Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Saving Ourselves or Saving the World – Starting a Necessary Conversation

 Earth Day... Get's it Backwards

As Earth Day 2022 fades into the distance, it is worth recalling that on that day we were once again exhorted to save the world, save the planet, save the earth, save the whale, save the forests, protect the environment, and so on.  And these are noble objectives.  And we are told that our future, saving ourselves, somehow depends on how well we "save the world" – although how exactly is usually not made clear.  But I believe all this is backwards.

Douglas Adams agrees saying "we don’t have to save the world. The world is big enough to look after itself. What we have to be concerned about is whether or not the world we live in will be capable of sustaining us in it".


Putting Humanity First, and...

We are human, anything and everything we do comes from our consciousness, so in our thoughts and actions we cannot be anything other than anthropocentric – we cannot help but put ourselves first.  Indeed, many would say putting considerations other than human well-being first was not ethical.  

But, we are also animals. So, we, like all other land-based life on this planet, live in the tiny 6km high Critical Zone... from the soil beneath our feet to the top of the breathable atmosphere. So all our actions are always going to occur within, and impact what occurs within, the Critical Zone.   (For more on the Critical Zone please read this two-part blog post)

From this, I believe it becomes clear.  Since we are humans we have no choice but to put humanity first.  What we decide we want, the needs that we have, the direction we choose to take, and how we choose to get there, must be the primary questions that we need to respond to today.

But we can't respond to these questions in a vacuum.  Definitely not.  We must respond to these questions within the context of the life-giving Critical Zone upon which we depend – its abundance and its limitations.   If we ignore this context in our choices and behaviour we are simply putting our future well-being and the well-being of future generations at risk.

Indeed many would say that deciding that we want to head in a direction that requires us to damage the very life-giving systems upon which we depend is not ethical either.

And to be clear on the urgency: our current behaviour, based on our current decisions about what we want and how we go about getting it, very largely ignores the impact of our choices on the life-giving Critical Zone upon which we depend.  Clearly, this is unsustainable – for us!


What Do We Want?

We haven't had a widespread conversation about what we as a species want and how to get there since the Bretton Woods conference at the end of the 2nd World War.  As we experience every day, the assumptions made back then were fundamentally flawed since they ignored the necessary interplay between human well-being, human actions and our planet. (See this blog post for more).

The conservation and environmental movements have done a tremendous amount to protect, and in some cases restore, the life-giving Critical Zone.  However, none has addressed the systemic causes of the systematic damage we are doing to the life-giving Critical Zone. 

Indeed, in day-to-day culture, away from the conservation and environmental movements, the opposite is true.  Every day our modern culture reinforces the idea that we humans are incredibly inventive, and able to solve any problem – even those created by our own past actions.  We now acknowledge we created the climate crisis.  We now acknowledge certain resources, like fossil fuels, are finite.  And we now acknowledge that certain services provided by our planet, such as climate regulation, or freshwater cycling, can be significantly perturbed by our actions – harming ourselves and future generations.  

But, in all these cases we are told that we can solve these problems if we put our minds to it.  Indeed such is our confidence that we can solve all these problems and more, that we believe we can do so in ways that will avoid mass human suffering.  But I believe this is a highly risky bet, verging on, if not actually hubris, arising from our modernist mindset (See this two-part blog post on the impact of modernism and the Critical Zone).


What To We Do Now?

My belief is it does start with a conversation, around the world, about what do we as humans want?  What do we aspire to be?  What level of well-being should we be aiming for?   And, at the same time, we need education about what the world does, the processes of the Critical Zone, to give us the possibility for life, and perhaps more, flourishing. 

From these two learning loops, one an internal reflection, the other an external exploration, we might come to a new understanding of how to meet our needs in ways that enable the possibility for humans and all life on this planet to flourish for generations to come (John Ehrenfeld, MIT). 

Naive perhaps?  But what alternative do we have?


UN75 – A Start to the Necessary Conversation


It's worth noting that at the start of 2020 the UN Secretary-General did try, before COVID, to start this conversation as part of the marking of the 75th anniversary of the founding of the UN.  He launched the single biggest consultation in humanity's history asking essentially "what is it that we want?"  For more see this post for the launch of this consultation and this post for the results.  

Of course, this didn't get anything like the attention it needed to be truly effective because of COVID... but it is good step in the right direction.




Thursday, June 23, 2022

Why Flourishing?

What Should the Purpose of My Business Be?


If you ask me "What should the purpose of my enterprise be?", if we've never talked before, I'd reply that your purpose should be realizing "true sustainability".  By this I mean sustainability:
  • That "does good, to do well"
  • That integrates social, environmental, and economic factors (and doesn't see them as a set of trade-offs that prioritizes money)
  • Where enterprises excel because people are flourishing and nature is thriving
  • Informed by the latest science, ethical frameworks, and deep indigenous wisdoms

I believe that choosing true sustainability as the purpose of all organizations is the only ethically defensible answer for an entrepreneur or leader of an established enterprise to give in today's increasingly uncertain world.

But that's not the end of the story... if we talked a little more I'd quickly highlight why the term "sustainability" itself is very problematic


Why Not Sustainability?


First, I think that true sustainability is a rather unexciting way to think about things!  I think that the very word sustainable / sustainability constrains our thinking about possible opportunities and risks.  Plus, these words have little emotional content, there not likely to get you or your Stakeholders fired up and excited. 

Also, there are many definitions of sustainability, e.g. sustainable development based on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs).  But this approach doesn't meet our definition of true sustainability, as sustainable development still assumes, like our current unsustainable economic approach, infinite growth on a finite planet.  (For a deep dive on this topic see the blog post "Evolving from Sustainable Development")

So it can be very confusing these days to use the word sustainable – it's not very exciting, there are many definitions, and none of the ones in common use means "true sustainability"


If Not Sustainability,
What Could Be a Better Purpose / Vision / Why?


So what could be a better purpose for our enterprises than sustainability, even true sustainability?  A purpose that...
  • Talks about how we should aim to be "the best we can be" – individually and in our organizations
  • Gets stakeholders excited so they are attracted to work with us
  • Aligns with the latest science, ethical frameworks, and deep indigenous wisdoms
  • Is morally and ethically defensible
  • Helps enterprises gain and retain viability
  • Helps enterprises innovate in face of an uncertain future
  • Clearly differentiates from all other definitions of sustainability
Let me share my journey to find a purpose / vision / why for all enterprises that meet the above objectives...


What is the Highest Level of Potential Humans Can Reach?


This is the question that was asked a number of years ago by a group of psychologists who were looking to define what a fully healthy human being looks like, rather than to identify more ways a human may not be healthy, i.e. mental illnesses.   This group called themselves "positive psychologists", i.e. they wanted to look at the positive side of human experience, well-being and wellness, not illth and illness. 

The positive psychologists came up with a simple graphic to illustrate the possible range of individual human experience:


And as you can see, they decided to use the word "flourishing" to describe the highest level of human potential, the highest level of human experience.


Flourishing As *THE* Purpose for Individuals and Enterprises


When we saw this image and learned about the work of the positive psychologists we thought... well if the highest level of human experience is called flourishing, then surely the best possible purpose for all human enterprises would be to create the possibility for all their stakeholders to flourish!

This was our inspiration for moving away from using the word sustainable to describe the best possible purpose / vision / why and choosing instead to use the word "flourishing".


Benefits of the Defining the Purpose / Vision / Why of
Enterprises as Flourishing


We see six major benefits of choosing, as the purpose for your enterprise, "creating the possibility for human and all other life to flourish on our planet for generations to come, enhancing the integrity, beauty, and regenerative capacity of living communities."
(Adapted from Prof. John Ehrenfeld, MIT and Michelle Holliday)
  1. Flourishing is something everyone gets to define for themselves
  2. Aiming-to-flourish is exciting and generates new possibilities for individuals and enterprises
  3. It is practical – its what the science says
  4. It is the right thing to do – it is morally and ethically sound
  5. It is the best way to gain and retain financial viability
  6. It maximizes the possibility for innovation to better face an uncertain future
For a deep dive on these six benefits see the blog post "Six Reasons for Enterprises to Aim-to-Flourish"

(If you really want to use the word sustainability / sustainable then you could say what you're trying to sustain is the possibility for all life to flourish... i.e. sustainable flourishing cf. sustainable development.)


What Do I Advise?  Flourishing


So if you ask me what I believe is the best possible purpose / vision / why for any enterprise to adopt I will say clearly... the best possible purpose is:  "creating the possibility for human and all other life to flourish on our planet for generations to come, enhancing the integrity, beauty, and regenerative capacity of living communities."
(Adapted from Prof. John Ehrenfeld, MIT and Michelle Holliday)

What do you think?  

How could adopting this purpose help your enterprise flourish? 

Please comment below.


Six Reasons for Enterprises to Aim-to-Flourish

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

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

Strive to create 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 "sustainable 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 (see this blog post for an exploration of the differences).  Sustainable flourishing 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 create 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 and all the enterprises stakeholders, 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, returning to the opening question: why would entrepreneurs and leaders of established enterprises want to adopt the ideal goal of aiming-to-flourish as the core of their business's purpose / vision / why? .  Why would a business want to adopt sustainable flourishing as their practical definition of sustainability?

There are six 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: Everyone Gets to Define Flourishing for Themselves. You can't tell someone what their own experience of flourishing is, could, or should be – it is up to each person to determine.  This means that each person's definition of flourishing is based on their worldview.  You can't impose a definition of flourishing based on an external worldview.  This means enterprises with the purpose of sustainable flourishing will listen closely to all those the organization touches positively or negatively – whether or not they are recognized as stakeholders.  How many opportunities could be identified, and how many risks could be avoided, through such a close listening process?

Two: 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? How much sales and marketing cost could be avoided if your stakeholders were attracted to you rather than you having to seek them out?

Three: 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?

Four: 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?

Five: 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?

Six: 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.  What 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 create, for them, the possibility for flourishing. 


Friday, April 1, 2022

Evolving from Sustainable Development to Sustainable Flourishing

There is No Point to this Blog Post

To most immersed in Western culture, this blog post has no purpose.  There is no need to evolve our understanding of sustainable human development.  The current, and many would say obvious, goal of sustaining human development is to raise the standards of living of everyone in the world as high as possible because this will lead to improved well-being.  Further, most would say, the way to do this is also obvious: the economy must be developed sustainably, it needs to grow forever, in order to generate the wealth required to raise the standard of living.  Further, they would claim that having a goal for humanity to maximize well-being, by sustaining human and economic development, is ethically sound. Thus, most would strongly support the UN’s overall agreed goal for humanity: Sustainable Development.

But what if this accepted wisdom was based on two false assumptions about the world and ourselves?

 

A Little History of Human and Economic Development

One might say that this accepted wisdom originated at the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference where the post-world-war 2 commercial and financial arrangements were agreed upon by the 44 Allied Nations; institutions like the World Bank were established as a result.  To greatly simplify, the macro-economic wisdom that prevailed then was as follows:  The overall goal for humanity is to maximize well-being.  To improve well-being requires an ever-growing economy, an ever-developing economy, to provide food, jobs, material goods, and services.  Private business is the primary means to develop the economy.  But private business can’t or shouldn’t do many things required for well-being (think public transport or unemployment insurance or depending on where you are healthcare).  Therefore, governments must be ultimately responsible for well-being and pay for this via their income, the taxes on the wealth generated by businesses and citizens.  In other words, economic growth was understood to be a necessary precursor to human well-being, or even more succinctly, sustaining economic development is required to sustain human development.

For business this was tremendous... it had a clear goal... generate wealth.  And it was good for the government too... it too had a clear goal... tax and spend to enable well-being.  The two systems were quite segregated from each other; they could operate at arms-length.  Indeed they were so segregated a noted micro-economist (an economist focused on businesses, not on whole economies), Milton Friedman thought it a very positive thing to say “there is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.”  In other words, let us business people worry about wealth generation, and you other folks in government worry about well-being.

(It is worth noting that in the late 1970s thru the 2000s there was a powerful political push to reverse this. To say the objective was wealth creation and this would somehow lead to well-being via ‘trickle-down economics’, rather than the earlier idea that well-being required wealth-creation to serve the objective of human development.  In recent years this thinking has receded somewhat – the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are perhaps an example of this.  So, for the purposes of brevity I’ve not explored this part of the history here)

 

Systems Thinking Highlights a First Flawed Assumption

But now let’s examine this system of sustainable economic and human development using a little systems thinking.  In this case, by asking the question what is the context for this system of sustainable economic and human development?  One key answer is that our planet Earth is the context for both economic development and human development.  Both types of development happen in the same ‘place’.  This means that how, where and what type of economic development happens will have an impact on how much, where and what type of human development happens (or doesn’t).

Unfortunately, back in 1944 systems thinking was just a glimmer of a thing.  So, the macro-economists at the Bretton Woods conference didn’t think to ask this contextual question.  As a result, a major flawed assumption was at the heart of what was agreed back then:  economic development happens in one place, and human development occurs in another place.

The results of this assumption only started to become apparent as the post-world-war 2 economy boomed.  We slowly discovered that how and where business operates can have massive (positive and negative) direct impacts on human well-being, and (usually negative) impacts on the natural environment upon which human well-being immediately and ultimately depends.

One of the first examples where this assumption was questioned was in the 1962 book by Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, which documented the death of birds as a result of eating insects contaminated with the pesticide DDT.  We discovered that how agribusiness conducted itself mattered to the health of the environment and hence on human health – although back then people definitely didn’t always understand the connection between environmental and human health.  As one example, poisonous pesticides making their way into food crops and then us humans.  We discovered that human development, human well-being, was reduced due to the unconstrained behaviour of agribusiness to economically develop, i.e. grow profitably, because they both happened in the same place, Earth.

Unfortunately, so deeply was this mistaken assumption embedded in the thinking of business and government that it is still with us today.   The 2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) are a wonderful gift we’ve given ourselves.  And, the majority of the seventeen SDGs are focused on human development, and protecting the environment upon which human well-being depends.  But one goal, goal 8, is focused on sustaining economic development and this is understood, usually implicitly, as the necessary precursor to realizing most of the rest of the well-being-focused goals.

So now we know, sustaining unconstrained economic development such that the vital life-giving systems of our planet are irrevocably damaged, will, over time, reduce human well-being, not enhance it.  In other words, unconstrained sustainable economic development will not lead to sustainable human development, rather the reverse.

 

A Second Flawed Assumption: Everyone Wants to Develop in the Same Way

Recently I wrote a blog post that explored the impacts of the ideas of modernism.  Specifically, how modernists believe that to perfect ourselves we humans must all become alike, living together in a single global culture, on a single globe, in a single global village.  (See that blog post here)

From this, it is easy to see the second flawed assumption in the thinking about sustaining human development. The working definition of human development is based on this modernist idea.  Most of the time people talk about human development, again frequently implicitly, mean development that will lead to a global homogenous human culture where we are all alike.

Examples of this view of human development in practice include the processes of colonization to make the colonized like the colonizer, the growing hegemony of modernist business practice, the growing influence of modernists’ consumption-based definition of well-being around the globe, and the growing impact of a single modernist culture (think Hollywood).

But peoples everywhere know for historical, cultural, practical, and spiritual reasons they are not the same and cannot be made the same as everyone else.  Difference and diversity are a strong source of identity and meaning-making.

As a result, over recent decades, as the push for a single global culture grew ever stronger, we have seen significant pushback from a large number of groups and cultures around the world.  They are demanding development that respects difference and diversity fundamentally at odds with the idea of a single global culture.  Prominent amongst these are the numerous indigenous-led initiatives to reclaim their culture, land, spirituality, and language, and various separatist movements around the world (the split in two of Czechoslovakia, the disintegration of Yugoslavia, Brexit, etc.) and the anti-free-trade, occupy and anti-globalization movements.

 

Towards a New Systemic–Amodern Understanding of Human Development

So perhaps there is a point to this blog post!  Don’t these two flawed assumptions at the heart of our current definition of sustainable human development suggest that it is time for a new understanding?  An understanding of human development that is based on systems thinking and one that is amodern, breaking free of the hubris of modernist assumptions.

What if our definition of human development recognized we, each of us, exist within a tiny 6km high critical zone where all life occurs – from the soil under our feet to about 6km up – the height we can survive unaided?  What if our definition of human development recognized that biophysical diversity is seen as something to work with not against?  And, what if our definition of human development celebrated human diversity as a strength to be recognized and encouraged?  (For more on the critical zone read the 2nd part of  my blog post to explore what could come in place of modernism.)

Such a definition of human development would celebrate and encourage the diversity of our planet, ourselves, and all life.  It would recognize there are many valid ways for people to know the land upon which they live – different systems of spirituality, different cultures and practices – science and traditional.  It would explicitly recognize all life occurs within and is based on the finite resources of the critical zone.  It would recognize all life is dependent upon the processes within the critical zone, such as climate regulation and water cycling, ensuring they function optimally for human and other life.

 

Rethinking Economic Development

So now we understand that the systems of economic development must occur in service of this new definition of human development.  If we truly want widespread human well-being, we must recognize that economic development happens in the same place, the critical zone, as human development. We must recognize that as a result, economic policy and operating businesses have massive potential to directly enhance and harm human development – directly influencing human well-being.  We must respect and celebrate diversity and differences of culture and spirituality.  And, we must respect and celebrate the diversity of all life in all places.

In short, we need to fundamentally shift our understanding of economic development to recognize that it happens within and for the benefit of society.  That society is pursuing human well-being as its goal.  And that society exists and is dependent upon a thriving environment.

 

Sustaining the Result We Want: The Possibility for Flourishing

Perhaps to help us make this dramatic shift in thinking we need some new language, language that makes this new understanding explicit. Language that moves away from the old terms sustainable (human and economic) development and its flawed assumptions about what, where, and how well-being arises.

What if our goal was to sustain the possibility for human and all other life to flourish on our planet for generations to come, enhancing the beauty, integrity, and resilience of living communities (adapted from Dr. John Ehrenfeld and Michelle Holiday)?  What if everyone got to define for themselves what flourishing meant to them in their diverse places, cultures and spiritualities? What if we understood the result of our journey as humans, human development, was to strive to ensure human and all life had the possibility to flourish for generations to come?    In short, what if said what we want is sustainable flourishing?

 

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 was 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