John Ehrenfeld (JE) doesn't see "sustainability" as increased energy efficiency or "green technology." Instead he sees it as "flourishing[:] ... a metaphor that captures happiness, health, and the many characteristics of what humans believe is a good life. And it captures a sense of the health of the natural world" (@22). He believes that the usual corporate tactics to promote sustainability, through sustainability scores for products, corporate social responsibility programs, etc., miss some essential points: (A) sustainability is a property of a whole interconnected system, not of a specific enterprise within it, and (B) it can't be reduced to a few quantitative dimensions. (Not all corporations have the wrong idea: he says some interesting things about a Patagonia ad campaign to encourage people not to buy the company's products if they don't really need them, and to buy them used rather than new, when possible (@122-123).) JE very elegantly and accurately characterizes the usual meaning of sustainability, deriving from the 1987 UN report, "Our Common Future" (a/k/a the Brundtland Report), as "try[ing] to hold onto the world we have now by doing things better." This means, among other things, continued economic growth. But, warns JE, such "business as almost usual" can't lead us forward to sustainability as flourishing. What we need is a "shift" in the "dominant culture" (@120), "a shift in our view of ourselves first from one of Having to one of Being, and second from one of Needing to one of Caring" (@83). This involves, among other things, changing our patterns of consumption, and abandoning economic growth as a goal.
JE sometimes comes up with some very apt "sound-bite" formulations, such as the Brundtland report characterization above, or that "[T]he prevailing belief that I am what I own stands firmly in the way of any sort of redistribution" (sc. from rich nations to poorer ones, @72). He brings critiques of consumption down to earth when he notes tersely that "Consumption is an essential part of life. Amoebas consume. All life consumes."(Id.) But the frequency of such verbal nuggets, and of practical illustrations, tapers out a bit toward the end of the book, where the the level of the discussion tends to be quite philosophical and general. I concede, though, that maybe one reason the book takes that turn is to provide a salutary shock to some readers, by demonstrating that an MIT engineer who advises businesses can nonetheless consider philosophy to be very important.
I found myself in agreement with JE far more often than not. But I confess he began to lose me when he emphasized the contributions of Martin Heidegger to his view, including crediting Heidegger as the pioneer of bringing Caring into philosophy (@89). Heidegger joined the Nazi Party in 1933, remained a member throughout the Second World War, never expressed regret for his involvement, and indeed was still writing in an ultra-nationalistic, Nazi-era rhetorical style more than decade after the war ended. To be fair, the work of Heidegger on which JE relies, "Being and Time," was written in the late 1920s, and JE mentions that he himself is Jewish and that Heidegger is "controversial." Nonetheless, it was a bit discomfiting to read his paraphrase of Heidegger to the effect that "who we are ... is determined by the culture we live in. ... Each human being becomes whoever they are by learning from and existing within a culture that embodies and endows that human being with the knowledge of the world that it takes to live effectively. To me [i.e., JE], that is getting to the essence of sustainability-as-flourishing." (@26.) Decontextualized from the rest of Heidegger's life perhaps this can sound benign or insightful, but it's hard to forget that Heidegger clearly believed that one particular culture was superior to all others. There is a faint from-the-sublime-to-the-ridiculous echo of the Heidegger/"Caring" dissonance when JE elsewhere describes "fishing as love" (@8). JE always releases (at least some of) the fish he catches -- but instead of painfully hooking them, pulling them out of the water and suffocating them for a while, and then tossing them back in wounded and terrified, wouldn't it be at least as loving simply to leave the fish alone? Or does the lovingness consist in helping the fish experience the "authenticity [that] springs from anxiety in the face of death," another paraphrase from Heidegger (@95)?
There was one point that troubled me even more, however: the discussion of the title word itself. Andrew Hoffman, JE's interlocutor and former student, characterizes the word 'flourishing' as "unusual" in his introduction (@6), and later asks JE "Where did you get the word, flourishing?" JE replies it "just kind of came up. ... It popped up first during an exercise at a personal training session where I was asked to express an important personal vision." (@22.) And a few pages later he refers to the ideas of "Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen [who] argues that well-being (or flourishing, as I write) requires the availability of a set of basic capabilities ... ." (@32.)
I don't for a moment doubt JE's sincerity that he independently lit upon the word in the way he described. But to say "as I write," while discussing Sen, of all people? The capabilities approach to well-being has been based on a notion that's been called "human flourishing" since at least the 1980s. As developed by Sen and philosopher Martha Nussbaum, it's *far* more prominent in social science than are JE's ideas, with all due respect. Moreover, the word was picked as a translation of the ancient Greek word "eudaimonia," which (along with related grammatical forms) was used by many authors to connote a true happiness -- most prominently by Aristotle, whose sense of the word in his Nicomachean Ethics is the one Sen and Nussbaum follow. Neither Aristotle, nor Nussbaum, nor the widespread use of "flourishing" in the literature on well-being are mentioned in this book. (JE's 2009 "Sustainability by Design," which also talks about flourishing quite a bit, omits both Sen and Nussbaum, and discusses Aristotle's Nic.Eth. without mentioning eudaimonia at all.) If JE's nuance is to include all of nature, and not just humans, under the term "flourishing," then the book could simply say so, while acknowledging the earlier use of the term. At best, this book's origin story about "flourishing" is symptomatic of the way it overemphasizes the uniqueness of JE's thought, without seeming fully aware of just how much work has been done by others along the same lines (namely, lots more than is suggested by JE's passing references to Herman Daly, Tim Jackson, Juliet Schor and Richard Heinberg).
Some of this lack of historical perspective might be related to the book's being published under Stanford U. Press's business book imprint. I also suppose it was the SUP editor, or lack of same, who failed to catch that Adam Smith's ideas weren't "put forward ... nearly four hundred years ago" (@41), but less than 250 years ago. In sum: JE seems like a very interesting person with whom to have a conversation. He makes many well-aimed remarks about why sustainability as currently practiced is useless and hypocritical, especially in the earlier chapters. But the high level of generality in the latter half of the book makes it seem targeted more to MBAs who aren't used to thinking about the big picture, than to readers who are looking for a practical vision of how to get off the unsustainable path we're stuck on.
- Paperback: 151 pages
- Publisher: Stanford Business Books (15 May 2013)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0804784159
- ISBN-13: 978-0804784153
- Product Dimensions: 14 x 1.5 x 21.6 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 204 g
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