Unsustainable Values

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Few would argue with the claim that language is a defining feature of the human condition, but a longstanding issue of concern is the impact that our language has on our thought.

Those who are familiar with the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis might well conclude that this post is poised to tackle fundamental issues at the overlap of anthropology, culture, linguistics, sociology and neuroscience.  Well, not really (I’ll get there another week). This one is about the environment.

More specifically, it is devoted to the question of what we mean, exactly, when we talk about “sustainability” – indeed, how that very word directly impacts our present level of environmental knowledge, and how we might find a way towards transcending certain limiting aspects of our current worldview through a careful re-examination of the word itself.  

Our expert guide this week to help us reinterpret the notion of environmental sustainability is neither a climate scientist nor a social advocate nor a sociologist.  It is University of Michigan business professor Andy Hoffman. Hold on a minute! I can hear you exclaiming.  What can a business prof teach us about sustainability?

hoffmanQuite a lot, as it turns out.  In the first place, it must be admitted,  Andy Hoffman is hardly your typical business prof.  While his academic appointments include being Professor of Management & Organizations at University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business (which sounds typical enough), he is also the Holcim (US), Inc. Professor of Sustainable Enterprise, professor in the Sustainable Systems group at University of Michigan School of Environment and Sustainability and a faculty member of Michigan’s innovative Erb Institute, whose mandate is to create a socially and environmentally sustainable world through the power of business.  Clearly, Professor Hoffman takes the whole notion of sustainability pretty seriously.

And he has for a very long time.

“When I first started talking about environmental issues, it wasn’t terribly accepted in business schools.  At the beginning of my career I was turned down for a job at a top-tier business school where they said, ‘We really love your stuff on organization theory, but we think you’re too focused on the environment.’ People were nervous: Are you an advocate or are you a serious academic?

Well, both, as it happened.  And slowly, our cultural landscape has shifted to the point where the blurring of the lines has become increasingly accepted.

“Today the environment, and sustainability more broadly, has really gone mainstream.  We have chief sustainability officers, environmental annual reports, socially responsible investing. It’s all there, but the problems continue to get worse.

“So it’s now time to discover ‘Sustainability 2.0’: where do we have to go next?  There’s been change to a certain point, but the problems continue to get worse, and even more radical shifts are called for.”

In order to rigorously investigate the problems and potential at the heart of the very concept of environmental sustainability, Andy teamed up with his long-time mentor and former doctoral supervisor, MIT professor John Ehrenfeld, to write a book, Flourishing: A Frank Conversation About Sustainability.

“The point we make in the book is that the word ‘sustainability’ itself is about stasis: staying the course, keeping it steady.  But that’s not going to take us where we need to go. Yes, you can buy a compact fluorescent light bulb and screw it in. That’s great, you’re reducing your energy load.   But there are still a lot of materials that went into that; you’re just making the production of light less bad.  How do we shift from there to actually making our technological society better?”

Well, it’s hard to argue with that.   After all, sustaining your course of action is an eminently sensible strategy if you happen to find yourself moving in the right direction.  But it hardly takes a rocket scientist to deduce that sustaining your movement towards a cliff edge will inevitably lead to an outright disaster.

Clearly then, first you have to point yourself in the right direction and then find a way to stick to it.  But how? That’s where the notion of “flourishing” comes into play, John Ehrenfeld’s personal attempt at transforming the dead hand of “sustainability” to instead point us in the right direction.

“John redefines sustainability as the possibility of humans and other life forms flourishing on earth forever.  The word ‘flourishing’ is about thriving; it’s about growing, it’s about positive, dynamic change.

“If we’re going to get a grip on sustainability, we have to rethink consumption.  We have to rethink a lot of the dominant values in our society, like how we are defined by what we own: the bigger the house and the fancier the car the more status we have, the more worth we have, both self-defined and defined by others.  If we don’t get a grip on that, we’re never going to get there.”

nature-3289812Profound cultural change certainly won’t be easy, and Hoffman is nothing if not realistic about the many challenges ahead.  But he is adamant that his position as a professor at one of the world’s elite business schools is precisely the best place to be to have the largest amount of positive impact.

“I tell my students that business is the most powerful institution on earth.  If business isn’t developing solutions for our social and environmental problems, they will not be developed.  Capitalism is malleable and it is shifting. There are multiple signals of this shift; and companies are, to greater or lesser degrees, attentive to those signals.

“I don’t expect my students to walk into Ford today and say, ‘Stop making cars, and start thinking about mobility as a totally different thing!’  That’s not going to happen tomorrow. I’m also not suggesting walking into ExxonMobil and saying, ‘Stop producing oil!’

“These kinds of changes will take time.  But to start to be part of a broader process, to start to shift the kinds of products, process and solutions that companies provide, that’s what I’m focused on here as a teacher.”

The cliff edge is still looming very large indeed.   But at least we now have a clear sense of where we must steer towards.   

Because “business as usual” is simply no longer sustainable.

Howard Burton, howard@ideasroadshow.com

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To best explore the topics raised in this post for teaching and learning, please see below a number of related expert resources that are part of Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal which offers a dynamic IB-specific database of 500+ authoritative video and print resources featuring more than 80 world-leading researchers, including two Nobel Laureates, explicitly created to meet the needs of both teachers and students in the Diploma Programme – please visit our new website  for further information.

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