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Midas, Cassandra and the Buddha: Curing Delusional Growth Myopia by Focusing on Thriving

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Abstract

This article discusses the problems of current measures of business and economic success and suggests an alternative approach. The mythological memes of Midas, Cassandra, and the Buddha are offered as a means to frame mind-sets and to articulate a necessary shift in focus and reprioritization of key performance indicators. Indicators of wellbeing and technologies for eliminating negative environmental impacts exist. The key problem is that humanity—at every level—has its attention focused on delusional measures of success. A refocus onto measures of ecological and human thriving is a sine qua non for adjusting civilization, including business activity, such that it can survive into the 22nd century and beyond. A key challenge is that financial growth metrics are deeply embedded in current systems and in the mind-sets of people at all levels of current hierarchies. The goal of shifting mind-sets and measures of success requires the engagement of many sectors of society, beginning with educational institutions and including managers in the private and public sectors. At the individual, firm, and societal levels, indicators of ecological health and human thriving must be elevated and treated as key measures of success. The stakes of current ecological and societal problems involve the lives and wellbeing of billions of people. The memes and metaphors discussed here provide a novel way to frame and discuss issues and solutions whose implementation are overdue and desperately needed at the individual, organizational, and collective levels.
The Journal of Corporate Citizenship Issue 61 March 2016 © Greenleaf Publishing 2016 15
Midas, Cassandra and the Buddha
Curing Delusional Growth Myopia by Focusing on Thriving
Adam Sulkowski
Babson College, USA
Sandra Waddock
Carroll School of Management, USA
This article discusses the problems of current measures of business and economic
success and suggests an alternative approach. The mythological memes of Midas,
Cassandra, and the Buddha are offered as a means to frame mind-sets and to articu-
late a necessary shift in focus and reprioritization of key performance indicators.
Indicators of wellbeing and technologies for eliminating negative environmental
impacts exist. The key problem is that humanity—at every level—has its attention
focused on delusional measures of success. A refocus onto measures of ecological
and human thriving is a sine qua non for adjusting civilization, including business
activity, such that it can survive into the 22nd century and beyond. A key challenge
is that financial growth metrics are deeply embedded in current systems and in the
mind-sets of people at all levels of current hierarchies. The goal of shifting mind-sets
and measures of success requires the engagement of many sectors of society, begin-
ning with educational institutions and including managers in the private and public
sectors. At the individual, firm, and societal levels, indicators of ecological health and
human thriving must be elevated and treated as key measures of success. The stakes
of current ecological and societal problems involve the lives and wellbeing of billions
of people. The memes and metaphors discussed here provide a novel way to frame
and discuss issues and solutions whose implementation are overdue and desperately
needed at the individual, organizational, and collective levels.
OSustainability
OThriving
OWellbeing
OKey
performance
metrics
OBuddhism
OMind-set
OMetanoia
DOI: [10.9774/GLEAF.4700.2016.ma.00004]
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adam sulkowski, sandra waddock
16 The Journal of Corporate Citizenship Issue 61 March 2016 © Greenleaf Publishing 2016
Adam Sulkowski has published over 30 scholarly works on sustainability reporting and
corporate law and responsibility. An Associate Professor at Babson College, he has
implemented sustainability reporting with cities, companies, and universities.
Sandra Waddock is the Galligan Chair of Strategy, Carroll School Scholar of Corporate
Responsibility, and Professor of Management in the Carroll School of Management at
Boston College. Widely published, Dr Waddock’s research interests are in the area of
macro-system change, intellectual shamanism, stewardship of the future, wisdom,
corporate responsibility, management education, and multi-sector collaboration. She is
author or editor of 11 books, most recently, Intellectual Shamans: Management Academics
Making a Difference (Cambridge University Press, 2015), Building the Responsible Enterprise:
Where Vision and Values Meet Value (with Andreas Rasche, Stanford Business Books, 2012),
SEE Change: Making the Change to a Sustainable Enterprise Economy (with Malcolm
McIntosh, Greenleaf Publishing, 2011), and The Difference Makers: How Social and
Institutional Entrepreneurs Built the Corporate Responsibility Movement (Greenleaf Publishing,
2008). Dr Waddock has published well over 100 articles on corporate citizenship,
sustainable enterprise, difference making, wisdom, stewardship of the future, responsibility
management systems, corporate responsibility, management education, and related topics.
u
Division of Accounting and Law,
Luksic Hall, Babson College,
Babson Park, MA 02457-0310, USA
!
asulkowski@gmail.com
u
Carroll School of Management,
Fulton Hall, Boston College,
Chestnut Hill, MA 02467, USA
!
sandra.waddock@bc.edu
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The Journal of Corporate Citizenship Issue 61 March 2016 © Greenleaf Publishing 2016 17
midas, cassandra and the buddha
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s retelling of the Ancient Greek myth, King
Midas realizes that his wish that everything he touches turns to gold is
a curse, but only after his food becomes inedible and after his daughter
is likewise turned to gold (Hawthorne, 1851). In another Greek legend, a
Princess of Troy, Cassandra, is given the power of foresight along with the curse
that no one will believe her, resulting in powerlessness to prevent impending
catastrophe.
The current predicament of humankind can be summed-up by these two
memes. Humanity has engineered a marvellous system of transforming natu-
ral capital and human potential into goods and services (as well as pollution,
ecological despoilment, and dissatisfaction) in the service of maximizing an
extremely narrow set of indicators. However, we increasingly see that we are
overly focused, to a catastrophic extent, on growth of these narrow metrics
(profit, share value, and gross domestic product, GDP). Like Midas, in both
developed and developing economies we see evidence of growing human mis-
ery and trend lines indicating ecological collapse, but because these problems
do not obviously and immediately impact our most hallowed indicators, they
are largely ignored. In this context, the subsistence needs of billions are being
threatened with little apparent will to stop these trends. Some will vociferously
challenge this characterization, pointing out that the current predominant
global paradigm of (presumed) free market capitalism has lifted an astound-
ing and unprecedented number people out of poverty in the late 20th and early
21st centuries. Since the 1970s, however, others, like modern incarnations of
Cassandra, have been warning that catastrophic ecological (and societal and
economic) consequences potentially await humanity during the first century
of the current millennium if changes are not made to the system (Daly, 1987;
Gilding, 2011; Lovelock, 2006, 2010; McKibben 2010, 2012).
Below, we will summarize the evidence that a Midas-like overemphasis on a
narrow range of metrics (which we have reduced to the single, fabricated, and
ultimately counterproductive imperative of growth, typically gauged using GDP
and stock market indices) has resulted in real problems. For over four decades,
many other indicators reflect very real, growing, and global crises, particularly
with respect to climate change, ecosystem collapse, and related problems
(Change, 2007; McKibben, 2012). Blind pursuit of the growth delusion has
masked and ultimately exacerbated very real problems facing humanity and
other living beings on the planet.
Still, the meta-frameworks, metrics, and new mind-sets necessary for moving
forward are yet to be fully determined, much less widely embraced by domi-
nant institutions. Besides joining the chorus of researchers and thinkers who
have called for the development, adoption and use of an expanded range of key
performance indicators (KPIs), the authors believe that there is a need to focus
and reflect on the impact of using various KPIs and use teaching, research, and
companies’ understanding of best practices to foster new mind-sets about the
core purposes of humanity as they are expressed in the economy. Indeed, to
cope with the very real problems confronting the world, we—even humanity
as a whole—may need to fundamentally rethink the goals and purposes of the
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economy—to bring us home, quite literally, to the core meaning of the word.
The word “economy” derives from the Greek term ο¡κονόμος, which means
“one who manages a household”, and carries connotations of both thrift and
stewardship. Both of these connotations seem to be lost in the modern usage
of the word “economy”, with its often stated and sometimes assumed impera-
tive of constant growth in financial and material terms as expressed in metrics
like GDP. As we will briefly document below, such measures as GDP, when
paired with the presumed need for constant (material and financial) growth,
were flawed from their beginning, and do not nearly account for much of what
is actually important to human beings, never mind the continued functioning
of our life support systems.
The real problem of growth
The authors suggest, though this is in some circles still considered a radical
statement, that the real problem of growth in a resource-constrained world is
growth itself. To deal with that problem we need to redefine what we mean by
growth, shifting from material and financial growth toward a new understand-
ing of growth as development, re-engage with the original meaning of economy,
and develop and implement new measures for companies and economies that
reflect what we term “thrivability” rather than flawed measures of economic
growth. In a well-stewarded home where thrift is valued (the original meaning
of economy), we do not necessarily (though some might dispute this premise)
wish for constant material and physical growth. Instead, we might wish for
happiness, love, satisfaction, wellbeing, and growth that comes in the form of
developmental complexity, better or more relationships, and the ability to con-
tinue to learn and develop for all members of the family or alternatively even
the simplicity of a calmer, less frenetic lifestyle where such connections and
pleasurable pursuits are more possible. This type of growth allows for learn-
ing and personal growth in a variety of aspects, without causing harm to self
or others and without necessarily creating winners and losers, and the careful
husbanding of resources.
Taking this notion as a starting point, the authors believe that for a variety of
reasons the definition of a sound future economy needs to be built on a premise
of wellbeing rather than constant material and financial growth. It also needs
to go beyond sustainability in its traditional usage to encompass what we will
call thrivability. Moving toward notions of thriving (flourishing, or what soci-
ologist Juliet Schor (2010) calls plenitude) requires a significant shift of mind
or metanoia, as Peter Senge (1990, 2006) termed it. Such a shift of mind-set
could lead to a new definition of economy that is rather close to the way that the
Brundtland Commission defined sustainability; i.e. “meeting the needs of the
present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their
needs” (Brundtland, 1987).
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midas, cassandra and the buddha
Thus, we believe that there is a need to shift our general mind-set away from
one of constant consumption of material goods and obsession with flawed
financial measures (i.e. growth in country GDPs and company size, profits,
and share value) to something that involves thriving without (material) growth.
Consistent with this mind-set would be achieving good profits year to year but
not necessarily more profits. Subordinating everything to the growth of profits
would be inconsistent with this new mind-set. We could argue for production
of physical products and goods that work for long periods of time; i.e. switching
to what some have called a servicizing mentality, in which services rather than
products are offered (Reiskin et al., 2008; Rothenberg, 2007; White et al., 1999),
creating an emphasis on renewability and improvement of material objects
instead of replacement, and substituting durability for planned obsolescence.
We could envision upgrading the “software” of products without always needing
to replace the hardware, in goods like smart phones and computers. Shifting to
a thrivability mind-set really means thinking differently about the core purpose
of economy, and that is the metanoia we believe is needed. Such different think-
ing may be what is necessary to avoid the catastrophic consequences that we in
our Cassandra roles foresee.
The growth delusion
The notion of mankind suffering in a delusion-induced ordeal in which growth
at all costs is the goal and ever-more material goods will somehow produce
fulfilment flies in the face of much empirical evidence that indicates that when
basic needs are filled, more money or “stuff” does not produce greater hap-
piness (Csikszentmihalyi, 1999). The idea of seeking happiness, fulfilment,
and awakening through a change of focus or mind-set also has a mythological
meme: the Buddha. The revelation at the core of the Buddha’s awakening was
simply and ultimately a shift of focus; namely, refocusing one’s attention away
from painful delusions toward accepting what is. Just as Senge (Senge et al.,
2008; Senge, 2006) argues for a profound paradigm shift, we also argue that
a release from obsessing over destructively misleading goals and indicators is
needed. Further, the philosophy of the Buddha was further specified in ways that
are instructive for the purposes of this paper. As will be explained, constructive
goals must be decided, actual and vital features of reality must be measured,
and intentions, concentration, and action consistently applied to achieve the
goals of survival and wellbeing.
As indicated by the title of this paper, our civilizational predicaments and
potential for hopeless despair have their mythological tropes as well as real
historical precedents. The stakes for the future are epic and the scale of the chal-
lenges presents opportunities for all of us to pursue heroic quests. The irony
is that some of the solutions to our colossal problems may also be drawn from
simple, yet profound and ancient wisdom.
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Achieving thrivability will require vigorous and sincere focus on and use of
new KPIs—not just having KPIs, but urgently internalizing, planning, and act-
ing on them at the company and societal levels. That requires a change of mind-
set institutionally and at individual levels. Ultimately simple guiding principles
from traditional wisdom as encapsulated in mythological memes are essential
to embrace, adopt, and deploy into action.
As noted, sustainability means providing for the needs of today without
destroying our ability to meet tomorrow’s needs (Brundtland Commission,
1987). Most of the significant problems of the world can be tied-back to exactly the
key meta-problem the Brundtland Commission identified: that our civilization
fails to meet the needs of today without undermining its potential to meet the
needs of tomorrow. That is, by virtue of emphasis on continual economic growth
(as presently defined and measured) and material consumption, combined with
the quadrupling of human population on the Earth since 1900, humanity is
now living well beyond the Earth’s capacity for renewal. The Global Footprint
Network, for example, estimated that by the first decade of the 21st century,
humanity was using resources 1.5 times faster than the Earth could replenish
them, effectively drawing down stored (or “banked”) ecological resources well
beyond any capacity for regeneration that allows for meeting future generations’
needs (WWF International et al., 2012). Further, the same group notes that if
everyone on the planet lived at the level of resource consumption as people in the
US do, we would need the equivalent of five planets to support those lifestyles.
Midas got his wish: GDP, market myopia,
and the growth delusion
Simon Kuznets, commonly credited with first capturing all the economic activ-
ity of the United States in a single number, explicitly pointed out at the time
that this metric, which we know as gross domestic product or GDP, would not
be effective at measuring welfare (Kuznets, 1934). Yet the 1944 Bretton Woods
Conference, which established the World Bank and International Monetary
Fund, adopted GDP as the standard measure of national economic success and
as late as 1999, the US Commerce Department declared GDP “one of the great
inventions of the 20th century” (Dickinson, 2011). Growth of GDP in the US and
the rest of the world has been a commonly accepted goal and generally GDP has
increased globally; most commonly GDP growth rates are cited as evidence of
the vigour of economies such as those of China and India and in recent decades
US and global GDP have generally, in the long-term, trended upward.
It is impossible to attribute the concept of “growth being good” to one
individual or moment. The drive to increase possessions, power, and control
(and to rationalize it normatively as positive and desirable, or even moral and
divinely ordained) has been a consistent and somewhat universal theme in
human history, manifesting itself everywhere from the ancient kingdoms of
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midas, cassandra and the buddha
Babylon, China, Egypt and Persia, to the Mayan and Inca civilizations, to the
conquering exploits of Genghis Khan, to Feudal Europe, to the eras of French,
Portuguese, and Spanish colonialism, to the periods of British, Soviet, and
American hegemony.
Adam Smith is credited with first articulating how pursuit of wealth could
improve the welfare of members of society (Smith, 1776). To simplify greatly,
if wealth grows faster than population, and assuming certain other factors, the
prosperity of everyone is supposed to rise along with increasing production.
Malthus pointed out the simple observation that growth in population may
outstrip the capacity of the Earth to provide subsistence needs for humanity
(Malthus, 1798). Technological advances have increased productivity in the
generation of food, energy, and other consumables enough that Malthusian
concerns have largely been put aside for most of the past two centuries.
Since the end of the Second World War, dominant institutions have been
myopically focused—Midas-like—on growth of GDP and share prices. From
1947 until 2012, GDP growth in the US followed a constant-dollar exponential
(averaged) growth rate of 0.81% quarterly or 3.3% annually (Bureau of Economic
Analysis, 2012). Globally, GDP grew from US$1.3498 trillion to $69.9937 tril-
lion (World Bank, 2012). Similarly, the US stock market has generally experi-
enced growth over the long-term—the S&P Composite (adjusted for Consumer
Price Index) followed an exponential growth curve from 1871 to 2012, increasing
its value tenfold (Shiller, 2006). Indeed, our definition of success does not have
a “stable” or “neutral” setting (Heinberg, 2011). Yet despite this apparent growth,
all is not well. For example, growth of GDP and share value are not always related
to the financial wellbeing of individuals and families. From 2002 to 2006, for
example, GDP grew in the US while personal incomes fell (Dickinson, 2001),
and since the mid-1970s, real median US family income has stagnated and
inequality has increased (Wisman, 2013).
To summarize: humanity has fit the meme of Midas to the extent that a
dominant organizing principle has been—to the exclusion of other goals and
values—a fetishization of the growth of GDP and share value. All along some
have warned that this trend will end in tragedy. Next, we will review the thinking
and evidence that we have entered a key phase during which, Midas-like, we
are seeing our suicidal “sprint-over-a-cliff” for what it really is—that reducing
everything to the service of limited measures of growth of wealth is counterpro-
ductive to survival and happiness.
Channelling Cassandra: unfolding catastrophes and our failure
to take them seriously
As noted above, Thomas Malthus is given credit for first postulating that growth
of human population and consumption must eventually collide and be con-
strained by limits of the natural world (Malthus, 1798). Chief Seattle (Seathl),
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22 The Journal of Corporate Citizenship Issue 61 March 2016 © Greenleaf Publishing 2016
in a similar yet more poetic vein, is famously quoted as saying, in December
of 1854,
This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All
things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of
life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.1
Physicist Fritjof Capra similarly highlights humans’ interconnectedness to what
he calls the web of life (Capra, 1997) and James Lovelock similarly popularized
awareness that the Earth’s ecosystems collaborate to sustain life much like sys-
tems in a single organism (Lovelock, 1972).
Although advances in technology may seem to have allowed humans to
surpass certain presumed limits, the 20th century witnessed the awakening
of broad swaths of humanity to new dangers and limits, such as pervasive pol-
lution (Carson, 2002), problems of product quality and safety (Nader, 1965),
and lack of corporate responsibility, for example in the manifold scandals seen
just in the first decade of the 2000s, to name a few. Such issues have been
exacerbated at the dawn of the new millennium, with human-induced climate
change and its consequences (Change, 2007), problems in the food chain, in
terms of quantity and distribution, as well as production methods becoming
increasingly apparent.
The seminal work in the evolution of humanity’s realization of its sustain-
ability crisis was the Club of Rome’s 1972 work, The Limits of Growth (Daly, 1987;
Meadows et al., 1972), which identifies five key variables affecting the future of
civilization: population, agricultural production, natural resources, industrial
production, and pollution. Various scenarios are examined and the conclusion
is that drastic changes in our political, economic, and social systems are needed
to avoid catastrophic loss of human life. Such dire predictions and calls for an
all-out, wartime-scale collective effort to enact changes have been echoed by a
spectrum of thought leaders from different disciplinary perspectives, including
anthropology (Diamond, 2005), food economy (Brown, 2009), and the United
States Department of Defense (Mr Y, 2011). Below is a summary of several
separate, but inextricably linked observable phenomena that define today’s real-
ity—and whose evolution have largely kept pace with the Club of Rome’s dire
predictions (Meadows et al., 2004; Turner, 2008).
Mass extinction
Human impacts over just the past century in the context of the 5 billion year
history of the planet have been so profound that our current age has been
dubbed the Anthropocene (Crutzen, 2002; Steffen et al., 2011). Human impacts
are already being recorded in the fossil and geologic record. For example,
major mass extinction events have occurred in the history of the planet. We
1 There are numerous versions of the speech and letter. This one appears as “Chief Seattle’s
Letter to All” at: http://www.csun.edu/~vcpsy00h/seattle.htm, last accessed 15 June 2015.
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midas, cassandra and the buddha
are accelerating into the sixth mass extinction event, largely resulting from
anthropogenic habitat destruction, pervasive pollution, over-exploitation (such
as overfishing), and acidification and warming of the oceans. The current rate
of extinction is estimated to be in the vicinity of 5–7 species per hour, well above
typical background rates; further, evidence shows that, while most species are
being annihilated by human activity, they are being replaced by the spread of a
much smaller variety of existing species that thrive in human-altered environ-
ments, resulting in a more homogenized biosphere (Change, 2007; Gilding,
2011; Steffen et al., 2011).
Setting aside related ethical problems (despite their importance), the oblit-
eration of living libraries of unique and irretrievable genetic codes is a loss to
humanity, in that wild species are the source of life-saving treatments, with over
75% of cancer-fighting ingredients originating from tropical rain forest species
(Newman, 1994). In the longer term, this ripping apart of the fabric of life is
a suicidal hazard to us, inasmuch as we rely on entire interrelated ecosystems
as our life support system to provide water, oxygen, and pollination—liter-
ally priceless yet until now free ecosystem services (Capra, 1997). These are
not hypothetical costs or strictly aesthetic luxuries: pollination of orchards in
China—by humans—is now not unprecedented (Mburu et al., 2006). To take
another example: conserving natural watersheds in Upstate New York is eco-
nomically cheaper than allowing development and then paying for tap water
treatment later (Hawken, 1993); this is an example of pragmatic enlightened
long-term conservation that on a global scale we have failed to achieve.
In the very long term, the diminishment of the diversity of life has been
characterized by eminent scientists as a detriment to the chances of any bio-
logical forms surviving future apocalyptic changes, such as comet or asteroid
strikes (Wilson, 2002). On the timescale considered by evolutionary biologists
(who take for granted that eventually civilizations and our species will come to
an end) current human destruction of ecosystems amounts to threatening the
future of life itself.
Pervasive toxicity and e-waste
Beyond a fossil record that will bear witness to the freefall in the number of
unique varieties of life, the geology of the planet now features sediments of
accumulated pollution—a permanent record of the manmade onslaught of poi-
sons released into the air, water, and land—more evidence of the Anthropocene
geologic era (Crutzen, 2002). Since the 1960s, there has been widespread and
growing awareness among scientists and the public that production, use, and
disposal of synthetic compounds has laced the world’s ecosystems with persist-
ent organic pollutants (POPs), among them PCBs (Jensen, 1966).
POPs are the leading suspects in explaining the worldwide disappearance
and mutation of frog species and global collapse of bee colonies (Blaustein,
2003). Scientists specializing in the study of amphibians refer to them as the
proverbial canary in a coal mine (whose loss of consciousness would serve as
an early warning to miners about accumulating dangerous gases), because of
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the similarities between amphibian and human endocrine systems. The same
invisible pollutants that disrupt their production of hormones may already be
impacting humans, resulting in observable trends in various health problems,
intelligence levels, diseases, and even crime rates (Ferguson et al., 2008). In
a tragically ironic twist, while seeking populations relatively less affected by
pollution, scientists discovered that even in places like the Arctic, Inuit are
also affected; in fact, Eskimo breast milk is more contaminated than elsewhere
because of global wind and water currents and bioaccumulation (Dewailly,
1989). These are profoundly troubling uncontroversial observations of existing
phenomena; however, most of business academe and the general popular media
choose to focus on other events and priorities.
The current global output of discarded electronic equipment is comparatively
new in the legacy of anthropogenic poisoning of the biosphere. E-waste, as it
is known, is estimated to total between 20 and 25 million tonnes per year, with
most e-waste being produced in Europe, the United States and Australasia
(Robinson, 2009). Lead, cadmium, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are
among the more widely known poisons in electronics, and burning e-waste gen-
erates dioxins, furans, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and hydrogen
chloride. Even if e-waste is recycled, in the reality of the global recycling chain,
techniques include burning and use of acids without safeguards for workers
or the environment (Widmer et al., 2005). This results in extremely high local
levels of contaminants, but beyond the local effects, release into food chains,
air, and water means that e-waste is part of a global phenomenon. As is the
case with the other trends summarized here, pollution is a problem that has
grown in complexity and scale rather than diminishing. For example, emissions
of mercury from small-scale gold mining in Asia, Africa, and South America
have doubled since 2005 (UNEP, 2013). The poisoning of the biosphere is not
easily reversed.
Food and water security
Beyond poisoning ourselves and the biosphere and annihilating life forms, we
collectively are encountering problems with feeding and providing water to the
over 7 billion people now living on the planet, a problem that is most obviously
and immediately tied to societal and political instability and widespread death,
violence, and misery. Two statistics indicate that food scarcity is an increasing
rather than a waning problem. First, the number of people experiencing food
scarcity dipped below 800 million in 1996 but recently passed beyond 1 billion,
and the world food price index is also increasing (Brown, 2009). As compre-
hensively summarized by Lester R. Brown, several political, societal, economic,
and environmental trends and limitations are colliding at once to push global
patterns of food supplies onto a dangerous course; widespread desertification
and extreme weather events are two key factors (Brown, 2009).
Climate change further threatens the stability of agriculture everywhere, but
perhaps most ominously in China, India, and other parts of Asia. Overexploita-
tion of 80% of global fisheries is another factor. Over half of the countries in
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midas, cassandra and the buddha
the world are dangerously reliant on dwindling water supplies in underground
aquifers (Brown, 2009). Finally, agricultural output has been increasingly real-
located (through perverse incentives explained by societal, cultural, commer-
cial, and political values and interests) into creating fuel (through schemes such
as ethanol programmes), meat (which necessitates massive inputs of vegetation
and water), and needless waste—discarded food alone is estimated to total 2
billion tonnes per year, or half of world output (Brown, 2009). This last fact
indicates that, in the near term, food scarcity is a global distribution problem;
in the longer term, it is projected to be a production problem resulting in large
scale famines and violence
The youth bulge, civil unrest, climate change, refugees, war
To some extent famine—and the phenomenon of exporting agricultural prod-
ucts out from under the mouths of starving food producers—is not new; to
various extents, precedents include Soviet Ukraine, Mao’s Great Leap Forward,
British mercantilist colonialism in South Asia, and recent decades of exploita-
tion of Africa. What makes probable famines of the 21st century more troubling
is the potentially larger geographic spread of problems, the numbers of people
likely affected (hundreds of millions or billions, rather than millions or tens of
millions), and the already observable violence and revolution that follow.
As predicted for decades, food scarcity is escalating just as a demographic
youth bulge is reaching young adulthood; since at least the 1980s, some have
foreseen that, early in the 21st century, the large number of young adults unable
to find work combined with high prices of food staples would create conditions
ripe for unrest and revolution. A combination of bad harvests plus redirecting
North American corn to ethanol production has already caused tortilla riots in
Mexico (Thomson, 2010). The revolutions of North Africa and the Middle East
came to pass roughly as predicted. These events were a small taste of what could
happen if harvests fail in China and India (soon home to over 2.5 billion people,
or more than 35% of the world’s population) and exports are again restricted
from producers, as in the case of Russia in 2009 (Brown, 2009).
Given observable recent history, current reality, and forecasts of worsening
food and water shortages, desertification, pollution, extinction, coastal flooding,
and spread of pestilence and disease, it should not be a surprise that, across
the ideological spectrum and over decades we have heard warnings that civi-
lization seriously faces a threat of collapse. From James Lovelock, originator
of the concept of Gaia—that all the Earth’s ecosystems and species interact as
one living system—to top defence and intelligence advisers to anthropologists,
the inescapable conclusion is that scarcity of—and desperation for—ecological
resources will drive conflicts in the 21st century. Chinese trickling into Siberia,
Kiribatis relocated to Australia, millions internally displaced during Pakistani
floods are united by one factor—they can all be classified as environmental
refugees (Myers, 1993; Hartmann, 2010). Ice melt in Greenland and the Arctic
and Antarctic zones has proceeded faster than projected, as has ocean level rise.
We have failed to account for self-reinforcing positive feedback loops in the
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unfolding cataclysm of climate change. Further, because of the billions of people
living in coastal areas subject to rising flood waters (from Shanghai to London
to Bangladesh to Manhattan), the phenomenon of environmental refugees may
be one of the defining challenges of this century.
There are also ominous omens in the past few years of land speculation inter-
nationally. Countries are buying-up the rights to arable lands in other nations;
for example, China and Saudi Arabia are acquiring large tracts of Africa (Brown,
2009). Desperation over access to agricultural land and water and assertions
of territorial sovereignty foreseeably will collide and result in violent conflict.
Some reasonable minds predict a population collapse as a result of famine,
disease, and war from a peak of 9.5 billion to 300 million by the end of the cen-
tury (Brown & Kasser, 2005; Gilding, 2011; Lovelock, 2010) or a related “great
disruption” with largely unforeseeable consequences for the human population
(Gilding, 2011).
Fundamentally: wellbeing and thriving
By comparison with issues of suffering and death, the issue of wellbeing—or
even happiness—may seem frivolous. But it bears pointing out that even in
comparatively stable countries with abundance, the economic growth of the
past several decades has not inevitably resulted in healthier, better off, or
happier people. In the United States, certain health statistics—such as those
related to obesity, infant mortality, depression, stress, and longevity—indicate
that segments of society are becoming sicker while levels of overall wellbeing
have dropped.
An operating principle: thrivability = survival + wellbeing
If we are revisiting fundamental purposes of human organization into econo-
mies, communities, and institutions like businesses, they ultimately can be
distilled down to two ultimate goals: survival and wellbeing.
A sustainable civilization that thrives—one that does not self-destruct and one
where wellbeing for all (including living beings other than humans) is attain-
able—translates into two uncontroversial substantive goals: (1) human activity
has to be ecologically neutral or restorative or, if there is a negative impact (e.g.
pollution, deforestation, harvesting of wildlife), within the ability of ecosystems
to absorb and neutralize it within a reasonable time period (e.g. a generation);
and (2) the human population needs to experience wellbeing with living stand-
ards beyond mere subsistence, with psychological and spiritual needs met, and
freedoms secure, so that we refrain from violence and overuse of resources.
Everything else beyond survival and wellbeing is ultimately a detail, a means
to the end of survival and wellbeing, or, worse, a distraction or obstacle to our
aims (even if one does not believe that we may be colliding with ecological limits
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midas, cassandra and the buddha
to consumption). This “everything else” includes economic growth. Growth
is ultimately not the point of living. It is simply a deeply flawed indicator that
serves as a proxy that does not even succeed at gauging productive and useful
economic activity. If growth fails to produce wellbeing or, worse, creates the
impression of success, even as we suicidally burn through our reserves of natu-
ral capital, destroy people or other living creatures, and create global gambling
casinos that we call a financial system, then economic growth must ultimately
be abandoned as an indicator that we take seriously.
GDP growth is one matter, but logically the next question is whether to aban-
don other measures of growth. Most problematic is the question of share value
growth, revenue growth, growth from interest, and growth of other investments
where segments of society store accumulated value. Ultimately, share value
growth, revenue growth, and growth in profits are the bases for judging the
effectiveness of many thousands of managers and businesses around the world.
Further, millions of people—especially the middle-to-upper economic echelons
of the more developed economies—are somewhat reliant on their investments
for their sense of security that future needs and comfort will be assured.
Although the financial collapse of 2008 exposed that our investments—even
those based on real estate and currency itself—are lacking in intrinsic value
(literally, valueless symbols, ciphers, and paper pulp that only have value based
on mutual make-believe), money, investments, and growth in share value and
GDP are still the most powerful organizing artifices that we accept. It is obvious
(witness the soaring prices of gold, and extreme volatility of currency exchange
rates utterly divorced from market fundamentals), if we think deeply about it,
that our measures of material wealth creation and preservation are fundamen-
tally hollow, flawed, and guiding us toward suicidal conduct as a species. The
time is ripe—perhaps even too late—for adjusting the fundamentals of how
we define and reward success on the global, national, company, family, and
individual level as well.
Beyond sustainability—meeting the needs of today without destroying our
ability to meet tomorrow’s needs—we define thrivability to be the condition
where, to be a successful company or country, measures of natural capital and
human capital are maintained and expand together with conventional meas-
ures of economic capital. It is a state defined by symbiosis, stewardship, and
wellbeing.
Examples of thrivability: we have some tools
There are examples that illustrate that a state of thrivability is within the realm
of possibility.
Two companies and one community provide examples that, by setting ambi-
tious goals of zero (or even negative or restorative) impacts and sincerely focus-
ing upon achieving these, thrivability is possible to achieve. These examples
illustrate how a change of focus and vigorous efforts to achieve the goal of
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eliminating environmental harms have brought about conditions that approxi-
mate the state of thrivability.
Interface, one of the largest carpet tile producers in the world, discovered
that 93% of energy use in a facility was waste and, by developing a technology
to recycle material up to seven times, slashed the use of raw inputs, toxics, and
landfills (Anderson, 2009). Further, by implementing a “cradle-to-cradle” sup-
ply loop, the company changed from selling a product to leasing a service—in
other words, small monthly payments (in exchange for the service of replacing
used tiles) substituted sporadic large sales. Both the lessor and lessee of the serv-
ice prefer this arrangement, even strictly on financial grounds. Ultimately, the
company is, by key measures, over 75% toward their goal of zero environmental
impact by 2020 (Anderson, 2009). Consistent with scholarly findings in other
contexts (Walsh & Sulkowski, 2010), the vigorous pursuit of the company’s
sustainability goals has attracted talent and imbued employees with a sense of
mission and happiness (Anderson, 2009).
ITC may be a controversial choice to highlight as a second example, because
this diversified conglomerate still produces and sells tobacco products (which
arguably are inherently unethical and unsustainable). The company’s audited
sustainability reports, however, document three achievements that are illus-
trative of thrivability: the company (1) harvests more rainwater than it uses;
(2) uses waste-as-input at a rate approaching that of its waste production; and
(3) offsets (with reforestation) more carbon emissions than it generates (Gray-
son et al., 2008). By focusing creatively on thousands of poor Indian villagers at
the opposite end of its supply chain, the company developed and deployed the
concept of eChoupals—internet kiosks for village centres (Upton, 2003). This is
not only a donation of an educational and informational resource; it also serves
the company’s enlightened self-interest, since it improves transparency in the
marketplace for inputs (reducing the ability of middlemen to overcharge both
sides), and, by giving villagers access to world commodity prices, futures mar-
kets and weather forecasts, improves decision-making by villagers, ultimately
leading to better price stability—a financially sustainable win–win for both ITC
and the villagers (Kumar, 2004).
Further, examples such as Gaviotas in Colombia have shown over the course
of 40 years that regeneration of the biosphere (reforestation, for example)
can yield ecological, societal and economic benefits and—significantly—are
scalable (Weisman, 1998). This village creates jobs and economically valued
products such as biodiesel, resin, mineral water, and bioplastics, all from an
extremely carbon-absorbing reforestation project. Rather than add to ecologi-
cal problems or sociological stresses, the net impact of the entire operation is
greater biodiversity, increased water availability, improved wellbeing and health,
and a restored tropical rain forest in what used to be desolate savannah.
Citing these examples is by no means an assertion that these models are
entirely perfect or worthy of emulation or possible to imitate in every respect,
but they provide some evidence that the combination of sustainability goals,
alternative KPIs, and focused concentration and action can lead to previ-
ously unimagined innovations that would allow for a state of thrivability.
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midas, cassandra and the buddha
Thrivability is not fiction. On the contrary, it should be a pragmatic necessity
in this century.
It is vital to emphasize that, in these examples, natural, human, and eco-
nomic capital were all grown symbiotically, rather than exchanged or sacrificed.
Human wellbeing was increased. Ecological systems were made healthier,
allowing for greater prospects of long-term survival. Even by conventional
measures of financial success, the organizations were better off than before.
Focusing on one’s full spectrum of conduct and impacts led to these previously
unimagined symbiotic solutions.
Key performance indicators for tracking progress
As mentioned above, GDP, profits, and share value growth fail even as prox-
ies for the conventionally measured financial state of people, as evidenced by
four decades of US GDP growth during which median incomes stagnated. The
wellbeing of Americans has also not increased (Sachs, 2011). Rates of depres-
sion have increased, one-third of the population is obese, and roughly half of
children are overweight. In short, in the case of the United States, share value
and GDP increased while people on average became poorer and less healthy.
It bears repeating that inherent flaws of GDP as a gauge of progress were known
since it was first introduced; in 1968 then presidential candidate Robert Kennedy
succinctly outlined the issues associated with using growth in GNP (gross national
product) as our core metric—these same critiques are applicable to GDP:
Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence
and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross
National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National
Product—if we judge the United States of America by that—that Gross National
Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear
our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the
people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our
natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads
and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s
rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order
to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the
health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does
not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence
of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our
wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion
nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which
makes life worthwhile.2
2 Robert F. Kennedy, Remarks, University of Kansas, 18 March 1969, available at: http://
glaserprogress.org/program_areas/pdf/Remarks_of_Robert_F_Kennedy.pdf, last accessed
15 June 2015.
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Several solutions have been proposed and to some extent implemented. A
common theme is that “we manage what we measure”, and another that “we
are blind to the ecological and societal footprints of what we do”. Neither of
these elements is currently measured effectively. New types of KPIs, such as
the Genuine Progress Indicator, the Gross National Happiness Indicator, the
UN’s Human Development Indicator, and the Calvert-Henderson Quality of
Life Indicators have been developed as alternatives to GDP and as ways of
focusing attention on wellbeing as opposed to simply material and financial
growth (especially “growth” that includes destructive practices). Such indicators
force us to ask new types of questions, such as what does “growth” look like in
a sustainability context?
Alternative KPIs for countries and other political units
What would a thriving civilization and biosphere look like in terms of measur-
able outcomes, and what metrics would show progress to—or achievement
of—sustainability of life support systems and wellbeing? Four categories of
statistical data would logically be essential to monitor: (1) ecological resources
(a recovering ecological life support system would be indicated by fish stocks
rebounding, species loss stabilizing at closer-to-average background rates, and,
on an enterprise-level, organizations and communities achieving carbon-neu-
trality or even “negative” carbon emission indicators); (2) human health and
wellbeing (a thriving civilization would be indicated by a reduction in frequency
of stress-related diseases and an increase in self-reported satisfaction and
happiness, and time for and access to community, recreation, and culture);
(3) transparency/freedom/rule-of-law/education (a thriving civilization would
be indicated by a free and informed society and autonomy over personal lives
within the framework of predictable and fairly applied rules and government
policies whose creation and monitoring are open and accessible); and (4)
adequate material wellbeing to feel secure (a thriving civilization is indicated by
fairly stable and predictable access to sustenance, housing, and health needs).
Below we examine whether and how any efforts reflect this logical grouping of
four categories of indicators.
Famously, in 1972, the King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, suggested
the development and growth of a Gross National Happiness Index of his coun-
try, which is now being applied globally (Bates, 2009). In 1990 Mahbub ul
Haq and Amartya Sen initiated the UN Human Development Index, a gauge
of education, gender equality, and health—in ul Haq’s words: “just one number
which is of the same level of vulgarity as the GNP—but a measure that is not as
blind to social aspects of human lives as the GNP is” (Jahan, 2004).
After 2000, interest at governmental levels in full spectrum evaluations of
national wellbeing blossomed. In 2006 China created a green GDP index that
adjusts for costs of environmental harm; by this standard, 3 percentage points
of annual GDP growth should have been subtracted from official statistics (Li
& Lang, 2010). In 2008 the United States began funding of the State of the
USA project to create a “key national indicator system” with new data points to
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midas, cassandra and the buddha
supplement standard GDP measures based on a review of best practices (Gov-
ernment Accountability Office, 2011). In 2009 the French Government released
a report co-authored by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, sug-
gesting an end to “GDP fetishism” (Commission on the Measurement of
Economic Performance and Social Progress et al., 2009). By 2010, the UK
Government announced that surveys of happiness will be taken and considered
together with other economic measures.
To summarize, it took roughly four decades for the governments of the
UK, France, and the USA to begin to catch up with Bhutan in terms of giving
serious consideration to tracking happiness as an indicator along with other
measures of success. The Bhutanese experiment in defining and implement-
ing a Gross National Happiness (GNH) Index comes closest to reflecting the
basics discussed above. It is based in what has been characterized as a Buddhist
perspective (that material and spiritual development can complement each
other rather than compete) but the Index could be readily applied elsewhere in
other cultural contexts. The four essential aspects of the GNH are remarkably
similar to what the authors suggested above: (1) conservation of the natural
environment; (2) preservation of cultural values; (3) good governance; and (4)
ecologically sustainable development (Tideman, 2011). The Center for Bhutan
Studies collaborated with empirical researchers to arrive at specific measurable
contributors to happiness (which also fit with what was logically deduced above
in our definition of thrivability): physical, mental and spiritual health; time bal-
ance; social and community vitality; cultural vitality; education; living standards;
good governance; and ecological vitality (Zurick, 2006).
Alternative KPIs for companies
Several accountability standards exist for setting and communicating progress
toward nonfinancial performance goals, such as the UN Global Compact,
SA8000, and ISO 14001. The practice of reporting on environmental and soci-
etal impacts and efforts is known (virtually interchangeably) by several terms,
including sustainability reporting and corporate social responsibility (CSR)
reporting and has been embraced by 95% of the world’s 250 largest companies
(KPMG, 2011).
The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) is the predominant standard-set-
ting organization for reporting on a wide spectrum of environmental, social,
and governance (ESG) KPIs. The GRI’s guidelines are used by over 80% of
the world’s 250 largest companies and over 4,000 organizations worldwide
(KPMG, 2011). Reporting on such metrics is variously referred to as sus-
tainability reporting, triple bottom line reporting, social, or CSR reporting.
Today, GRI is being supplemented by a new approach to integrated reporting
(Eccles & Krzus, 2010), which combines financial and ESG reporting,3 and
3 See Integrated Reporting website, http://www.theiirc.org/, last accessed 15 June 2015.
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32 The Journal of Corporate Citizenship Issue 61 March 2016 © Greenleaf Publishing 2016
industry-based sustainability reporting in development by the Sustainability
Accounting Standards Board (SASB).4
The scholarly study of the drivers and impacts of sustainability reporting is
still in its infancy, but several observations are possible to make. Larger and
older firms tend to be leaders in sustainability reporting, but the practice is rap-
idly expanding well beyond developed markets (Wu et al., 2011, Wei et al., 2011;
Sulkowski & White, 2009). Sustainability reporting appears to be mediated by
cultural differences among countries and regions of the world (Sulkowski et al.,
2008). Most importantly for the purposes of this paper, sustainability report-
ing is already widely adopted, with a 2011 KPMG study finding that 95% of the
world’s 250 largest corporations are already producing sustainability reports.
Indeed, KPMG stated in its report that such reporting “has become the de facto
law for business”. The drivers and perceived benefits of sustainability reporting
are varied and broad and include everything from recruiting and motivating
talent to brand-building to promoting innovation to risk reduction to pressures
from external activists and institutions (KPMG, 2011). They also affect compa-
nies’ environmental reputations (Hughey & Sulkowski, 2012) which directly
and powerfully impact employee satisfaction—even as financial performance
has been shown to not correlate with employee satisfaction (Walsh & Sulkowski,
2008). This is highly significant for the purposes of this paper: comprehensive
measurement and reporting of environmental KPIs also contributes to the
wellbeing of employees and organizations’ ability to truly thrive.
Two threads in the scholarship and especially the deployment of KPIs with
respect to achieving these thrivability-oriented goals emerge.
First, measuring is necessary but insufficient. Having a speedometer and fuel
gauge on a dashboard is essential, but only matters if the driver checks them
and realizes how vital they are to her safety and wellbeing, and plans and acts
on the information. Similarly, as individuals, institutions, and a civilization,
we will not improve outcomes if we adopt new KPIs but fail to assign them
urgency or if we fail to somehow reward behaviours that implement these
new KPIs. An expanded range of data is already being gathered at national and
organizational levels, but by every indication is not being consistently and thor-
oughly integrated into planning, decision-making, and action. The integrated
reporting movement suggests organizations combine sustainability data with
conventional financial reporting, which may help executives internalize and
actually use sustainability data in managing. The same ought to be happening
at all levels of society, especially since it helps to see the unacceptable true costs
of the status quo; a case in point: the financial damage of climate disruptions
amounted to an effective tax of 3.9% on the US economy in 2012, and subtracted
a full percentage point from the GDP of the country (Lashof, 2013).
Second, beyond curbing the destruction of our ecological life support sys-
tems, have we placed adequate emphasis on measuring, prioritizing, and pursu-
ing genuine wellbeing, which seems to be a precondition for cessation of our
4 Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, http://www.sasb.org/, last accessed 15 June
2015.
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midas, cassandra and the buddha
tendency to harm each other and the natural environment? For example, the
GRI framework, while placing emphasis on consulting stakeholders and report-
ing on what is material to them, does not explicitly list surveys of self-reported
happiness, wellbeing, or satisfaction among its 70-plus metrics. To do so would
be logical—it is commonly accepted that groups of people with high morale
and a positive frame of mind are more productive and loyal, so measuring and
nurturing these traits could become as self-evidently wise in coming decades
as incentivizing employee gym use (Tan, 2012).
To summarize: (1) our dashboard of KPIs (individually, institutionally, and
civilizationally) needs to be internalized into decision-making (for individuals,
families, communities, companies, and governments); and (2) KPIs must be
expanded to include a full spectrum of measures of not just survival, but of
thriving—that is, ecological and psychological health and wellbeing. Ultimately
we have or can develop the tools to get us to our true goals. The question is what
is needed to get us to use them.
What we lack: right intent, perception and action
Preceding sections of this paper have summarized the largest challenges facing
humanity and highlighted that we have tools that could allow us to overcome
them and thrive. Among the most important steps are deciding on the goals that
really matter—survival and wellbeing—and measuring our progress toward
their attainment.
We know that the problems we face are planetary in scope and require plan-
etary level solutions—and few leaders or innovators are prepared to deal with
them at the planetary, or, minimally, at the industry level. The biggest problems
simply cannot be solved by individual companies. Nor by individual govern-
ments. Nor by individual civil society organizations. Nor by continued business-
as-usual practices. We need a collective change of mind, as noted earlier, what
Peter Senge called a metanoia (Senge, 1990, 2006) to get us to what he and his
collaborators later called a “necessary revolution” (Senge, 2008).
Metanoia means a shift in mind and the word has deep historic roots. For
Ancient Greeks, it implied fundamental shift or transcendence and was based
on “meta” (above or beyond, as in metaphysics) and “noia (from the root
“nous”, of mind). Einstein famously said, “We cannot solve a problem from the
same level of thinking that created it”, and that is the problem we are facing.
We need new ways and most likely more collaborative means of thinking and
acting; we need innovative frames and definitions of the problem that allow for
very different approaches.
At the risk of seeming like neo-Luddites or fuzzy-headed New Agers, the
authors believe that ultimately this change of frame of mind is the biggest step
that has yet to be embraced. Combined with a better understanding of the real
challenges of sustainability, accurately seeing—and embracing and valuing—
what truly provides wellbeing could well serve the needs of peace, wellbeing,
health, and avoidance of ecological collapse for humanity. As Schor (2010)
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34 The Journal of Corporate Citizenship Issue 61 March 2016 © Greenleaf Publishing 2016
suggested in her book Plenitude, following a Gandhian/Buddhist example of
living simply and radically abandoning the “take-make-waste” consumerist
treadmill can be both fulfilling personally and is ecologically more sound. But
it does require a significant shift of attitude and a change of norms away from
growth at all costs to a mind-set oriented to wellbeing and thriving without
overusing natural resources.
At this point a third and final reference to mythological memes—that of the
Buddha—is instructive. The key insight of the Buddha, ultimately, was to shed
delusions (Gyatso, 2009). Delusions (for example that we do not age or die) are
harmful because they lead to unwise decisions and eventually painful confron-
tations with unavoidable realities. This paper has explained how the myth of
unending economic growth—as we understand and measure it—is both exactly
that—a myth—and also a massive and counterproductive delusion that helps
explain an otherwise unfathomable collective sprint toward self-destruction.
Clearly, as argued by many thinkers, we should abandon the concept of per-
petual growth as achievable (now that we are confronting limits) and desirable
(now that we see many negative and few positive consequences).
Buddhism has a few other simple, but profound instructive insights that may
help in the necessary reframing process. For example, the Middle Way is a guid-
ing principle of Buddhism—an approach that avoids both despondent nihil-
ism (a temptation we face when we review ecological trends) and encourages
moderation instead of extremism (privation tends to create breeding grounds
for extreme ideologies). In terms of further guidelines for action, the eightfold
path consists of: right perception and intention, right speech, action, and liveli-
hood, and right effort, mindfulness, and concentration. These guidelines are
consistent with operating principles that we and others are urging: constructive
goals should be agreed on, actual and vital features of reality must be measured
and recognized, and intentions, concentration, and action consistently applied
to achieve the goals of survival and wellbeing.
At this point, it is important to clarify what we are not advocating. The exam-
ples cited above of organizations that financially benefited from being benefi-
cent to society and the environment show that a refocusing on survival and
happiness does not necessarily mean a rejection of profit and free enterprise and
markets. Even the desire to profit in a transaction is not an obstacle to survival
and happiness. The problem is that an outsized obsession with growth—of
profits, share value, and material goods of all kinds—begins to demand the
sacrifices of other values and virtues.
It is not only a question that we need a change of mental focus to make use
of thrivability measures. Conversely, the metanoia needed to move human civi-
lization toward thrivability requires new measures because, as the accounting
maxim goes, you get what you measure and reward. These new measures, as
the examples above suggest, potentially need to be focused on a refined notion
of development (one that might be informed as much by cultural traditions as
modern science). For example, if we think of human development in multiple
domains, such as cognitive, emotional, and moral, then we have a foundation
in which learning and continued personal growth might become valued beyond
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midas, cassandra and the buddha
material resources (Kegan, 2002; Torbert, 1994; Torbert & Cook-Greuter, 2004;
Wilber, 2000). In the economic domain, can we begin to think about economic
development and improvement without necessarily adding resources, or always
thinking in material and financial terms, so that those who are born have good
lives? In the community domain, we might think of increasing complexity or
interconnections of relationships—or the quality of those relationships—as
similarly constituting development. Can we think of development not in purely
financial and material terms, but in terms of the development of more complex
ways of thinking and interacting with each other, more artistic endeavours, bet-
ter relationships, and better communities, to name a few alternatives?
For human societies, adaptation and change is the name of the game—in
ways that we can hardly begin to conceive. We already know at some gut level,
even if we are loathe to admit it, that current efforts are insufficient to deal
with the systemic and planet-wide problems we are facing. To date, leaders—
whether from business, government, civil society, or indeed academia—seem
to have been incapable of developing the vision and action steps necessary to
deal adequately with these planetary issues and develop the new social contract
that is required. For example, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that
climate change is real (Change, 2007; McKibben, 2012), governmental leaders
are hard pressed to come up with solutions—witness, for example, the relative
failure of the Copenhagen COP15 talks and the dubious outcomes of the 2011
COP17 talks in Durban and Rio+20 meeting in Rio de Janeiro, which made
some but insufficient progress on the issue of climate action.
Senge is far from the first or sole authority to have brought up the power of
mental outlook to influence society. Some have highlighted the powerful impact
of emotions on economics—“animal spirits” as Keynes referred to the gloom of
the Great Depression and the changing psychology that accompanied recovery
(Akerlof & Shiller, 2009). In the US and elsewhere significant social move-
ments have reshaped thinking about issues as diverse as smoking, drinking
alcohol, using marijuana, women’s rights, civil rights, consumer rights, product
quality, and many other issues. Change of mind-set—metanoia—has been at
play in all of these shifts. With the right levers and some new framing, the shift
of mind necessary to achieve thrivability may also be achievable, even in the
polarized political context that currently afflicts the US and many other nations.
In Buddhist terms, this shift would be termed having right mindfulness, con-
centration, and effort, which should lead to right speech, action, and livelihood
(all of which are characterized by ceasing to be harmful). For institutions, this
necessitates incentives linked to expanded KPIs and accountability for leaders
in managing the improvement of KPIs and insistence from shareholders, stake-
holders, and voters that improvements occur. For individuals, internalization
of alternative KPIs would ideally involve learning about wellbeing and ecology
from an early age and practising all of the behaviour and thought patterns that
are linked to improved wellbeing, and even happiness. Some of this may at
first seem outside of the purview of management scholars, but consider the
enormous investments in advertising targeted at children—the fostering of
values and thought and behaviour patterns is already part of the functioning of
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36 The Journal of Corporate Citizenship Issue 61 March 2016 © Greenleaf Publishing 2016
societies and institutions. Could such resources not be turned to more produc-
tive and socially beneficial uses?
Implications for company strategies and practices
How would companies fit with this shift of metanoia that we are calling for—
and how would they be affected by a shift of priorities away from growth at
all costs? Even more difficult to foresee, of course, would be the reaction and
resistance among interests that might see themselves as threatened by such
a transition, “necessary” though it might be (Senge et al., 2007). Some may
argue that vested interests would necessarily be threatened. On the other hand,
energy companies in less than 20 years may take it as self-evident that renew-
able energy investments are the best alternatives. Even a billionaire who stands
the most (financially) to lose from abandoning growth myopia has experienced
an improvement in wellbeing after changing his mind-set away from the very
worries and stresses that define what can be a gilded cage of a life defined by
growth of material consumption (Confino, 2012). Regardless, though company
strategies and practices and financial institutions will inevitably have to change
over the course of this century, there are improvements that could be embraced
immediately.
One improvement that is frequently mentioned is to move to full-cost (Beb-
bington et al., 2001) or lifecycle (Zhang et al., 2010) accounting approaches for
the production of all goods and services. Current accounting approaches simply
do not take into account the full costs of producing goods and services, whereas
these approaches would incorporate many costs that are currently externalized.
While these approaches would presumably raise the costs of goods sold, if this
approach were implemented across the board by all companies simultaneously,
no single company would necessarily gain competitive advantage. It could be
said that customers would resent paying more, and this statement is probably
true; however, currently the costs are already being paid in the form of environ-
mental degradation, social costs, or taxes. The key would be to somehow make
these currently invisible costs visible. And to reduce overall consumption, which
higher prices, even by economic theory, would do.
Another idea is to limit the size of companies (more so than current antitrust
laws do) and, perhaps more importantly, financial institutions, so that no one
entity is “too big to fail”, or needing to operate solely on the basis of economies
of scale and mass production. Large companies operating with economies of
scale have incentives to produce and sell ever-more goods at marginal quality
and durability levels, so that they can sustain their growth. What might happen
if growth itself becomes problematized and sustainable levels of production, at
reasonable and local scale, were to become the norm? Interestingly, the theme
of the World Economic Forum annual meeting at Davos in 2013 was resilience.
Resilience, almost by definition, cannot be created in societies or economies
when institutions such as corporations or financial institutions are too big to
fail. Resilience in societies as well as in nature requires a diversity of entities
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The Journal of Corporate Citizenship Issue 61 March 2016 © Greenleaf Publishing 2016 37
midas, cassandra and the buddha
scaled to a level where the failure of one or even several does not bring the sys-
tem down. Interestingly, new technologies, such as 3D printing, may allow con-
siderably more individualized production processes in the near future. Quality
and durability could be built into products as well, increasing their prices while
reducing the need for replacements and upgrades.
Toward that same end of creating greater system resilience and more thriving,
limiting the size and scope of financial institutions also seems like a reason-
able, albeit politically difficult, approach. It was, after all, financial institutions
that were considered too big to fail prior to (and during) the 2008 economic
meltdown—and it was those very same institutions that were at the core of the
crash because of their perpetual growth mantra and the specious practices that
supported their purported growth (Davis, 2009). Despite that, little has really
changed since the crisis. Limiting the size and scope of financial institutions
would also diminish the wild flow of money globally that has created a global
gambling casino out of financial investments, and ensure greater resilience so
that no single entity could bring the whole system down.
Following the thoughts about measurement that we have presented above,
a key step in achieving a different attitude toward growth would be to man-
date rigorous and comparable sustainability/ESG reporting, using approaches
developed by GRI and emerging from the International Integrated Reporting
Council (IIRC) and SASB. Making these reports both mandatory and highly
transparent so that stakeholders could compare companies would be crucial
to creating mechanisms that would pressure companies to reduce their eco-
footprints. Broadly adopted and earnestly used environmental footprint data
could help spur evolution in societal norms away from planned obsolescence
and toward upgrading, particularly in industries producing electronics and
associated e-waste.
Finding and publicizing successful examples of companies that have adopted
servicizing strategies that save them money, retain customers’ loyalty and pur-
chasing franchise, and provide for what amount to ongoing retainers that help
achieve income stability might be another way forward. Adopting “take back”
laws, such as the EU has already done, so that companies always own the end
product and are required to deal with any waste associated with it, would provide
incentives for durability as well as product quality, not to mention waste reduc-
tion strategies. Such strategies could conceivably be accomplished through
leasing larger goods like cars, televisions, appliances, and major electronics,
rather than selling them outright and hence passing-on the costs and problems
of disposal to end-users (Hawken, 1993; Hawken et al., 1999).
Of course, there are numerous other approaches that reduce consumption
emerging today in the technologically connected world that call for resource
sharing, bartering, and associated trust-building strategies, such as the ones
pioneered by eBay. Zipcar is a leading example of resource sharing, and there
are numerous others, including sharing of empty space in homes with travel-
lers (e.g. airbnb.com, crushpadwine.com, and couchsurfing.com), sharing of
expensive home resources (e.g. neighborgoods.net and heyneighbor.com), car
sharing (getaround.com), and others in what can be called the sharing economy,
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38 The Journal of Corporate Citizenship Issue 61 March 2016 © Greenleaf Publishing 2016
which includes lending websites for home goods, among numerous others.5
To these we could add the “dematerialization” effects of products like e-readers
that reduce the need for physical books, magazines, and newspapers, online and
device-based availability of music, videos, and other programming that reduces
the need for physical products like CDs (Waddock & McIntosh, 2011).
Finally, the adoption of corporate meditation and mindfulness programmes
is a practice worth noting and emulating. As developed at Google, the benefits
of such an effort are obvious in terms of reduced sick time, better productivity
and moods, and lower costs of absenteeism and turnover (Tan, 2012). Nurtur-
ing mental wellbeing is so obviously in the interest of the company that it may
become as popular as corporate subsidies of gym memberships. Indeed, the
founder of Google’s at-work meditation and mindfulness programme, “Search
Inside Yourself”, believes that it, through viral adoption among businesses, has
the potential to alter the predispositions of large swaths of society during his
lifetime (Tan, 2012).
These trends could be accelerated by accounting and reporting mechanisms
that highlight not only the power of such approaches to deal with sustainability
issues, but also the stability and financial wellbeing they bring to companies
implementing them.
Conclusion
We have seen the folly of a myopic—even delusional—Midas-like fetishization
of an overly narrow set of metrics that purportedly measure success. In actuality,
these metrics have failed to reflect reality and distracted us onto dangerously
suicidal trajectories. A critical mass of society feels a Cassandra-like sense of
doom that civilization cannot go on using existing operating principles, yet
many seem paralysed in terms of action to change the status quo—or too
bought into the trappings of success they appear to have personally acquired to
seriously consider the depth of needed change. We are all part of this problem,
including the authors. This brings us to the question: what are our goals, really,
as individuals and in societies, and how do we measure and create incentives
to progress to those goals?
We have taken as a starting point two (we believe) uncontroversial shared
human aspirations: survival and wellbeing. We have taken these two aspirations
to be goals from which we can extrapolate operating principles and measure-
ments of progress and even tangible next steps for action.
The first systemic goal, survival for individuals and our institutions, is
summed-up in the elegantly simple definition of sustainable development
offered by the Brundtland Commission: meeting the needs of today without
5 See, for example, Andrew Leonard and Jess Chamberlain, Economy of Sharing, Sun-
set, posted at: http://www.sunset.com/home/sharing-economy-00418000074416/, last
accessed 15 June 2015.
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midas, cassandra and the buddha
destroying our ability to meet tomorrow’s needs. Ecologically, this means ceas-
ing our suicidal destruction of our ecological life support systems. It ideally
means restoring systems and stores of natural capital (e.g. reforestation in some
areas) so that the ecosystems services that support life can function.
The second systemic goal, wellbeing across cultures, has been determined to
not be tied (above a certain point) to wealth (Csikszentmihalyi, 1999), but rather
to the foreseeable security of essentials for life, health, empathy, constructive
work, relationships, culture, autonomy, and leisure time.
As thoroughly demonstrated by reality, GDP growth and share value growth
are farcically divorced from our two human goals: long-term survival and well-
being. Mass extinction, climate change, annihilation of habitat, and destroying
the ecological systems that support life are, if anything, accelerated when we
blindly pursue these two measures of “growth”. Wellbeing—even of the “top”
percentiles of the global economic pyramid—is also not tied to these measures
of what we call growth. While wellbeing may not universally be considered
a right or even widely deemed to be universally achievable, a critical mass of
thought leaders are seriously suggesting we measure and encourage such an
obviously desirable feature of existence.
Full-spectrum growth or thrivability would be a condition where all systems,
including those on which our survival depends, are thriving. For that, systems
arguably need resilience, created by smaller and more diverse institutions of
all sorts, making it less possible for one large institution to bring the whole
system down by being “too big to fail”. Thrivability would imply a system where
ecological resources are healthy or growing, where human health, freedom,
happiness, and wellbeing remain strong or improve, and where our institutions
are characterized by transparency and rule-of-law. To use Buddhist terms, this
could be described as orienting our intention toward correct goals.
To have correct goals individually and collectively is a good first step, but
the next step must require perceiving things as they are, and measuring and
monitoring progress. Significant progress has been made on many fronts to
improve our metrics for gauging reality. To again borrow Buddhist terminology,
this could be framed as viewing reality as it really is. An expanded dashboard of
KPIs that fully reflect whether we are growing or burning-up our “real” capital
is necessary, which is by no means a “leftist” or “anti-capitalist” agenda, given
the spectrum of supportive thought leaders and the near-universal adoption of
expanded KPIs by the world’s largest companies.
Alternative measures of health, wellbeing, wealth, and arguably even wisdom
are not enough. The next essential step is—on institutional and individual
levels—rigorous adoption, internalization, and use, which can only come from
the difficult process of changing social norms and standards. Earlier, we
touched on examples illustrating that correct goals, when aligned with measur-
ing reality and sincere intent, can produce what might still seem impossible to
some. Previously unimaginable solutions have been found, perceived trade-offs
between ecological wellbeing and economic success have been shown to be
false, and it has been demonstrated that a state of affairs where all stakeholders
thrive is achievable.
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40 The Journal of Corporate Citizenship Issue 61 March 2016 © Greenleaf Publishing 2016
It may sound trite to declare that all our economic, socio-political, psychologi-
cal, and ecological crises are ultimately spiritual or a matter of mental focus.
But to some extent this is a simple truth. Any adjustment of KPIs is a waste of
time without individual and collective efforts to stop deluding ourselves and
sincere efforts to focus and act on measures of reality that matter. What we
have monitored and called “growth” is Orwellian to the extent it masks negative
realities—and even counts some destructive endeavours as positive. It is well
past the point that leaders and managers should have abandoned Midas-like
myopia, taken modern Cassandras seriously, and taken some tips from Bud-
dha—abandon delusion, establish good intent, measure and see reality, and act
with a concentration on doing no harm. Simultaneously we may end up saving
ourselves and civilization while truly prospering and having fun.
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Purpose – While progress has been made in the realm of teaching about sustainability to business students, integrating sustainability into experiential learning with a systemic mindset has been identified by leading scholars as an area for improvement. The key objective of this paper is to describe a pilot project in which students prepared a sustainability report for a client company, and to answer the question of whether the experiment yielded the anticipated benefits. Approach – The paper presents an initiative that was part of an MBA course delivered at the Warsaw University of Life Sciences in Poland by an international team of professors. The multinational group of students was confronted with the task of preparing an integrated sustainability report for a large corporation. Findings – The initiative creates opportunities for both students and commercial organizations to understand large business commercial activities from a sustainability perspective. We identify next steps for others to build upon. Originality/value – The paper explains the experiential learning opportunity that was created, describes how students rose to meet the challenge, discusses the benefits that accrued to students, professors and a commercial organization, and shares some guidance for those seeking to emulate this practice. Keywords Sustainability education, experiential learning, sustainability reporting, interactive case study, sustainable development Paper Type Research Article Classification Case Study
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