Can We Survive the Future:
Only if Business Shapeshifts from Lions into Elephants
Article by Wayne Visser
Rabbit Holes and Boiled Frogs
Being in business these days is a lot like falling down a rabbit hole. The latter, if you remember Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, is a chaotic and confusing place to be. All the tried and tested rules of the past don’t seem to work so well anymore. The formerly familiar environment keeps transforming itself into new, unrecognisable landscapes. Strange, distracting characters have a habit of popping up randomly and then suddenly disappearing. And the clear, rational perspectives that used to spell out solutions keep getting stretched, warped and turned on their head, like the reflected images in a house of weird mirrors.
To illustrate what I mean, the demigod once known as the shareholder has mutated into a multi-headed beast called the stakeholder. Accounting, the time-honoured introspective discipline of counting beans (or gold or money or shares), has been turned inside out and become nerve-racking accountability to the big wide world out there. And profitability, which used to be a trustworthy financial measure, has multiplied into a triple bottom line by blurring together economic, social and environmental performance.
To survive in this whirlwind of chaotic change, companies have become adept at rapidly adapting to dramatic changes. What business has been less skilled at doing is recognizing or responding to long-term effects of gradual changes. In this sense, it displays the classic “boiled frog syndrome”. If a frog is placed in boiling water, it immediately jumps out providing it is free to do so. However, if the water temperature is cool to begin with and then gradually increased, the frog fails to register any threat to its well-being and consequently allows itself to be literally boiled alive.
There are many examples of threats that could boil the corporate toads: creeping income inequality; the spread of HIV/AIDS; marginalisation of certain regions in the world economy; the cancerous burden of Third World debt; alienation of people with low incomes or no jobs; accelerating biodiversity loss; global climate change; rising chemical concentrations in the Earth’s water systems; disintegration of cultural identities; and the spread of violent crime among the youth, to mention but a few.
Trading in Fangs for Tusks
At the heart of all of these challenges is one of the most profound drivers for step-change in business and the world – sustainability. Sustainability refers to improving human well-being by seeking a proper balance between social, economic and environmental change over the long term. The old ways, which have dominated for the past century or more, are no longer appropriate for a post-industrial, sustainability-driven society. Sustainability is not only a new scientific, political, social and legal concept, but an entirely new business philosophy based on a new mythology. It requires that business think differently about its role in society and how it goes about what it does.
The changes needed in order for business to survive and thrive in an age of sustainability are so fundamental that they are akin to changing its identity, its underlying nature. At the moment, we …
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Cite this article
Visser, W. (2002) Can We Survive the Future? Only if Business Shapeshifts From Lions into Elephants. Namaste, Volume 19, October.