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A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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Right or wrong?

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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Enough is enough

I came across a really neat little report today – “Enough is Enough” – that summarises in just ten pages the reasons why we need a steady state economy, and what we need to do to get started on creating such a thing.

It was produced by two British non-profit organisations: CASSE and Economic Justice for All, and is based on work at the first Steady State Economy Conference held in June last year.

The ten straightforward proposals seem very much aligned with what we are trying to do with Conscious Business. In fact, so much so, that I have added links to relevant past posts in the list below. The ten proposals include:

  • stabilising population – sensible in a finite world, but what a challenge to achieve and maintain this;
  • reforming the monetary system – if you thought stabilising population was difficult, imagine successfully reforming banks, bankers and all that;
  • changing the way we measure progress – something so deeply entrenched in establishment thinking, and in the education system itself;
  • improving global co-operation – vital to balance the needs of countries where growth is necessary with developed countries like ours, but an immense political challenge;
  • engaging politicians and the media – another daunting task; but there are always early adopters in these groups.

And five in particular standout as of specific relevance to business:

  • limiting resource use and waste production – this, to me, is the only sensible route in a finite world, and business as a huge user of resources and producer of waste clearly has an enormous role to play in this;
  • limiting inequality – lots of practical things we can do here and are already exploring – like limiting the gap between the highest and lowest paid; and introducing new models of business ownership;
  • securing full employment – this requires a change in the way we think about employment – for example, to allow us to reduce the working week. I have written before about the real, underlying challenges of this;
  • changing consumer behaviour – we have the technology, and probably the know-how; but do we, collectively, have the will: this means, ultimately, changing ourselves?
  • rethinking business and production – the key here for me is changing the primary goal of business towards developing the people in the business – helping them become more conscious and happier.

All of these things are difficult individually. And overall the list of 10 priorities can make the whole exercise seem overwhelmingly hard. But two things strike me:

  1. We are already some way down the track on many of these things. I know more about the business elements than the others but I know we have been experimenting – going around the loop of failure and success – for many years. Conscious Business itself is already a broad and growing church.
  2. What an exciting and amazing overall goal? A true Big Hairy Audacious Goal – something stimulating and exciting for a whole new generation of younger business people. Young people who in many cases aren’t held back by the attitudes and outlook of their older colleagues. People who are happy to shake up the status quo and challenge “Establishment” thinking.
Game on!


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Relocalisation

At this time of year I guess we are all thinking about hearth and home. But a conversation with one of the founders of Gossypium, a great little business that started here in Lewes in 2001, got me thinking about the reality of building a sustainable business locally.

Gossypium sells organic and Fairtrade certified cotton, sourced directly from independent farmers in India. This is worthy in itself. But I think one of the things  the company has done really well is embed itself in the community.

This isn’t done in a forced way, but simply and authentically. For example, the company supports local initiatives. It’s open to suggestions by local people for local campaigns that matter. It contributes to these campaigns and joins in – both the owners and the team. Generally, and wherever it can, it does the “right thing”.

I think this, and the fact that the business started here, has led to a growing belief that Gossypium “belongs” to Lewes. Gossypium is a business that people who live here seem almost proud of.

I know my wife and I have chosen to shop there this year, and lots of other local people do. It’s probably not the cheapest place in the world. But there’s something special about buying things from a place you know is involved in and supportive of your community.

And the owner told me that this support has really benefited the company, financially as well as in other ways, and she believes it will continue to do so.

Perhaps this is the kind of thing the writers of the Cluetrain Manifesto had in mind. The Manifesto is 10 years old this year. As you may know, the Manifesto sees markets as conversations. And it stresses the importance of talking with a human voice. Principles 34 through 40 are:

  • To speak with a human voice, companies must share the concerns of their communities.
  • But first, they must belong to a community.
  • Companies must ask themselves where their corporate cultures end.
  • If their cultures end before the community begins, they will have no market.
  • Human communities are based on discourse — on human speech about human concerns.
  • The community of discourse is the market.
  • Companies that do not belong to a community of discourse will die.

It’s easy to critique the Cluetrain idea. But, for me, the point about community is essentially true.

Happy New Year.