IONS50 Series: Business as Component of The Global Ecology

October 12, 2023
IONS Former President Willis Harman (1918-1997), Foreword by IONS Board Chair and Interim CEO Claudia Welss

Our fourth post in the IONS 50th Anniversary blog series is an article based on Willis Harman’s prescient book, Creative Work: The Constructive Role of Business in Transforming Society, written with John Horman in 1990. In it, Willis highlights one of the most inconvenient truths of the time that persists today — that in our materialist paradigm, we’ve built global systems in pursuit of profit and power that are incompatible with humanity’s overall well-being and Earth’s global ecology. As he pointed out in last month’s reprint, “Where is Our Positive Image of the Future?,” when societal contradictions seem too threatening, we can simply fail to notice them. It’s this failure to see that has allowed us to continue to wage war with our planet and with ourselves.

Willis believed business played a special role in this and so did I, and while I was working on corporate social and environmental responsibility at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business he invited me to participate in PB-21, a peacebuilding through business inquiry for the 21st century that would meet from 1995-2000 at the Fetzer Institute. The effort was a continuation of work started a decade earlier by Avon Mattison of Pathways To Peace and the UN Assistant Secretary General, Robert Muller. The assignment was to provide the UN with our recommendations on a way forward, and for Willis, the only way forward was to enable a new, self-healing, whole-system consciousness in which “the interconnectedness of everything is taken into account.” He believed unless we address the cause of our crises — a consciousness based in separation — we could only address the symptoms. This idea inspired me to join him, and to keep supporting IONS ever since. Claudia Welss

Business as Component of The Global Ecology By Willis Harman

Hardly a week goes by without our hearing some new evidence of a major environmental disaster, ecological disruption, or man-made threat of long-term climate change. Almost always these have economic impact and result from economic activity. Frequently the blame is attributed to business. And almost always the response is to attempt to penalize the culprits, legislate environmental control, and repair the damage. However, what seems a reasonable enough response utterly fails to get at the heart of the matter. 

We seem to find it difficult to think about these matters in whole-system terms; to recognize business and the economy as parts of the greater global ecological system, and to acknowledge that practically all of the remedies proposed are ineffectual attempts to patch up a system which will in the end require more fundamental change. 

Fundamental change is not inherently more difficult or costly than patch-up, but we do have far more psychological resistance to considering it. 

The Global Dilemmas in the Light of the Interconnectedness of Everything

One commonly hears, these days, the observation that “everything is connected to everything else.” Although the truth of the statement is evident, discussion seldom progresses to the point where the implications for action are clear. 

The Economy and the Environment. The familiar litany of environmental problems and man-made climate change needs no repeating here. No one can be unaware these days of the complex of global problems of environmental degradation, toxic chemical concentrations, species extinction, soil depletion, deforestation, desertification, “greenhouse effect” and the rest. The basic fact to be observed is the strong correlation between these and the characteristics of the world economy. Some of the environmental problems are strongly linked to industrial processes, or to the amount and kind of economic consumption; these are often tolerated because remedying them would reduce profits entail economic costs, or have a negative impact  on jobs. Other environmental problems result from the demands made on the environment by those in a state of chronic poverty. These latter include overgrazing, forest destruction for firewood, surface water contamination, soil erosion and removal of humus (dung) for fuel. They can only be ameliorated in the long term through doing something about the poverty. 

A big part of the dilemma is that modern society guides (or at least defends) its major decisions mainly by economic values and economic logic. We are so used to this we fail to note that there is no basic reason to assume that economic logic will lead to good social decisions, let alone decisions that will be sound in the whole-system sense. To the contrary, economic logic is almost always applied toward the optimization of some aspect of a limited subsystem. It tends to downplay or omit those important qualities that are not quantifiable – “if you can’t count it, it doesn’t count.” 

Furthermore, economic logic discounts the future, which is a formalized way of saying that the well-being of future generations doesn’t count either. 

Economic logic is a particularly glaring misfit in the area of agriculture. The agricultural sector – including the production and distribution of food and other agricultural products – is the portion of the modern economy which is most out of consonance with the natural order. Agriculture cannot be understood and dealt with as an industry.  The economy of industry is extractive; it takes, makes, uses, and discards. Agriculture, on the other hand, represents a replenishing economy, which takes, makes, uses, and returns. It involves the return to the source, not just of fertility, of so-called “wastes”, but of care and affection. Otherwise, the soil is used exactly as a mineable fuel, and is destroyed in use. The old farming ethic involved passing the land on to future generations in an improved, not a depleted, state. The farmer, unlike the industrialist, is necessarily a nurturer, a preserver of the health of creatures.

When agriculture is treated as an industry like other industries, the economic incentives turn out to foster the wrong sorts of behavior. Furthermore, those who farm with concern for the health of the land and the long-term future tend to be put out of business by those who concentrate on production and return on investment over the short term. 

With the present system of mass production of agricultural products and transportation to distant markets, when the energy costs of tractor fuels, fertilizers, transportation, processing, packaging, freezing, thawing, and the like, are counted in, the food on your table represents something like eight to twelve times as much fossil fuel energy as solar energy. Such a situation is clearly not viable in the long term. 

Modern agriculture is extremely productive in terms of output per person-hour or output per acre of land. However, it is also extremely expensive in terms of loss of soil, in loss of farms and alienation of farmers, in soil and water pollution, in food pollution, in the decay of country towns and communities, and in the increasing vulnerability of the food supply system. The market is unable to assign a value to many factors vital to sound agriculture, such as topsoil, ecosystem, family, community. The excessive emphasis on productivity not only creates the effects just mentioned; it also inevitably causes over-production – which leads to low prices and economic ruin.

Employment and Economic Growth. The economic growth problem is usually posed: How can we get more of it? But the more penetrating system question is: How can we learn to get along without it? 

The combination of increasing labor productivity, loss of some markets to overseas competition, the entry of new participants, especially women, into the workforce, and the psychology of investors and workers expecting ever-increasing return, have all put pressure on the economy to grow and to create new jobs. The rate of increase of GNP has become the accepted measure of the health of the nation’s economy. But that measure is highly correlated with the rate at which the economy consumes scarce resources, and the rate at which it creates environmental degradation. In other words, inadvertently the economic incentives structure has come to favor resource depletion and spoliation of the environment. 

The pressure to create jobs no matter what consequences may ensue leads society to promote superfluous production and consumption; to see economic benefits in high “national security” expenditures, and to view approvingly the “speculation society” dominated by a large “financial industries” sector which generates jobs but contributes nothing in terms of basic goods or services, and rewards the lucky and the clever while discouraging honest toil. There is a tendency to accept the environmental and resource depletion consequences of these policies as unavoidable, as part of the price of “material progress.” 

The situation in the so called “developing” countries is in general far worse. Forced out of their traditional village existence, hordes crowd into the already teeming urban environments seeking nonexistent jobs. Cities in the Third World bulge with displaced peasants, able only to scratch out the meanest of livings in the most ignoble occupations. In some of these countries underemployment is the condition of the great majority of the urban population. This result of economic forces is exacerbated in many areas by high birth rates and steadily increasing population. 

In sum, the sociopolitical demand for jobs drives the economy in some ways that are ultimately detrimental to the planet, to the social integrity, and to the well-being of future generations. 

The basic dilemma of the modern world is this. On the one hand, if a country does not continually increase labor productivity, the industry of that country tends to become noncompetitive in the international market. On the other hand, if productivity does increase, then by definition, to maintain the same number of jobs, the economic product must increase. Thus as various constraints – resource, environmental, political and social – tend to limit economic growth, chronic unemployment becomes an intrinsic characteristic of the future. In a few countries demographic trends are obscuring this unemployment dilemma for the short term, but the tendency is inexorable in the longer term.

The Misunderstanding of Development. There is perhaps no more misused word in the English language than “development.” We speak of land development, and typically mean stripping the land of vegetation and paving it over with asphalt. We speak of human development, and typically mean destroying traditional community and conditioning people to survive in an urban environment. We speak of economic development, implying that it is equivalent with improvement of well-being, but typically mean increase of economic production and consumption – with concomitant pollution of the environment and squandering of resources. It is abundantly clear that the conventional concept of development does not lead to a long-term viable global, and in most cases does not produce shared well-being even in the medium term. 

There is, indeed, a development dilemma of global proportions. The dilemma is that it does not appear that the global system in anything like its present form is compatible with an ecologically sustainable global society or to a satisfactory resolution of the plight of the poorest countries. Of the easily imaginable paths of global development, those that seem to be economically feasible do not look to be ecologically and socially plausible, and those that appear ecologically feasible and humanistically desirable do not seem economically and politically feasible. 

For the two decades following World War Il, development was more or less taken to be synonymous with economic development, that is, with “modernization,” industrialization, and urbanization. One of the main goals of this development thrust was to alleviate hunger. The “Green Revolution”, the development of high-yield grains that were to spell the end of hunger for hundreds of millions, proved a mixed success. Yields did increase and more people were fed; but population continued to grow, and land ownership and political power remained concentrated in very few hands. Massive application of artificial fertilizers and pesticides contributed to environmental problems. The net effect in many regions was that the opportunity for a family to grow its own food and sell produce from its own land actually diminished. The effect has been exacerbated where “cash crops” for export have displaced produced grown for local consumption.

Furthermore, political and cultural leaders in developing countries have come increasingly to see that the best development for them is not necessarily abandonment of their own cultural roots and adoption of the alien culture of Western industrial (consumer) society. There has been not only growing insistence on a different international economic order, but also on exploring alternative development paths.

On the one hand, if we imagine these difficulties to be somehow overcome and all the developing countries to be successful in following the examples of the industrialized and newly industrializing countries, it is clear that the planet would be hard-pressed to accommodate six or eight billion people living high-consumption lifestyles, and one could anticipate intense political battles over environmental and quality-of-life issues.

On the other hand, we may try to picture a future state where the high-consumption societies remain so, but the poorer countries remain low-consumption (i.e., poor), with low per-capita demand on resources and environment; it is hard to see how a global system with such a persisting disparity in income and wealth could avoid vicious “wars of redistribution,” with terrorism as one of the main weapons.

There is no consensus on what constitutes a viable pattern of global development, but it is increasingly clear that present trends do not. In short, when the interconnectedness of everything is taken into account, it becomes clear that present economic, corporate, and social policies are, by and large, inconsistent with viable long-term global development, and are being made without a picture of a satisfactory global future in mind.

It is essential to recognize the unresolvability of these dilemmas absent some sort of fundamental change in the world system. The required change is so fundamental, in fact, that it is almost impossible to imagine it being initiated and managed from the top. Throughout history, whenever the social system has undergone such basic change, it has come not from the top down, but through vast numbers of people changing their minds and demanding change. (On occasion when this happens, “leaders” rush out in front and may seem to have been leading the parade.)

The Whole-System View of Business

Business is part of a larger system and most constructively understood as such. In the broad view, the world economy is part of the global ecology. It is a component of the whole which, in terms of the whole, is bringing undesirable outcomes.

The Error of Separateness Thinking. When reality is wholeness, there is no greater error than separateness thinking. Imagine if the stomach were to get the idea that it could pursue its self-interest independent of the well-being of the whole body/mind/spirit. Justifying its appetites with the maxims “What’s good for the stomach is good for the whole,” and “The business of the stomach is growth of the stomach,” it seeks to maximize its absorption of nutrients and minimize the fraction going to other parts of the body. It worries about such indicators as getting its “market share” of the food value, and “gross abdominal product.” It sounds absurd, of course, because the stomach doesn’t do anything of the sort. It concentrates on performing its function with regard to the whole system, and trusts that if it does that, the system will see to it that its nutrient, protection, and other needs are met. 

In a whole-system view the various elements of global society, including corporations and other parts of the world economy, perform similarly. If they focus on performing their appropriate function in the overall system, they can trust that their various needs will be met.

The nature of the interconnected global dilemmas summarized above is such that there is no satisfactory solution short of whole-system change. Every part of the system must sense what is its particular contribution to that change, and do that, trusting that the system will then take care of its needs.

The Origins of Separateness Thinking.  The fact that such a concept seems alien to us illustrates how deeply ingrained separateness thinking has become in modern society. We are not ordinarily taught about the scientific revolution in terms of its being the beginning of formalized separateness thinking. But the fundamental axiom of modern science has been that reality is made up of separate “fundamental particles” which, themselves or in various aggregations, interact with one another only through specifiable mechanisms such as gravitational or electromagnetic fields or – in quantum physics -particle exchanges. This is not an idea that would have made any sense to the medieval mind. However, it turned out to have tremendous power as a strategy for creating a science leading to powers of prediction and control.

It is only now, in retrospect, that we see it was but one of the possible choices of basic assumptions. (In fact, it is only with the development of quantum mechanics that the science of physics came to contradict its own initial assumption of the separateness of fundamental particles. ) The concept of separateness – not only of fundamental particles from one another, but of observer from observed, of mind from matter, of man from nature – came to permeate the whole of modern society. Its other consequences, in terms of alienation and of the global dilemmas described above, are only now becoming clear.

The alternative ontological assumption – that of wholeness, oneness, everything connected to everything- has for several decades been gaining strength as a social force (manifesting as a new holistic emphasis in health, education, management training, bioregional systems thinking, the Gaia concept, eco-feminism, etc.) until it appears likely to take over. We have only begun to think about how different a scientific worldview would appear if science were to be restructured on the basis of the wholeness assumption. If the dominant world view shifts, from the separate emphasis to the wholeness assumption, we can be sure that every institution in society will be affected, just as all institutions were affected by the shift, in 17th-century Western Europe, from the medieval to the modern view.

Self-Healing Forces in Society. In a more holistic view of our situation, we are immediately reminded that living organisms tend to be self-healing. The same can undoubtedly be said of societies even though the mechanisms are less studied. (The Gaia hypothesis, which has recently been attracting much favorable attention, suggests that the planet itself, as a living system, may be self-healing as well. Of course, there is no assurance that the healing process of the planet guarantees the continued existence of human civilization; humans will have to see to that themselves.)

Recognizing this capacity for self-healing, we see several things in a new light. The question is not so much how the problems arose, nor even how their effects can be ameliorated; the key question is: What went wrong with society’s self-healing system such that it failed to handle the pathogenic challenges as they came along? What might be done to help the restoration of the societal self-healing processes?

Adopting the optimistic hypothesis that much of people’s innovative activities these days can be interpreted as society-healing impulses, partially unconsciously-guided, we find it easy to recognize many indications of spontaneous creative response. These indications include a variety of social movements, as well as a host of innovative experiments in nonprofit organizations, intentional communities, alternative economies, alternative health-care programs, new forms of business entrepreneurship, citizen approaches to assisting new enterprise and community development in Third World countries, and many others.

There is much evidence to support the hypothesis that (a) whole-system change will be required for the major societal and global problems to become solvable; (b) at some deep intuitive level people seem to sense this, and as a result spontaneous social movements and experiments have arisen which, taken together, provide both a direction and a motive force for such whole-system change; and (c) as the dynamics of this process of social transformation are better understood, actions that foster constructive change can be supported to help minimize the kinds of social disruption and human misery that have so often in the past accompanied deep social change.

The Special Role of Business. It is of the greatest importance that businesses understand accurately the significance of these present indicators of fundamental change. In the first place, making good corporate decisions depends critically on accurate assessment of both the external and the internal environment. But also, and most importantly, business leadership is in a unique position from which to contribute constructively to peaceful transformation.

It is both typical and reasonable for the business executive to want to know: What should I do? By the very nature of the situation, the most creative response is not likely to be a specific action, but rather more like a different stance, a new way of viewing, a changed basis for choices.

If it is possible to give more concrete advice, perhaps it is something like the following:

(1) Come to understand the nature of transformational forces present in the modern world so as to increase your organization’s chances of survival through what is likely to be a chaotic transition period.

(2) Do what is necessary to prosper, in the sense of being strong and flourishing, because that strength will be needed to make an effective contribution to the evolution of the whole. One of the most important factors here is attracting and holding the most creative and competent people.

(3) Contribute, because only if everybody does are we likely to see a successful outcome following this very critical time.


Willis Harman,
Former President of IONS 


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