Strategic Despair and the Indecency of Hope
I was in conversation with a board member earlier this week and part of our discussion touched on the latest IPCC climate report. In a word: 6,000 scientific studies suggest we are unlikely to avert the worst of global environmental disruption. This board member, recently retired from a large multinational firm, said something that I cannot shake: "we’ve crossed the line."
The reality, I know, is that we crossed the line many times and many years ago. The ecological footprint calculations for years have suggested we have spent down our planetary budget earlier and earlier each year. When consumers run out of money they can zoom right past zero with a credit card. On earth, the "credit card" is the future; the credit card is our grandchildren; the credit card is the lives of people in Florida, Puerto Rico, and California.
And perhaps it was my naïveté that thought that we might preserve more of what we had. I can be an optimist to a fault. I thought that business could keep us from crossing the line. I thought that sustainability in business, the fact that we could "do well by doing good" would save more of what matters. I thought we could keep from crossing the line.
I was wrong. In fact, when I was born (1974) by many estimates, the line had already been crossed. I was born into ecological deficit.
That doesn’t mean I am giving up. That would be cowardice. I will never ever give up on good work to be done. "On the last day of the world /I would want to plant a tree." W.S. Merwin. This is my own reckoning with what this work is really about.
I have believed, and will continue to do so, in the ingenuity and generosity of the human spirit. However, the work must be informed by the brutal facts. Two iconic leaders of our day, Ray Dalio and Jack Welch, among many others, have strongly stated that great leaders value candor and work hard to find out the bad news and “brutal facts.” Admittedly, they are referring to the facts of organizational performance, leadership team dysfunction, employee morale, and market forces. We must face the brutal facts that we have crossed the line: we are now spending down the earth’s interest and its principal.
You can walk outside today and the sky is blue (maybe grey where you are) or maybe the stars are out. In a moment, all seems fine. But don’t be fooled. If you have enough money in the bank or if your current health is sufficient, you can exploit, mistreat and over-indulge without incident—in the moment. But only fools would be fooled by such limited thinking. Jim Rohn has stated that "failure is a few errors in judgement repeated every day.” Catastrophe is rarely due to a single event but often the aggregate result of small mistakes repeated with regularity.
It would have been more noble of humankind to foresee the challenge and act proactively. It's much less noble to have your hand forced, to react and respond only when there is nothing else to do. I regret not catching our daughter’s eating disorder much earlier and acting only when it was life-threatening. I saw signs. I explained them away. Similarly, President Lincoln didn’t necessarily save the slaves out of foresight and moral courage but was forced in the crucible of pressure from the South, the North and his own cabinet—and his own self-interest.
To take responsibility when it is forced upon you is much less respectable than doing so when it is a free choice. We still have the choice but I am less sure that our children will, to say nothing of our grandchildren.
Well-informed despair can be a strategic resource as it helps us to rise above the fray and focus on what matters in our lives.
People say that corporate sustainability is becoming “table stakes” or a "must do" not just a "nice to do.” I have used these convenient rhetorical devices with clients and in class myself. The unfortunate dark side of this logic is that it has become a "must do" because we did not heed the planetary signs early enough, with enough force of will and creativity and investment and rigor and plain hard work.
We allowed the wiring of our brains, which do well in the near-term and the proximate, to influence our behaviors and decisions. We did not allow our morality and wisdom—which are farseeing and comprehend complexity—to inform our entrepreneurship or design or buying decisions.
If I set fire to your house and then the next day I come by and put it out, you don't call me a hero. Business as usual has set the world on fire and is now being celebrated for putting it out. This doesn’t strike me as noble or even worthy of the news. Hundreds of companies are committing to renewable energy and to lofty “carbon neutrality” goals which I celebrate and help to promote. However, we must be clear. These are recompense. In a world where we have crossed the line, our standards must be higher and our commitment greater. Must go beyond doing less bad, beyond even doing more good. In a world where we have crossed the line, we must recognize our health (economic, patriotic, personal, family) is connected with the health of the world. We are that which we are protecting. If we miss that, we have missed everything.
In a world where we have crossed the line, the focus is on preserving what we can, not preserving what was. What was is already gone. "Where we used to play is now a development.” "People don’t even know the names of the fish in the stream that doesn’t even run through here anymore.”
The value of despair and holy discontent. Some things are worth getting sad about, mad about and doing something about. Allowing ourselves to “go there” won’t kill us or break us, it can focus us. But we must ensure our discontent is well-informed not just propped up on the fragile, reinforcing scaffolding from narrow social media feeds and a mono-crop of friends and colleagues. Well-informed despair can be a strategic resource as it helps us to rise above the fray and focus on what matters in our lives.
Recognize hope is a poor strategy. Hope is "expecting with confidence.” In times of trouble, many want to seem tough and in charge and therefore project hope. A recent book Bad Blood about the failed Silicon Valley start-up Theranos provides many examples of CEO Elizabeth Holmes charismatic, lucid, hopeful visions that opened the imaginations and checkbooks of venture capitalists. It was a sham. They promised a 240 test results from a drop of blood and billions were lost. I might suggest that hope should be redefined as “expecting with evidence” and even more, expecting with action. The old African Proverb says: "When you pray, move your feet.” In a world where we have crossed the line, we need informed hope, intelligent hope. And even more we need massive action. The indecency of hope is when we use it without the facts, to manipulate others and even ourselves.
I will close with something from Joanna Macy, the renowned author, Buddhist ecologist, activist and professor who was once asked: "
How are we to relate to despair?"
Macy responded: "We have to honor and own this pain for the world, recognizing it as a natural response to an unprecedented moment in history. We are part of a huge civilization, intricate in its technology and powerful in its institutions, that is destroying the very basis of life. When have people had this experience before in our history? We ask people to relate to what they experience with respect and compassion for themselves. They're not just griping and grumping. It is absolutely shattering when we open our eyes and see that we are actually, in an accelerating fashion, destroying the future."
The interviewer asked, "As individuals, what do we do? How do we know where to put our energy?"
Macy offered that, "Often, the answer comes from what is sticking in our consciousness like a burr, that which annoys or hurts us as we contemplate it. In a way, it really doesn't matter what the social or environmental issue is. They all rise from the same delusion in our civilization that we are separate from each other, that we are immune to what we do to other beings. I've become convinced that, in part, people remain uninvolved because there are so many issues. They don't know whether they should try to protect sea mammals or battered children or work for the climate. So just take the issue that you have the most passion for and work on that."