In my book, sustainability is defined as the possibility of flourishing. This means that each species, other than humans, maintains its evolutionary population levels within an ecosystem. It does not mean that the population is constant, but exhibits resiliency — it can recover from shocks to the system to return to its historic levels. Today many species are threatened or endangered under this definition.
The human species, as a life form, is subject to the same category of threats to their existence and has responded to such challenges historically by devising technological and institutional systems to counter such threats. Because of this capability, no evolutionary baseline has been established. Population has continued to increase as food supplies have expanded and as technology provides a shield from the forces that threaten us.
But as a conscious and meaningful species, we are also subject to a different kind of threat — threats to the conditions that affect our individuality and interconnections to other human beings. Over the evolution of our species, we have come to recognize that to be human is to be able to live a dignified life, that is, a life without domination by others. The emergence of the modern era is founded in large part on the belief that knowledge and truth are the foundation of an egalitarian, non-domineering society compared to the hierarchical, dogmatic structures that preceded the Enlightenment.
Ironically, this self-same system of beliefs is fundamentally dominating. If the system of knowing what constitutes the conscious world and how we acquire that knowledge is predicated on the existence of an absolute, timeless truth, then any conversation about the world will ultimately devolve into a claim by one of the parties that their truth is the only true or right one. The “winner” of the interchange will be the most powerful — the one who can dominate the others. Of course if there is consensual agreement, all parties can leave with dignity. This is not an easy idea to accept or work with. Dignity and other similar human concerns must, however, be part of any conversation about sustainability whenever human beings are included.
Now let me make an abrupt jump to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). You can more closely follow the argument I am about to make by reading my book, but here I am taking a very abbreviated path. CSR is a principle that argues that, since corporations are an institution growing out of and “authorized” by cultures, they have a responsibility to fulfill whatever are those explicit or implicit aims that underlie that authorization.
Cutting a long historical discussion very short, those aims narrowed from a qualitative sense of providing necessary goods to the society to a quantitative role as [the most important] cog in the economic machine that turns out aggregate wealth. From the start, it was apparent that corporations could not provide everything a society deemed normatively important. Their responsibility for community and worker health and safety has been long an issue. These concerns have been codified in a myriad of health and safety and pollution control regulations. More recently. environmental justice has arisen as a claim that companies have an obligation not to locate plants in places where they place an undue and unfair burden on economically and socially disadvantaged groups. All of these cases refer implicitly to the ability of firms to dominate employees, neighbors, communities and, in a globalized world, people far from the home offices.
CSR has come to incorporate activities designed to prevent this type of domination and the harms it causes. Such actions are meritorious and necessary, but do not go far enough. In particular, firms, in general, fail to care for the dignity of their workers. Most of CSR is bundled up in actions outside of the corporate fence-lines, correcting situations that have grown up over time. It is time to look inside these bounds at how firms treat their employees.
First, let me continue to make a link to my opening philosophical comment that we view the world through a set of immutable truths. If you couple this to traditional hierarchical (power) structures in firms, you end up with a fundamentally dominating system. This not-so-subtle domination has been exacerbated by the increasing distance between managers’ and workers’ salaries. I am not talking about sweatshops, either. That’s an easy case. I’m talking about run-of-the-mill US firms. And it’s not just about salary discrepancies; it is about the technocratic processes that are used to solve problems and to design the practices that govern day-to-day operations.
Honest CSR programs would start at home with an honest appraisal of how the employees are being cared for. If firms cannot or do not take care of their corporate family’s dignity and other basic human “needs,” they are not going to be able to contribute positively to sustainability. Like much of the effort going to address the environmental dimensions of unsustainability, their CSR programs will at best only be able to make bad situations less bad, but not create the positive vision of sustainability as flourishing.