Remarkable because it’s a radical critique of sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility programmes – and, more widely, of 21st century capitalism – co-authored by two US business school professors and published by Stanford University.
The book is a set of interviews around eight papers by John Ehrenfeld, former Director of the MIT Program on Technology, Business and Environment and still, in retirement, a Senior Research Scholar at Yale. The interviewer is Andrew Hoffmann, Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan.
In essence, Dr Ehrenfeld believes that our current understanding of sustainability, and its promise of a sustainable future, is a delusion:
“Hybrid cars, LED light bulbs, wind farms and green buildings, these are all just the trappings that convince us that we are doing something when in fact we are fooling ourselves, and making things worse….Reducing unsustainability, although critical, will not create sustainability.”
He proposes instead a wider, richer definition: “Sustainability-as-flourishing”. “Sustainability is the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on Earth forever.” It’s a definition that includes issues of justice, inequality, wellbeing and social cohesion – with implications for the individual and the community, for every organization and institution.
His analysis is uncompromising: “Growthism is our religion and the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is our god”. We neglect human well-being and focus overwhelmingly on material goals – “Our metrics of success are now principally measured in material terms” – so that “in making ourselves rich, we are making ourselves existentially and psychologically poor”. He asks heretical questions about the value of corporate sustainability measures:
“Sustainability is a systems property. You don’t measure sustainability; it’s only a possibility. You strive to attain it. No single company is going to be able to measure their specific contribution to sustainability. What’s important is whether they are promoting a culture of flourishing or not. Are they structuring their company to promote fairness, wellness, equality, ecosystem health and community cohesion?”
His conclusions are surprising. Sustainability-as-flourishing, he says, requires the re-conceptualization of our lives around two big ideas. We need to shift our dominant mindsets from Having to Being, from Needing to Caring. We need to shift from a dominant materialistic mindset to spirituality and love: “Sustainability-as-flourishing without love is not possible”.