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The Circle and the Square - which is the environment and which is business?

July 20, 2019

There is a version of the old light bulb joke that goes like this:

 

"How many narcissists does it take to change a light bulb?"

 

"Just one. They hold the bulb and the whole world revolves around them."

 

The lonely narcissist, waiting for the world to revolve around him (or her), came to mind recently when I read a story in Andrew Winston's book Big Pivot about Ray Anderson, the late CEO of Interface, the carpet company that revolutionized the industry and in the 90s set a course to become the world’s first regenerative company.

 

After a talk, a business student asked Anderson: "How will I know if my business professors really get it about business' larger responsibility to the environment?"  

 

“Draw a square on the chalkboard with a large circle around it," Anderson suggested. "Then ask your professor to label which one is business and which is the environment.”

We will come back to that question.

 

Throughout history, humans have held to beliefs that time would reveal as flawed—sometimes dangerously so. The widely held Western scientific view of the cosmos in the 13th century was that the earth was the center of the universe. Most of us learned about this in grade school, perhaps as a brief lesson in the history of science, and probably were amazed at the blatant ignorance of this ancient worldview. Copernicus, very late in his life, would famously show that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the known universe. The idea would change the world--but not immediately.

 

Returning to the circle and the square. We have gone from a faulty belief that the earth is the center of the universe, to a similarly inaccurate belief that business is the center of the earth. Like the narcissist who believes the world revolves around him/her, many hold to a belief that the world revolves around business, markets and money. The former conceived of a physical universe literally revolving around the earth; the latter of an ever-expanding economic universe with business as the center piece.

 

Copernicus 2.0 Reorienting Our View of the Universe (Again)

The problem with the worldview that everything revolves around business is that it is an inaccurate conception of how the world actually works.  As former World Bank economist Herman Daly has stated: “The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the reverse.”
 

We now know that business success is tied to the health and well-being of its ecological and social context. We know that “externalities” soon become internalized through resource constraints, regulatory pressure, social unrest and consumer pressure. They cannot be ignored. Business depends on nature—not the other way around.

 

 

New ideas, especially disruptive ones, can take time to seep into the culture. The work of Copernicus was virtually unknown and held little effect for more than a half century. Not until Galileo and later Newton--who introduced us to inertia and gravity respectively--did Copernicus' revolutionary idea take hold and forever alter the way we see the world. It was impossible to image the earth flying through space. How would we not fall off? Galileo and Newton provided the answer and we saw the universe anew.

 

The environment is the circle and business is the square. This simple fact is disruptive in its implications just like Copernicus' 1543 bomb shell theory of heliocentrism. His work upended science and religion, its adherents would be ostracized. Similarly, if business is understood to be reliant on a finite, closed planetary system that only imports sunlight and has to recycle and reuse everything else, we need to update existing economic models.

 

Changing Light Bulbs is Easy Compared to Changing Worldviews

The narcissist, waiting for the world to revolve around him, like business waiting for the world to meet its every growing demand, will end up sitting in the dark.

 

We simply cannot make a finite world meet our infinite needs. That is a mathematical impossibility whose equation is not just about running out of things (oil, coal, copper, soil, water, etc.) but overrunning the absorptive and regenerative capacities of the planet (oceans absorbing carbon, rivers absorbing nitrogen, fisheries making more fish, etc.).

 

Perhaps this week, as we celebrate the achievement of walking on the moon, is a unique opportunity for this Copernican like moment.  In 1968 and 1969, we got to see our planet for the first time:  the circle inside of which all squares reside.  Apollo 11 Command Module Pilot Michael Collins said in speech:  "The thing I remember most is the view of the planet earth from a great distance: tiny, very shiny, blue and white, bright, beautiful, serene--and fragile." (Collins, NASA Video, 2013).

 

As we recognize that business is the square sitting inside the circle of a closed planetary system, then we can calibrate our wants to its lessons, laws and limits.

 

Changing light bulbs is easily done once you realize the world doesn't revolve around you. The same could be said for our changing our view of the world.

 

I believe business can be the most powerful mechanism we have to positive social and environmental change. However, it can only play this role when it understands its place, when it sees the planet as Collins did:  blue and white, bright, beautiful, serene--and fragile

 

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