Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter is a book which Maria and I wrote to help businesses and organisations start to listen to listen to nature. What is missing in business and economic thinking is a critical insight. Biological ecosystems are not out there, in some other country or continent, waiting to be studied, so that new business models can be created in the business environment.
The great shortcoming of economics has been to fail to place business and economic systems within the overall ecosystem of the biosphere. Just as Gaia consists of regulatory feedback mechanisms between living organisms and non-living inorganic material, so the business world is very much a holon within Gaia.
David Peat captures well the true insights for business from complexity science. He summarises these in four key lessons, which relate to the ethics and culture of organisations:
1. Transparency and Openness
Nature organises itself to avoid blocks of any kind. In human systems, therefore, information and meaning should flow through systems unhindered.
2. Respect for Competition
Natural systems flourish because of their inherent diversity. When one species begins to dominate, the system as a whole flounders.
3. The Role of Redundancy
Nature does not often act in a way that appears to be maximally efficient. However, when situations change, nature systems are able to make adaptions to survive. Likewise businesses should look to maintain some level of redundancy so as not to become over-rigid and unable to make adjustments.
4. Accepting uncertainty
The implications of complexity science suggest that business managers should give up their illusions of control. We now live in an age of incomplete information, and this can be challenging to managers.
Satish Kumar, one of the world’s best known environmental campaigners, points out in his unique and gentle way that the words ‘economics’ and ‘ecology’ have the same derivative meaning, and therefore, economists should naturally be taught about ecology – but they are not. His following comments come from a talk that he gave at the London School of Economics:
The study of the ‘environment’ is not the same as the study of ‘ecology’. The environment is what surrounds us humans. This implies that humans are at the centre and what is around us is our environment. So ‘environment’ is an anthropocentric concept whereas the word ‘ecology’ is more inclusive. Ecology implies relationships between all species, humans and the natural world.
Ecology and economy are derived from three Greek words: oikos, logos, nomos. ‘Oikos’ means home: a place of relationships between all forms of life, sharing and participating in the evolution of the Earth community. ‘Logos’ means the knowledge of our planet home, and ‘nomos’ means management of that home.
Now what is taught at the LSE is economy; management of the home, and not ecology, the knowledge of home. How can anyone manage something they know nothing of? If you don’t know your living room, bedroom, dining room, kitchen or garden how are you going to manage them? If you don’t really know your mother, father, husband, wife or children, how are you going to manage those relationships?
So ecology should come before economy; knowledge before management. But at the LSE, as well as at most other universities, the study of the economy dominates. These universities are sending thousands upon thousands of young people into the world equipped with management skills but without knowledge of what they are going to manage. These graduates are half-educated, which is worse than being uneducated.
Economist Georges Bataille (1897–1962) argued that classical economics was mistaken. The general economy was not human, but solar. His idea came from the fact that, in being able to photosynthesise energy from the sun, bacteria, protoctists and plants are the world’s true producers and savers. Herbivores and carnivores such as ourselves are consumers, in so far as we eat and then temporarily store this photosynthetic energy. Spending, therefore, is not just a human economic problem; it has been a long term problem for life itself.
One way to characterise a culture is, therefore, to look to see how a particular society is determined less by its needs and more by its excesses. In this view of the world, humans do not own anything at all, since ownerships rests with the biosphere. Although the amount of sun reaching the biosphere is, in theory, unlimited, the amount of resources within the biosphere are limited; but it seems that humans have not yet realised the implications. No single species in the long history of Earth has ever threatened the overall continual existence of life as a whole. Humans are now at risk, though, of irreversibly altering the complex systems of the planet’s physiology.
Ultimately, the exploration of nature by using our faculties of thinking, feeling, sensing and intuition brings us fully into experiencing the dynamics of holonomic thinking. Satish Kumar and Philip Franses describe this as ‘process and pilgrimage’, bringing together the spiritual with the scientific. For Kumar, the spiritual word ‘pilgrimage’ fully complements the more scientific word ‘process’, since a pilgrimage, too, is a journey, both literally and metaphorically (spiritual). In pilgrimage, nothing is fixed, rigid or static for the pilgrim; everything is always moving, changing and evolving. So this is the challenge. How do we remain fluid, flexible and not rigid? Life itself is a pilgrimage, if we do not get too fixed in one opinion, or one idea, and see how truth – like life – is always evolving.
‘Deep Ecology’ is the name given to a movement set up by a number of ecologists, including Kumar, Harding and their late friend, Arnae Ness. These ecologists are trying to solve the ecological problems that we face from a very deep level. They have a profound connection to nature and the natural world. In order to better explain what we mean by a ‘deep connection’, it is useful to read an account by Aldo Leopold, another of the founders of this movement.
In his book A Sand County Almanac, Leopold recalls a time when he was still young, and used to go shooting wolves. In one incident he was able to look into the eyes of a dying wolf, and what he saw shocked him into a new way of thinking, not just about wolves, but also about nature and his place within the natural world:
We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realised our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming mêlée of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the centre of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.
In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy; how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable side-rocks.
We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realised then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.
Kumar says that what we should strive for is a new trinity, a ‘soil, soul, society’ philosophy – soil for the environment, soul for the spiritual dimension, and society for the social justice that is essential. He defines ‘deep ecology’ beautifully:
Giving nature a rightful place, and recognising nature’s intrinsic value is the main idea of deep ecology. So there is a tree there. The tree is good in itself; the tree is not good because it is useful to humans. The tree is not good because it gives us a kind of oxygen, or firewood, or wood for the house, or flowers or fruit. A tree has intrinsic value. A river has a right to flow unpolluted, uncontaminated, undammed.
When we take something from nature for our survival, that is fine. That we should take with gratitude, not as a right, that it is our right to use nature. But we say it is a gift from nature, and we receive it with gratitude, and we reciprocate it, by looking after it, by composting it, by not polluting it, and by giving respect to it.
Those in the deep ecology movement do not merely understand the science of ecology, the implications of climate change and our human impact on the world as an academic exercise, nor as series of statistics. In them we see people who have already made the great shift into a dynamical way of seeing, and this is manifest in their way of being. They are able to live their lives fully immersed in nature, without arrogance or ego, in harmonious relationships with all of nature. Nature is not dead to them, but alive in all its glory. Nature speaks in a thousand voices, and deep ecologists have started to listen.
Extract taken from Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter, Simon Robinson and Maria Moraes Robinson (2014)
Simon Robinson is the co-founder of Holonomics Education, a strategy and innovation consultancy based in São Paulo whose mission is to help organisations to implement great customer experiences, powerful and effective strategies, and develop purposeful, meaningful and sustainable brands. He is the co-author of Customer Experiences with Soul: A New Era in Design and his research examines how the dynamic conception of wholeness in hermeneutics and phenomenology can deepen our thinking on innovation, customer experience design and the circular economy.