January 2014 Archives

The Power of Amazement

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amazed tot

I am not sure where David Brooks was going in his Jan 28th oped column about faith. He seemed to be saying that those secular folks who disparage the faithful do so because they do not understand what faith is all about. Not surprising to me because many among the faithful cannot explain what “faith” means. In spite of any vagueness, the column is worth reading just for two included quotes. The first is from one of the most human and articulate voices of modern Judaism.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described one experience of faith in his book “God in Search of Man”: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement…get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal. …To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

And yet Heschel understood that the faith expressed by many, even many who are inwardly conflicted, is often dull, oppressive and insipid — a religiosity in which “faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion.”

His use of amazement helps me continue to understand what flourishing means, and also makes the importance of spirituality clearer. Without amazement, most of, if not all, of life becomes humdrum. The world just something that is out there to be factored into one’s daily routines—a source of whatever is needed at that moment or a nuisance that is getting in the way of what was intended. His words reinforce my sense that spirituality is as essential a domain of care as is all others, and perhaps, more important. But as Brooks says today, a majority of Americans scoff at those who include faith in their lives.

I need to make a warning here. Faith is a very troublesome word because it is poorly understood and can take on several distinctly different meanings. Heschel is clear that is it not the same as religiosity although religious practitioners can certainly have faith in their beliefs. He warns us that when faith is missing, religion turns into a empty repetition of doctrine and ritual.

At the end Brooks includes a famous passage from the writings of Saint Augustine.

If you are a secular person curious about how believers experience their faith, you might start with Augustine’s famous passage “What do I love when I love my God,” and especially the way his experience is in the world but then mysteriously surpasses the world:

“It is not physical beauty nor temporal glory nor the brightness of light dear to earthly eyes, nor the sweet melodies of all kinds of songs, nor the gentle odor of flowers, and ointments and perfumes, nor manna or honey, nor limbs welcoming the embraces of the flesh; it is not these I love when I love my God. Yet there is a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace when I love my God — a light, voice, odor, food, embrace of my innerness, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part. That is what I love when I love my God.”

I read amazement into this passage in the sense of Rabbi Heschel’s words. But Heschel’s notion of spirituality extends beyond God to life in general. Looking at the stars on a clear night is amazing. Feeling the warmth of my wife’s body in bed at night is amazing. Seeing my students’ eyes light up in class is amazing. Being surprised by a seal popping up a few feet from my boat is amazing. When we carefully examine the word, amazing, beyond its trivialized use along with awesome, its connection to transcendence becomes clearer. Our basic human tendency to seek explanations to what has just entered our consciousness is left hanging in these moments. The explanation is beyond our rational capabilities. It is more than just being stumped by an intractable problem.

Amazement opens up our consciousness to what we are immediately connected to. Our habitual life stops for the moment and fades into the background. It is the connectedness that is so important. Our habitual, normal actions are mostly carried out unconsciously. Our cognitive system, in a sense, is working without our noticing. Most of life is spent in transacting one’s “business.” Transactions, as defined, are activities that do need require the reciprocal recognition of the person at the other end. Just pay the bill and move on. There is little or no room for care here and similarly little possibility for flourishing.

Spirituality, as I interpret Heschel, is a class of actions resulting from one’s amazement. Amazement is a positive emotion, as opposed to, say, fear. We naturally seek to bring more positive emotions in our life so we return to those places where we have felt amazement even though we may not experience it every time we act. We, however, are likely to remember our sense of connection in an existential sense: as a human being, we are connected to the world.

Once this belief finds its way into our cognitive system, it will stay there waiting to jump into the causal chain in other domains of action. If we begin to feel and recognize our connectedness when we work or raise our families or join in other cultural events, what have been merely transactions may be transformed into caring actions. Connectedness is semantically close to relationships. Relationships always have two ends connected by caring actions. Perhaps this process could be speeded up if we introduce a new word, caraction, to replace transaction. Flourishing in the here and now depends on such transformation: from need that is served through transactions to care that is realized through caractions. A wakening of spirituality through amazement would be a powerful step in that transformation, but perhaps not enough. It might take, in Hershel’s word, radical amazement. I’m all for it.

Richer than Croesus

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Croesus

I don’t tend to read the business pages of newspapers very much, but last weekend, an article in the NYTimes caught my eye. With the headline of “For the Love of Money,” it began with:

In my last year on Wall Street my bonus was $3.6 million — and I was angry because it wasn’t big enough. I was 30 years old, had no children to raise, no debts to pay, no philanthropic goal in mind. I wanted more money for exactly the same reason an alcoholic needs another drink: I was addicted.

This is more than merely greed, but surely a case of what greed can become. Myth and story abound with tales of men (almost always men) who become so enamored of money that their lives slip by unnoticed or they suffer worse fates. Midas was said to have died of starvation because everything he touched turn to gold, rendering it inedible. Scrooge was not so much known as a greedy man, but rather as a miser. Somehow, however, greed drove him to hold on to his money so tightly, that he lost sight of the humanity surrounding him. Both showed signs of addiction.

Addiction is a special kind of obsessive action with two kinds of outcomes. First, the addict never can be satisfied. Second, over time the addiction produces some sort of pathological unintended consequences. For Midas, it was death; for Scrooge, it was the loss of his soul. For Sam Polk, the author of the article, it was, like Scrooge, a loss of his self. He writes

As the world crumbled, I profited. I’d seen the crash coming, but instead of trying to help the people it would hurt the most — people who didn’t have a million dollars in the bank — I’d made money off it. I don’t like who you’ve become, my girlfriend had said years earlier. She was right then, and she was still right. Only now, I didn’t like who I’d become either.

Polk was lucky, he recognized what was happening to him, and set out to “cure” himself with the help of many intervenors. Ironically, he considers himself fortunate that his early experience with drugs and alcohol helped wake him up and move him to address his addiction to money.

I can believe that addiction to drugs and alcohol may be due partly to genetic and partly to cultural factors, but I can’t see that money addiction is anything but cultural, reflecting present values. Polk adds this comment about wealth addiction.

Wealth addiction was described by the late sociologist and playwright Philip Slater in a 1980 book, but addiction researchers have paid the concept little attention. Like alcoholics driving drunk, wealth addiction imperils everyone. Wealth addicts are, more than anybody, specifically responsible for the ever widening rift that is tearing apart our once great country. Wealth addicts are responsible for the vast and toxic disparity between the rich and the poor and the annihilation of the middle class. Only a wealth addict would feel justified in receiving $14 million in compensation — including an $8.5 million bonus — as the McDonald’s C.E.O., Don Thompson, did in 2012, while his company then published a brochure for its work force on how to survive on their low wages. Only a wealth addict would earn hundreds of millions as a hedge-fund manager, and then lobby to maintain a tax loophole that gave him a lower tax rate than his secretary.

Addictions of any kind are antithetical to flourishing because the authenticity of care is necessarily missing. Addiction is constituted by loss of control; the addict is taken over by him or herself, but not in a mindful or responsible way. Wealth addiction seems even more insidious than, say, consumption addiction because there is no limit to the amount of money theoretically possible to acquire. There is some practical limit to the quantity of goods one can buy, although that limit is being stretched by the volume of the mega-mansions many wealth addicts live in. After the garage is filled with the overflow and a few self-storage units are also crammed full, consumption addiction may become somewhat self-limiting, but no such limits exist for the additive acquisition of money.

We can condemn the degree of inequality in America today and point out that as it grows we move further away from the possibility of flourishing. We can even rail about the greed that drives the widening gap and call for all sorts of policy measures to reduce the gap. But these are only Band-Aids. The cultural values that create wealth addiction are deep seated and must change before the cultural norms will follow. Economists and psychologists will have to stop telling us and those that design our institutional that we are insatiably needy at our core. If there is a better formula for creating addiction to wealth or to the goods most of us are limited to acquire, I can’t imagine it. If we are, in fact, such needy, greedy creatures, we will need to stop talking about flourishing or “sustainability,” the word many use, as something possible. The simplest of algebra or systems dynamics archetypes would show, in this case, such an outcome is impossible.

(Image: Head of Croesus on a vase in the Louvre)

Connectedness

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Only connect … (Howard’s End, E. M. Forster)

escher-relativity

I have been preparing for a one-day class to be given to a group of doctoral students at the Weatherhead School of Management. They have been assigned Flourishing. This will be the first time that this text rather then Sustainability by Design has been assigned. I have had to go back and revise all my materials to reflect the change in emphasis and style in Flourishing. The first task was to carefully remove just about all the references to sustainability and replace them with “flourishing.” If you have been reading this blog, you will know why.

“Sustainability” has become such a jargon word that it is effectively useless in the context of what must be done to preserve the planet and life upon it. I had hoped that by holding up what was happening to the word to ridicule and criticism, I might return some sense to sustainability. But I now admit defeat and have decided on taking a different course. Sustainability, per se, has another basic problem. It is an empty word, lacking any practical sense until whatever it refers to is explicit or at least tacitly understood by all the actors involved. Its use is especially cloudy when sustainable (adjective) is used to modify some noun, like business or luxury. No matter what was intended, this will always refer back to the noun.

Further, I began to understand that sustainability, as almost universally used, referred to maintaining the status quo, that is, continuing growth. I should have known because the word itself became popular only after the idea of sustainable development surfaced more than 20 years ago. Taken most simply, that term was defined as continuing economic growth, but growth that was eco-efficient and fair to all. The argument for sustainability was that we could continue to grow indefinitely while maintaining the security and health of the Planet and spreading the wealth more justly.

It should have been clear, then as it is now, that indefinite growth is impossible. There is no sign that our economies are becoming sufficiently eco-efficient to slow down and reverse the growing deterioration of the planet. With the global economy growing to resemble our own, this becomes even more clear. Nor is there any real probability that this will happen in the future. Our centuries old optimism about the capability of technology to solve all our problems cannot be supported any longer. The fairness of growth, especially at home, is working backwards with the rich getting the lion’s share of whatever growth has been taking place.

The time to take a critical look at sustainability is long gone, but I see little or no evidence of this happening by those who talk about it. I started using a definition tying sustainability to flourishing, even beginning to hyphenate the two words, but I found that the jargon overwhelms even this usage. Any way, there is not much flourishing around to sustain. The challenge ahead for the world is to make clear what it is we wish to sustain and to get to a point where sustain, not attain, is relevant.

For me, and now an increasing number of others, the target, flourishing, works well. It is much closer to historical and present human aspirations than any economic measure. So, I have begun to write about flourishing without any reference to sustainability. This poses a challenge as I failed to do this in both of my books. Not surprisingly because the intellectual path has been long and winding. But I do believe now that there is much more clarity with the possibility of more effective action in the future in place of the present efforts toward sustainability, Sustainability, at best, can only slow down the growth of unsustainability, a word we know only too well what its signs are.

So the change, as I note above, was the major task in preparing for the coming class. In the process, I continued to try to simplify what I know is a complicated, often academic, story. I have found I cannot unscramble the maze that we have followed to get where we are without many words and figures, but I am doing much better. I have, however, made what I think is a breakthrough is talking about what we have to do to open up the possibility of flourishing. It boils down to a single word, care. If we all would live in the context of caring for ourselves, others, and the rest of the world, flourishing should appear like magic, emerging from the complex world we are immersed within.

It would still take an economy to support such activities, maybe even a capitalistic one (although capitalism is built on many of the beliefs I criticize as causes of our present precarious situation). Care means to assure that all beings, human and otherwise, have the capabilities to fully achieve whatever their existential potential is by providing material and psychological inputs where needed. Care always involves an actor (carer) and the target of his or her actions. Implicit is this statement and the reality it represents is the idea of connection. The two ends are always connected.

But as Hamlet said, “there’s the rub.” We have become blind or indifferent to our connectedness to everything in the world. “Individualistic” is perhaps the most often used descriptor of the American people. The hegemonic idea of the “market” is based on “the invisible hand.” You can add your own evidence here. Increasingly, I believe the first task in creating flourishing is to reestablish our consciousness of our connectedness t the world out there. That sense has been there in the past, even on our own Continent. Native Americans lived with a deep sense of their connectedness to the Earth.

As I work though this poser, two possibilities come to mind. The first is to recover the meaning of love. Perhaps, many Christians are already there, taking their meaning from the Scriptures. But even they are bombarded with more dominant cultural meanings that tend to reify love as something to give, possess, or feel. Love is, rather, all about accepting the legitimacy of the other to exist as they are, and act accordingly (after Maturana). It is almost synonymous with care. But in a pure market economy, it is inevitable that love becomes a commodity, like everything else.

The second way is to begin to explicitly take care of a fourth domain besides the above-mentioned three. This is the domain of spirituality—care for out-of-the-world experiences-experiences with no apparent material causes. Spiritually was a principal domain of care for early humans as they lacked the secular, scientific, materialistic world view of modernity. I am not talking about religion, but of a sense of connectedness to everything that is unavailable in all the other three domains. Spiritual actions are directed towards our connections to “the great beyond” or some other similar metaphor.

This is not the end of what we can do to begin to open the possibility of flourishing, but it is a good start. More to come in future blogs. All this is available in Flourishing, but, as I note, not in such concise terms, but then books are not blogs.

(Image: Escher, Relativity)

Blah, Blah, Blah

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jargon

Just a couple of days ago, I posted an article about the distance corporate sustainability programs have moved from reality. Today, I found this on Greenbiz. I wish I had seen it first as it would have been a great lede.

As an avid Twitter user (@bmay), I follow trends in sustainability with interest, and tune in to the daily green business chatter that pervades my timeline. Much of it is hugely valuable as a source of news. But increasingly, I find myself tuning back out of much of the discussion due to the sheer volume of meaningless jargon that is proliferating the social media sphere. Insofar as I can make it out, the sustainability business community is now striving for something that could be amalgamated as this:

Net Positive Futuristic Collaboratively Consumptive Crowd-Sourced Natural Capitalist Disruptively Innovative Systems Game-Changing Business Radicalism

I do hope I haven’t misunderstood — it’s crystal clear to me.

The author is serious about sustainability, concerned, as I am, with the increasingly aimless work that is going on under the name of corporate sustainability. My over 50 years working in, first, environment management and, later, corporate sustainability, trump his mere 15 years in the field. I have made essentially the same argument in Flourishing. Brendan May, the article’s author continues by suggesting that little effective work is being done. He is letting a little fresh air into the same media that he criticizes.

I hear very few new ideas. Everyone is too busy trying to be clever, as opposed to getting on with the job and changing things. I don’t hear any insights about WHY forest governance is difficult in some countries or how to create marine reserves that benefit fishermen. I learn about what forums and frameworks might be deployed. They nearly always fail. Those kinds of critical issues are of course being tackled, but seldom by the ‘practitioners’ who bang on about them.

I applaud his honesty, but even this kind of criticism falls far short of revealing the ultimate ineffectiveness of virtually all “sustainability” programs. The business world simply doesn’t get it. The problems that firms are trying to cope with are threats to their existence as well as to the rest of the world. First of all, they have their priorities wrong, focusing on themselves instead of the world at large. Second, they are working on the wrong problem, looking for solutions in the wrong place, like the drunk who, having lost his car keys, is looking under a lamppost because it casts enough light to see. The lost keys, unfortunately, are somewhere else.

Unsustainability, the threat being addressed, is an unintended consequence, or as some would say, a side effect, of what business routinely does. Tinkering, as much of what sustainability programs do, cannot stop these unintended consequences. The appearance of so much jargon suggests that the “practitioners” are secretly aware of the futility of their efforts.

The world simply cannot survive under the increasing environmental and social load, in spite of all the sustainability work going on. If businesses truly want to do something about the situation, they not only have to cut the jargon, but, more truthfully, change their spots and move toward becoming a new institutional species. The fundamental psychological and economic models to which business strategies can be traced are erroneous representations of the world which, thus, are the source of the unintended consequences. That’s all I am going to write today; the rest of the story is too long and complicated. If this post intrigues you, you can continue by reading my two books, and perusing earlier posts on this blog.

May closed his article with a wonderful quote by Eric Hoffer, who said, “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business and eventually degenerates into a racket.” Worth thinking about!

A Friend Indeed?

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friendinneed

Today’s inspiration comes from a Boston Globe oped piece by Alex Beam who, like I do, is bemoaning the loss of meaning of “friend” due to the insane (my word) drive for numbers on the Internet.

The Russians used to say, “Better have a hundred friends than a hundred rubles.” Now that the social media hot air balloon has inflated the currency of friendship to its present worthless state, I’m brimming with “friends.” The lowest common denominator, the Facebook friend, might be better termed an acquaintance, a pal, or just some schlemiel you may or may not have gone to school with… Your cousin knew my sister, I think. At Harvard; or was it Howard? We’re friends!

The subject of the diminishment of “friend” has interested me for some years. I posted a blog back in May 2010 in which I calculated the value of a friend was 37¢, based on an offer from Burger King to exchange a voucher for a hamburger for defriending 10 names from your list. The value, according to Beam, has hugely decreased. It is possible to purchase a passel of friends for very little. I did a bit of surfing to see what the current price is. Socialyup.com offers packages of varying size. For only $190.00 and a wait of 6-8 weeks, you can add 10,000 friends to your list. That’s just 19¢ per friend, about half of what Burger King offer implied. Social Yup guarantees that the names are genuine, not fakes. Fine and dandy, but the real meaning of friend is completely fake.

Words take on their meaning from the actions they produce. Friends, until Facebook changed the meaning, were real live human beings that one trusted with his or her innermost secrets and enjoyed sharing experiences with. Facebook “friends” are just one example of what is happening. You can purchase all sorts of things indicating approval of your presence on the web. Beam continues:

Over at WeSellLikes.com (“Give your Facebook page an uplift!”), I can buy 10,000 Facebook “likes” for $350. Twitter followers are a lot cheaper. An Indonesian gentleman sells 1,000 fans for $10, and a million for $600. So for about the cost of a high-end tablet computer, my 222-person Twitter account could swell to Pamela Anderson-like (995,000) proportions… . While you and I may have trouble distinguishing fact from fancy on the Internets, clearer-eyed people don’t. Last month, the web consulting firm Incapsula revealed that 61 percent of web traffic “was generated by non-human entities” called bots. Atlantic magazine writer Alexis Madrigal quickly dubbed this the “Internet of Thingies,” and helpfully demonstrated how the most ignorant layperson could quickly assemble a program to visit your Web page 100,000 times.

I am pretty happy with the 30 or so faithful followers of my blog and am truly ecstatic when the number jumps to 80 or 90. It seems better to have a truthful measure of how I am doing rather than some artificial report. Artificial fans (likes) and web visitors cannot spread the words I create every few days or so. Artificial friends cannot provide what true friends do. Without genuine friends, life can get pretty lonely and bleak. It is the quality of friendship, not the quantity of friends, that enriches one’s life and contributes to flourishing. Many call their spouses their best friends as well as their lovers.

The internet and its social media are rapidly diminishing the meaning and value of “friend,” “follower,”and “like.” All these three words are connected to the idea of relationship. Relationships with others and with the world writ large are the heart of being and flourishing. We have already lost much of our ability to be (flourish) to modernity and its technologies and technocratic way of thinking. There is no way that we can buy it back although market aficionados would argue that there is someone out there who will sell it to us. Beam writes today with his tongue stuck a bit in his cheek, but ends with a trenchant quote from Emerson.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “Friendship, like the immortality of the soul, is too good to be believed.” Hail the Sage of Concord! He anticipated the Internet.

Image: “A Friend in Need” by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge

Living on the Other Side of the Looking Glass

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“The sound principle of a topsy-turvy lifestyle in the framework of an upside-down world order has stood every test.” Karl Kraus

lookinng g;lass

As part of my New Year’s work, I read the latest Sloan Management/BCG report on the status of corporate sustainability. The 2013 report is the fifth in this annual series.

The 2013 survey included more than 5,300 executive and manager respondents from 118 countries. This report is based on a smaller subsample of 1,847 respondents from commercial enterprises. To focus on business, we excluded responses from academic, consulting, governmental and nonprofit organizations. Respondent organizations are located around the world and represent a wide variety of industries. The sample was drawn from a number of sources, including BCG and MIT alumni, MIT Sloan Management Review subscribers, BCG clients and other interested parties.

I found the report profoundly depressing. I often write that business has got sustainability all wrong, and this report reinforces my arguments. I was mildly hopeful when I came across the term, materiel sustainability, in the text. I immediately thought that firms has come to realize that their material inputs extracted from the environment were becoming threatened, and, conversely, were harming the environment. Finally, I thought maybe the corporate world is recognizing threats posed by a deteriorating world. No, I was wrong. Here is how they had defined “material sustainability.”

What is Material Sustainability?
The focus of this report is, in large part, on the most significant sustainability issues: what they are, how they are addressed, and which companies are addressing them. This research examines a growing global expectation that companies assess and address the sustainability issues that are material to their existence over time. Material sustainability issues, in this sense, are those issues most relevant to the company’s continued ability to function. Thus, what counts as “material” may vary considerably depending, for example, on which industry you look at, or even on the business model of individual companies in the same industry… The expectation that companies should be addressing these material sustainability issues is reflected in a variety of new standards and practices. In the United States, for example, the Sustainability Accounting and Standards Board, accredited by the American National Standards Institute, is developing disclosure standards for 88 industries to provide investors with transparency into the significant sustainability risks of the companies in which they invest

The word, materiality, has particular significance to companies. It refers to all risks that might impair a firm’s profitability in the future or affect the analyses of interested parties. GAAP defines it as “Information is material if its omission or misstatement could influence the economic decision of users taken on the basis of the financial statements. Materiality depends on the size of the item or error judged in the particular circumstances of its omission or misstatement.” In a word it is a factor to be used in judging the “sustainability (existence or health) of the firm. It focuses attention on the interior dimensions of the corporate body.

This focus on the inside of firms could not be farther from the language and sense of the original Brundtland definition of sustainability (as sustainable development) which referred to the state of the world, a macro concept—the converse of the micro-sense of corporate sustainability. This sense is intensified by the factors being used to assess corporate sustainability. The SMR/BCG report lists five:

  • Creating a sustainability strategy
  • Making sustainability a top management agenda item
  • Developing sustainability business cases
  • Measuring progress on corporate sustainability performance
  • Changing business models as a result of significant sustainability issues

Concern about sustainability arose out of a concern that the world was deteriorating and that well-being was severely maldistributed globally. It is difficult to find a link between corporate concerns about sustainability and this sense. I think part of the issue arises out of the financial models that are paramount in corporate management. Neo-classical models simply aggregate the profits of all firms into a term directly related to the overall health of the private sector and indirectly related to the well-being of the populace. No such direct correlation exists for those impacts on the environmental and social worlds. Each firms exerts a unknowable impact on these complex worlds. The idea that an aggregate index measuring the total amount of recycling can be directly tied to the state of the world is simply wrong. More recycling is, of course, better than less, but improvements cannot be related to the health of the oceans, for example.

The idea of a business case for sustainability is, at best, laughable. The firm exists within a real world. The appropriate business case should be based on some sort of P&L that combines the income of the firm and the costs to the world of its operations. The idea that there is only internal profit involved completely distorts reality. Then, the case for sustainability would be similar to the general case for any strategy. It would not be necessary to separate sustainability from this general strategy, and like other central strategic issues it would naturally be a top concern of management. Since it is a material concern, the results of the business’s operations would be part of the general P&L and balance sheet. Last, changes due to whatever is classified as ? “material sustainability issues” would be handled within the routine responses of the firm.

Bottom-line (I use this metaphor on purpose) the Earth and the people that occupy it are not likely to benefit significantly from the sustainability strategies and practices of the corporate world. And even if they were, in theory, the commitment of companies to anything outside of the private financial aspects of the firm is shaky or non-existent. The gist of the report revolves around the idea binning firms into three classes: “talkers, walkers, and on-the-road” The gap between the talkers and the walkers is large.

1113sustain09.jpg

If firms reported the same sort of numbers referring to their attention to profits. Wall Street would quickly sort out the laggards.

I could go on for quite a while but let me end with these thoughts. The whole idea of sustainability in the corporate mind is wrong. It doesn’t gibe with the way this concept is held by many others nor with the way the world actually works. At minimum, the language used should be changed to alleviate the misunderstandings and bring expectations in line with actuality. There is something terribly wrong with the social dimension as it is completely oblivious to the deteriorating state of workers in the US. The materiality of specific social and environmental factors appears to be lower than that of conventional economic factors. And, most fundamentally, the situation will not change “materially” until the firm internalizes its externalities in every aspect of measuring and planning.

Happy New Year

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sari

Happy New Year. The new year was greeted with a monstrous blizzard and record low temperatures in New England. It will be hard over the next few weeks to write anything about global warming. My wife and I spent a delightful few weeks in India touring the southern parts. We did not visit much of the India that is rapidly industrializing and growing wealthy. We spent most of the time in small villages still living of of farming and cottage trades. I was reinforced in my beliefs that technology both giveth and taketh away, providing uniformity and economy, but dimming connections between us and the world.

We wandered by accident into a tiny dwelling in the back-quarters of Madurai, a moderately sized city in Tamil Nadu, and found a woman weaving a sari on a very old handmade loom. The rollers at the ends were made of carefully smoothed logs. But it had a rustic, but modern, Jacquard mechanism installed so it could weave very intricate patterns. I asked how the punched cards that provide the information to the Jacquard mechanism were made. Somebody makes them for her using a computer, resulting in a wondrous admixture of old and new. The quality of the silk saris she made was fabulous.. Our guide said they could not be matched by machine made goods. I believe it. A machine cannot connect the weaver to the woven in the way her loom can.

She is one of thousands of similar weavers all over India. Her house was certainly what would be called humble. She and her husband slept underneath the loom, and used the other room for everything else. She, after few moments of shyness, spoke openly to us about her work and her life. She is proud of what she does. She is an example of many others we spoke to in that she represents a generation of cottage craftsmen and farmers who are sending their children to college. This creation of upward mobility is enabled by strong government support of education right from the get go. We spoke to many small children along the way, who, on one hand, might be called waifs, but, on the other, replied to us in excellent English. English is taught everywhere to create a second national language to Hindi.

We, in the US, are currently experiencing the breakdown of many institutions from the federal government to local school systems. Differences among us are creating ever widening breaches in the social fabric. Inequality is growing at both ends; the rich are getting richer as the poor become poorer for lack of work. India, is a country of vastly more differences than the US, but somehow it seems to work. It certainly has its problems as it tries to become more like the industrialized West, but they are quite different. Inequality is growing, but as I see it, primarily due to growth at the top without associated decline at the bottom. Inflation does hurt the bottom tiers, but most remain employed if only at subsistence levels.

We may have been influenced by traveling in Kerala, the most socially advanced state of the 28 that make up India. We visited a food distribution center where poor families can come and get monthly allotments of basic commodities for very small, highly subsidized cost—their version of food stamps. We were amazed at one such center when one of the woman coming to the place walked away with 20 kilos (44 pounds) of rice carefully balanced on her head.

In the opposite vein, we unexpectedly were invited to the birthday party of the Maharana of Udaipur at his enormous palace. Although he and all other such princely rulers were deprived of their political power by the British, they were allowed to keep their properties and wealth. Sriji, as he is called, was charming to us and the other 800 or so guests. Before visiting the South, we had gone to Udaipur to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of some dear Indian friends. who were in turn friendly with Sriji and were invited with all their guests to the party.

Late in the trip, while staying at our hotel, we were invited by the groom’s uncle who we met coincidentally in the hotel to a wedding to be held later in the day. We did go and saw another side of Indian affluence, but also an old custom. The ceremony went on for a couple of hours. We were invited to go on stage and bless the couple by dropping a few grain of rice on their heads, a manifestation of the hospitality of Indian traditions. We saw many golden patterned saris that must have been woven by weavers like the one we visited.

We visited many Hindu and other religious variety temples over the two plus weeks. While many of the traditions they represent are very foreign to us and contradictory to our mores and cultural values, people tend to hold all of the world as sacred. The caste system, not a good idea, arose within Hinduism and although no longer legal is only slowly disappearing.

One cultural value that stood out everywhere we went is the strong role of the family at all economic levels. Some of the family rules are foreign to us and antithetical to our values, but the centrality of family ties is evident everywhere. Except for their driving habits, Indians seem to exhibit more explicit care that we do. Driving is a white=knuckle experience, both in the cities and villages and on the highway, if a narrow two-lane intercity road can be called a highway. The first thing Indian drivers would seem to have learned is to beep the horn as a way to magically clear the way between cars to allow them to through spaces that seem to be half the width of the vehicle.

We returned with a myriad of images, smells, and tastes. There are a number of things I would like to see here in the US. The idea of family here seems to becoming more of an economic notion rather than one of special, tradional relationships. We could learn much from them here. Conversely, they are trying very hard to emulate the West, particularly the US. They will inevitably lose some of their older traditions along the way, especially the idea of relationship or connections to the whole world. Although I would hesitate deeming the weaver lady we visited as flourishing, she and her family appear to be much better off than people here with equivalent incomes. She has a craft to follow of which she is proud and gives her satisfaction. She will not go hungry. She has a micro-culture nearby that takes care of her and her family. She has available to her children an opportunity to change their life style and economic class if they so desire even as she is mired in her circumstances.

It was a trip to remember, but I am back and have to return to my routines. I will pick up again on this blog, but maybe not so faithfully. I have been thinking about flourishing a lot and will continue to hone my thinking about it. I collected a number of opinion and other pieces while I was gone and will respond to them in the next few weeks.