Blah, Blah, Blah


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!