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October 2019

Breaking the Gordian Knot in Approaches to the Climate Emergency

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In our current efforts to respond to the Climate Emergency that we all face, it may be useful to address what appears to be a dialectical relationship between the two major strategies.

On the one hand, some assert that the way forward can be found in the street protests organized by Greta and the School Strike movement and Extinction Rebellion. This approach seems to be to challenge politicians and governments throughout the world to take action. One does assume that participation in these protests through the power of cognitive dissonance motivates participants to take individual action. However, this approach primarily seeks action at a top-down, national and global scale though motivated by grassroots activities.

Others believe that the way forward is based on individual actions. In this view, if each of us were to reduce our carbon footprint, the collective impact would be significant. If one includes corporations as individuals here then the impact becomes significantly greater. This is reflected in approaches such as the Circular Economy and Industrial Symbiosis. There are many such "individual" actions all around the world, each with its own orientation - its view of economic activity, the nature of progress, the role of humans in our Earthly ecosystem, a definition of wellbeing. Here, progress is seen as based on the combined impact of individual and corporate action.

I admit that in my own efforts, I live out the same quandary wondering which is the more efficacious approach. Where should I and others put our efforts? I also wonder whether the better approach would be to strive for a vision of an ideal future or whether the pursuit of many smaller efforts in time would have the potential of coalescing into a more overarching vision.

In an ideal world, there would not be such dilemmas. Motivated governments and motivated individuals would all be taking action, thus, ensuring an encompassing, comprehensive response to this Climate Emergency. Since we do not live in such an ideal world (which would already have responded to Climate Change many years ago), there seems to be a push-pull as to deciding where to put one's efforts in moving forward. We are wondering where to invest conference space, media focus, available resources and our personal energy. The metaphor that came to me is that of a Gordian Knot which defies habitual methods of untying. The message in the Gordian Knot parable is that there is a simpler, higher level approach that will resolve what in retrospect can be seen as a false dilemma.

Though there are likely many ways of approaching this Gordian Knot dilemma, I would like to suggest one in particular.

I am reminded of a play by Luigi Pirandello entitled "Six Characters in Search of an Author." My recollection is that in this play established characters living out their dramatic lives are searching for an author to provide them with added context and meaning.

I am wondering whether in our current world of sustainability actions and futures, we are not in effect creating individual characters still lacking that underlying essence that will provide them with meaning. Without that "authorship" the dilemma is a self-perpetuating one constantly fueling a Gordian Knot existence.

If one looks back over the history of the United States, one can find many events, individuals and motivations leading to the foundation of the Republic. Over a period of about 150 years, what arose to author the future was a consensus around the core ideals of self-determination, freedom and "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." This obviously did not happen over night and encompassed a great deal of societal discussions, debates, newspaper articles, books, speeches and assemblies.

This authorship became embodied in America's founding documents, the "Declaration of Independence" and the "Constitution" and "Bill of Rights." All of these were based on philosophical themes with antecedents throughout history. One can look at these founding documents as an epochal turning point in which a new paradigm was firmly established. Another historical example of a world-changing paradigm around which a consensus developed is the Enlightenment.

It seems to me that our efforts in sustainability are lacking this consensus having to do with what we are about based on a philosophical, biological, ecological, scientific, ethical etc. foundation. We lack a consensus around our "author."

Our additional challenge is that we do not have 150 years to sort all of this out. We have less than twelve years. At the same time, many exciting ideas already abound based on work over many decades. There are countless books, internet posts, articles, events, where ideas are being set out on topics ranging from Biomimicry, to Ecological Economics, to Natural Capitalism, morphogenetic change and regenerative economies. Many posit interrelationships among different disciplines and perspectives among which are ecological, economic, social and cultural ones. Some go as far as asking for a new unifying though heterogeneous narrative for our Earthly ecosystem.

We do seem to be gradually seeking a new paradigm that will author all of our efforts. I believe that it is the current lack of a consensus around such a paradigm that creates the Gordian Knot dilemma that we are experiencing and which makes our work that much more challenging. A common paradigm would provide an authoring concept to which we could organically relate our various activities.

We cannot force the emergence of such a paradigm. We can, however, act in a facilitative way to create a fertile ground for its emergence based on our learning from history. The following ideas are not intended to develop fixes, solutions or isolated actions. They are focused upon the development of a philosophical and ethical basis for a new narrative for all creatures and elements of nature that have a place on this planet including we human sapiens.

  • We can support each new idea as a seed worthy of germinating, paying attention to, adding to and reflecting upon each with openness.
  • We can support new ideas with resources.
  • We can provide in-person and virtual venues where interchange and synthesis of ideas can occur in a spirit of collaboration and respect.
  • We can utilize all modalities open to us to express ideas including the vehicle of the arts: music and song, painting, drama, dance, poetry, performance art.
  • We can read, share, talk and dialogue about ideas and share our new learnings.
  • We can offer a library of ideas which the School Strike, Extinction Rebellion, Green New Deal and others can draw upon.
  • We can ask our friends in all of the different movements to distill and share the philosophy underlying their many activities. We can ask the same of participants in any given workshop.
  • We can frame each new synthesis as an experimental basis for a new paradigm to be pursued - to see where it goes, adapting and letting go of it as necessary.

In doing this, we will be using our collective authorship to rewrite the basic narrative of life on this planet.

 

 


A Reflection on Education in the 21st Century

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The UN Sustainable Development Goals

As I reflect back over my teaching during the five years that I have been in Israel, I am very mindful of the increasing role that ideas of "sustainability" have in my work. Of course, "sustainability" is the consequence of a variety of approaches which we often refer to by the label of "sustainability." One might also refer to this as how we will go about living within our planetary budget in the foreseeable future.

I am aware of how more and more I bring these ideas into my work at various institutions and in different capacities especially in the classroom. In a very mundane way, it is not different than what we in the MBA curriculum all did a decade or two ago in bringing ideas of "quality" into our work. Deming and his work was the trend and no business school curriculum would be doing its job without reference to this body of knowledge. Along with Deming was the idea of teams and teamwork and similarly, we would have been remiss in not teaching our students these new approaches. Collaboration is another approach that has become part of the fabric of our efforts.

As we stand now several years beyond the Paris Climate Accord, one thing is unfortunately very clear. This is that our world is changing in hugely significant ways. Sooner or later, a larger number of our species will become aware that our survival as a species may be at stake. At the least, we are leaving what some writers call the Holocene Era, a twelve thousand year long period which was a time when the Earth's climate and resources were ideal in meeting our needs, to the Anthropocene Era which is the result of human activity and will be a far more challenging time. In the meantime, we have the duty and moral responsibility to educate and train our students to be be prepared to live in, manage, consult to and be part of the leadership in this new world. They need to be good citizens in this world.

Assuming that we take action before it is too late, we will have a huge role in shaping our response and the kind of world and communities we all will live in, the way we make our living, and the types of organizations in which we will add value. In turn, we will need to have created an economy that accommodates all of this along with our changed relationship to the natural capital of our planet (the ability of our planet to provide resources, absorb waste, eliminate CO2 from the atmosphere and produce food.)

The question is what should we be teaching. Clearly, we should be open to questioning some of the knowledge and approaches of the past. This includes the nature of organizations, their goals, the ways they do business and their relationship to economic principles that have likely outgrown their usefulness. We should be laying the groundwork for the future rather than continually revisiting the past.

We remain human beings and, thus, learning about our individual psychology and psychology in groups remains relevant though, perhaps, new things will need to be stressed as the requirements of our new, emerging world become more apparent.

Beyond this, the types of organizations and businesses will change as we deal with changes in the Anthropocene Era. The goals and values of these enterprises will be different. Their legal forms will be different to accommodate triple bottom line (economic, environmental, social) goals. Development will take precedence over growth; circular businesses and a circular economy will require changed approaches to production and consumption. Conservation will play a driving role. How we work together will likely change. We will be seeing the world in terms of ecosystems and networks and in other ways not yet imagined. Our fields of study in part will be different. For example, the field of Biomimicy will likely be far more important as we learn the value of replicating the organic processes of nature in our communities, enterprises and products.

It can be a very exciting though challenging time for those who choose to commit to playing a role in helping our global and local societies develop appropriately. For those who make this choice, opportunities for work may be abundant.

I like to think that in terms of Israel, the U.S., UK and other countries meeting this current challenge will enable them to fulfill their national destiny. All members of the United Nations Community can pursue the Sustainable Development Goals as a global destiny.

I believe we all will be remiss as educators and human beings if we do not acquaint young people with the challenges awaiting them. Ironically, it is many of the younger generation who are educating older people about these challenges. We have much to learn from each other.

I appreciate that this will not be easy as we all grapple with reactions of denial, resistance and anxiety. We have the responsibility to work with our students in developing organizational and societal solutions for the future and developing the skills that will be needed. There are many important conversations that can take place in an educational context. Our students hopefully will play an important role in the momentous societal and organizational changes of the future. They are called upon even now to help their respective societies embark upon these changes. I believe our responsibility is to help put in place the appropriate foundation to support them.