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Right or wrong?

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I listened to an interesting talk by Paul Gilding at the RSA yesterday.

I often become defensive when I hear people strongly assert their views, so I liked it when later in the talk he disarmingly admits that actually he may be wrong. In fact, he says he’d be happy to be wrong.

I like that, because how can anybody know the future? The future hasn’t happened yet. And even if it is in some way pre-ordained, personally, I don’t believe it can be accurately predicted.

Gilding’s talk is based on his book, the Great Disruption. The message as I understand it is that the world is already at one and half times its carrying capacity. Our success means that what we consume already outstrips our planet’s ability to provide it, and we are only surviving because we are burning up our capital.

Anyone who has ever been involved in running a business understands how easy it is to burn through capital once expenditure exceeds income.

Economic and corporate growth have, so far, been mankind’s great, and only, solution to the problem of human development: so far defined as giving more people ever better standards of living.

The problem we now face is that the ratio of use compared to carrying capacity is going to grow rapidly as we apply that solution to the poorer people in the world. And from a humanitarian point of view, as well as politically, we just can’t avoid doing that.

Once we get to a point where the majority of the world’s population – already nearly 7 billion – has a reasonable standard of living, we will be at a much, much worse ratio. Somewhere around 3, 4 or even 5 times carrying capacity within the next 30 years or so.

So, according to Gilding, this is the end of our existing economic system – the one based on growth. That doesn’t mean it will be curtailed, or slowed down, or whatever; it simply means it won’t work. And it will end long before we reach 3, or 4, or 5 times carrying capacity.

Practically, and in the relatively short-term, food and oil prices will again rise dramatically – as our global oil and food production systems reach their natural limits. Political instability, oil and food prices, and climate are all inextricably linked: so we can expect even more unpredictable results. We’ve already seen the first signs of this: the need for a global financial bailout and even the recent Arab spring.

But “Mother Nature doesn’t do bailouts”. There is no “global government” that can throw additional resources at the problem. So whatever happens precisely, growth will stop. Clearly, an economic system based on growth doesn’t work when growth has stopped. And this will happen well before we reach the higher end of those use-to-capacity ratios.

Again, according to Gilding, fiddling around with population won’t help. Even if we could stop population growth today this ratio of use compared to carrying capacity will still grow massively as the standard of living of people already born rises.

Might technological advance, and, for example, limitless energy solve the problem? Possibly, but not for the next twenty years or so. We’re just not there yet technologically. Gilding’s prediction is that the current economic system will reach its limits well before we find technological solutions.

So, not a pretty vision. But ultimately he is mainly optimistic. For two main reasons.

Firstly, he believes that once we eventually notice that we are being boiled alive (like Charles Handy’s frog), then we will band together and deal with the crisis well.

Humanity, he says, is excellent at dealing with crises. It may be painful but we will do whatever it takes to solve the problems we have. A spirit similar to that of the second world war will emerge – community and mutual support will strengthen, and with a bit of luck we’ll get though it. Perhaps not as individuals. But at least as the human race.

And the other reason for hope is that as the current economic system collapses we’ll replace it with a much better one. A steady state economy which while it reduces that use/carrying capacity ratio to a sustainable level also has the huge benefit that it supports a much more holistic definition of wealth – where happiness, relationships, community, and mental and physical health sit alongside sufficient material prosperity.

All of the above is based on research done by some respected bodies and groups (such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the Global Footprint Network). I suppose there’s always a question with this kind of thing: who do I, as a relatively uninformed citizen, trust?

Personally, what worries me about some economists is that they seem locked in to a paradigmatic view of the world which assumes growth is the only model. Where many environmental scientists, perhaps because of their more systemic world view, seem to be prepared to challenge their own assumptions. Perhaps.

But does it really matter if Gilding is right or wrong? If I am right or wrong? Or if anyone is right or wrong about this kind of thing?

In one sense yes. Gilding downplays the terrible human consequences if he does turn out to be right.

But in another sense perhaps not. Not in the sense of what we should be doing about it.

What does it mean for Conscious Business if he is right?

Well, for me, it means that Conscious Business is an excellent idea – because anything that prepares people for a world where happiness, relationships, mental and physical health sit alongside sufficient material prosperity is a good thing. Making the transition to that world easier seems, to me, a good and useful thing to do.

And what does it mean for Conscious Business if he is wrong?

Well, for me, it means that Conscious Business is an excellent idea – for exactly the same reasons. Creating that kind of world is a good thing in its own right, for all of us.

So take your pick: right or wrong? And then get on with becoming more conscious, and bringing more consciousness into your business.

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Author: Pete Burden

Strategy, Leadership and Organisational Coach I am an experienced strategy, leadership and organisational coach. I work with the MDs of purpose-led businesses - people using the freedom, flexibility, and practicality of business to disrupt the world in positive ways.

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