If humanity is to survive, businesses need to start getting in touch with nature, writes Giles Hutchins.
Humanity was referred to by Andrew Marr in his last episode of the UK's BBC series History of The World not as ‘wise man’ homo-sapiens but rather as ‘clever apes in a spot of bother’. He surmised, having traversed through ancient civilizations and the history of man, that if humanity is to have any hope of anything resembling a successful future, we must either radically change our exploitation of natural resources or radically reduce our world population: we either radically adapt or substantially die.
Business leaders, world thinkers, activists and innovators are increasingly heard calling for a ‘paradigm shift’ in our approach to economic and social life. As defined by Fritjof Capra, "a paradigm is a constellation of concepts, values, perceptions and practices shared by a community, which forms a particular vision of reality".
The social and scientific revolutions in modern, early modern and even ancient ages have left their legacies with the modern mind, and ultimately the ‘stories’ it unwittingly defaults to. For example, the early modern period, in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, saw major revelations in scientific discovery and philosophy from Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Descartes and Darwin, which greatly influenced the modern western view of the human in the wider cosmos and universe.
Man became a powerful external actor, disconnected from the very fabric of the natural systems of which he had previously been a part. Interestingly, these events were both profoundly liberating for human societies and also enormously disenchanting.
Our prevailing reductionist approach to science, technology and business has encouraged us to see ourselves as separate from nature, and to view the world around us as something to be analysed and over-exploited for our own wants and needs, with scant regard for the consequences. Here lies insight into the root cause of our problems facing us today in business and beyond.
Reductionist and anthropocentric
The sobering fact of the matter is that our current business approach (and its immense power to fuel problems as well as implement solutions) is neither balanced nor life-encompassing; it is reductionist and anthropocentric in its belief and behaviour.
The ‘Be the Change’ group recently noted that:
According to a majority of the world’s experts, there is now overwhelming evidence that our modern society is headed for a catastrophe. Leading scientists are telling us that the impact of our industrial system, and the sudden expansion of humanity’s ability to harvest the common bounty of our planet for short-term gain, may actually be upsetting the balance of our highly complex and fragile web of life. It is as if we are living inside of a dream, sleepwalking toward oblivion, while self-serving, short-sighted interests encourage our slumber with managed news, celebrity culture and other weapons of mass distraction.
Our current separated thinking and reductionist view of the world has encouraged an alienation from nature over recent years, leaving us unbalanced in our understanding of the real world – the world not just of stock market trends and commodity prices, but also of soil and sea, of cycles and seasons, and of ecosystems and environments.
Our prevailing view of nature as a battleground of competing species, each fighting to survive, is a narrow view of a more complex picture. When Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species, the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ was quickly co-opted and distorted by powerful elites to promote the idea that only the biggest, strongest, and most powerful can survive.
In reality, what Darwin found and described in his findings was that those organisms with the greatest ability to adapt to their local environment – the ‘fittest’ in the sense of the best fit – would survive when and where others would fail.
He found that sensing, responding, adapting, and aligning with and within the local ecosystem were key to survival.
Recent scientific discoveries, coupled with advances in systems thinking and quantum theory, continue to build on these findings, and uncover a more complex and complete view of nature, the workings of the universe, and the evolution of life.
Over the last 3.8 billion years, nature has survived and flourished through times of radical change and disruption by dynamically networking and collaborating among species and throughout ecosystems.
Diversity, flexibility and collaboration, we find, is core to the interwoven evolutionary journey of life – the driving forces that provide resilience and regeneration within species and ecosystems.
In the words of the business pioneers Michael Braungart and William McDonough:
Popular wisdom holds that the fittest survive, the strongest, leanest, largest, perhaps meanest – whatever beats the competition. But in healthy, thriving natural systems it is actually the ‘fitting-est’ who thrive. Fitting-est implies an energetic and material engagement with place, and an interdependent relationship to it.
So how does business go about shifting from a prevalent mind-set of reductionism and short term profit maximisation that views the world as a collection of things to be consumed (nature’s capital) to a world-view that has an energetic and material engagement with place and an interdependent relationship with life which is symbiotic not carcinogenic?
We're all part of nature
In short, how does the prevalent approach of business (and for that matter human society) break its devastating illusion of being a part from nature to realising in reality that we are a part of nature, even with our specialities?
This is the sixty-billion dollar question (not whether the US defaults on its ever-spiralling debt mountain, which is just one of many symptoms we now experience as a result of failing to address the root cause of our social, economic and environmental crises: our carcinogenic relationship with life on Earth).
This question of the moment can be answered through 3 R's – re-design, re-connect, re-kindle:
Re-designing - new ways of operating and innovating beyond 'less bad' into 'doing good' (shifting from the take/make/waste economic paradigm to a regenerative approach that heals society and the web of life rather that destroying life in the name of short-term gain). An example here is the Kingfisher Group aiming to be a ‘net positive’ force for good in the world.
Re-connecting - reconciling our human relationship with life/nature and our own authentic human nature (re-establishing our vital bond with ourselves, our neighbours and the web of life within which we are a part of through education, authentic leadership and eco-psychology). An example here is the co-founder of Natura, Pedro Passo, who instills a business culture that understands our interrelatedness with nature and community.
Re-kindling wisdom - working with the grain of nature and operating within the rules of life on Earth (enabling businesses and societies not merely to ‘sustain’ but to thrive in the years ahead by practicing wise approaches to life that draw on, for instance: symbiosis, ecological thinking, permaculture, systems-thinking and systems-being, business inspired by nature, presencing & indigenous wisdom). An example here would be Weleda with its bio-dynamic philosophy and its holistic approach to all aspects of its business.
This is the future of business, and it’s bright.