, interior transformation takes place. This transformation is what freedom looks like; it is an emancipation of the mind. This transformation is the seed for change. Margret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” No truer words have been written.