Humility as a theme in Sustainable Practices

Essay in support of Application to the MBA program at Marlboro College

In this essay I would like to take what might at first seem to be an unusual tack. I would like to look at a personal characteristic that is more commonly associated with spiritual practices than with business – that of humility1. I see humility as a practice available to anyone, and as a value that can serve to fill a cultural blind spot that distorts the vision of the business community in a manner that works against sustainable business practices.

The jump from business practices to humility may at first seem like a long one. But one aspect of moving towards a framework that supports sustainable practices is a broadening of what we consider as essential to the business of business. We need to move beyond the myopia of increasing monetary value for shareholders our sole guide. And as this field in some ways still in its infancy, we don’t know for sure what territory we will be looking into when we open up our view of what businesses might need to consider to operate in a sustainable manner.

Spurred by a note from Dr. Meima providing guidance in writing this essay, I started thinking about what managers should actually do in the context of furthering sustainability.2 How would I answer someone who asked: “Tomorrow, when I show up at work, what can I do to start working towards making my operation sustainable?” At first, this question seemed un-answerable – or rather, one that would require an encyclopedic answer – as really, what to do next in terms of furthering sustainable practices is so context dependent. The next action to take depends on the situation one is facing, the particulars of the decision that needs to be made, the level of authority or power one has, the scope of the action, the resources that can be commandeered … So I started backing up, looking for themes that underlie sustainable practices.

One way of capturing what is meant by “sustainable” is to say that the business can stand on it’s own, that it can function as it is more or less indefinitely without borrowing: without borrowing from the future through a business model predicated on the need for endless growth; without borrowing from nature via externalizing disposal costs, or resource consumption that outpaces natural renewal rates; without borrowing from people by using up the goodwill of employees, by paying less than a livable wage.

When one cannot borrow, then there are limits, constraints. And, this, it seems to me, is the blind spot. The notion of natural limits is one that seems to have been completely lost by current post-industrial consumer capitalism. From executives talking about growth to consumers expecting fresh strawberries in January; from the consultant driving in early, another day in a fifty plus hour week to the forklift operator driving home from third shift, both of them expecting – and being able to – buy gas, groceries, coffee and fresh flowers at that hour; from agribusiness that ignores the concept of carrying capacity with the feverishness that the developers are destroying it, any concept of natural constraints has been lost.

For those of us who have been thinking about the issues that make up sustainability – regardless of the label – since the “back to the land” movement of the seventies, this is not news. We have been pointing out the ill fit between the standard practices of the business that form the economic world and the ecosystems that form the natural world. Looking deeper, we have identified that this lack of fit can be traced to the mismatch between the linear, open system models typical of economics and the cyclical, closed system models of biology. One of the fundamental reasons for the mismatch is the lack of constraints3 inherent in a linear open system model.

The lack of acknowledgement of natural limits that pervades4 post industrial consumer capitalism at myriad levels is a strong force working against the deployment of sustainable business practices. At the level of process design, treating the environment’s capacity to absorb waste as infinite and therefore externalizing disposal costs makes you competitive. At the retail level, the notion of produce being unavailable out of season is viewed as quaint, and advancing it will drive you out of business. In business culture, growth is viewed as good, regardless of the circumstances, and the potential for growth is seen as unlimited. Plans for product roll-out rarely assume any limit on production – resources, in terms of raw materials, are assumed to be infinite. These are a few of many examples illustrating that what we take for granted as possible in business is possible only to the degree we dismiss the notion of any kind of natural limit.

So, having found this cultural theme, this societal attitude that was providing a strong pressure against sustainable business practices, I started to search for an antidote. To help answer the question of “what a person should do” in any given moment, I wanted a value, a practice, that could be adopted at the individual level, not something based on organizational method or management theory that would take re-shaping a corporate context to implement. The beauty of an individual practice is that it is always available – a person can choose to practice, to act, regardless of the vagaries of leadership or circumstance. A personal value can serve as a compass that is always accessible.

So if we were to personify this sense of no constraints, to imagine a being that had no concept of limits, what would be one of its driving characteristics? Examining the persona of this colossus of post-industrial corporate capitalism, this creature fueled by endless growth, build on engineering principals of brute force5, what attributes would we find? Pride. Hubris.

From there, it is easy to identify humility as the antidote.

Humility would let us acknowledge that there are forces of nature that are stronger than we are – so that we might be more inclined to work with, rather than against them. The history of the Army Corp of Engineers and the Mississippi River provides a wealth of example along these lines.

Humility might let us admit that there are things we don’t understand – that, for example, we just might not know the long term effects of some never-before-seen chemical on the environment, on our bodies. We might accept, therefore that there are natural constraints on the chemicals we use in manufacturing, in consumer goods – perhaps not constraints on the creativity with which we cook them up in the development labs, but constraints on what we can deploy safely.

And humility might bring about an acknowledgement of limits that would create fundamental change in how corporations interact with individuals. With humility comes a sense of compassion – as humility invites us to be one with humanity, rather than to dominate. Other people, then, might transform from Human Resources into fellow human beings, a transformation that might remove the basis for wiping out entire peoples to obtain energy and material, for predicating resource gathering on the model of the disposable male worker/solder, for creating dispiriting jobs at low wages. And in doing so develop businesses that respect the limits inherent in treating others well.

And surely humility would allow us to tone down the constant “I must have … I need … I deserve …” shouted mantra of consumer culture. In practicing humility we seek to find how we are truly are in the world. And this might guide our relationship with material things to be one based on finding what suits us, what suits the situation – what is appropriate.

So, although the connection between an individual’s practice of humility and the organizational practices of sustainability may not be simple or obvious, it is there. A characteristic that is an emergent behavior of a complex system can be seldom traced directly to the actions of the agents that comprise it6. By adopting humility at an individual level as a guiding value, perhaps we change the characteristic of the complex organizations of which we are a part. Certainly a fundamental blindness to natural constraints provides strong pressure against sustainable business practices, and if one is willing to trace this defect in vision to an excess of pride, then we have identified – and have available in each one of us – the practice of humility as the antidote.
1 The definition of humility would be an essay in itself. Here I will use an operational definition: “Humility amounts to a clear recognition of what and who we really are, followed by a sincere attempt to become what we could be.”
2 Verbatim: “The essay should essentially focus on how sustainability can be defined in practical terms that relate to what managers and organizations actually do/can do/should do.”
3 There is a lot of cultural baggage associated with imposing limits – “Do you want us to go back to living in the stone age?” is a common rebuke. However, nature’s abundance is not built on simple linear systems, but rather an infinite web of complex interactions formed in response to an interlocking set of constraints. Perhaps welcoming of constraints would lead to a deeper understanding – wisdom, even – that could from the study of how this comes to be. But, that is another essay …
4 Although something – the winters, or the mountains, or the dour puritan heritage has given the Yankee farmer more of an appreciation of natural limits than most. Witness the Downeastern Maine saying – “Can’t get there from here”, or old Vermont farmer saying – “Use it up or wear it out, make it do or do without.”
5 “If the first Industrial Revolution had a motto, we like to joke, it would be “If brute force isn’t working, it means you are not using enough of it.”” – Cradle to Cradle, William McDonough and Michael Braungart, North Point Press.
6 But this essay, “Greed as an emergent property of post-industrial corporate capitalism,” that came to me as I wrote, will have to wait …