Earth Overshoot Day: Business and Business Teaching Must Respond

16 08 2010

The fact that Earth Overshoot Day arrives one month earlier this year should be a wake- up call for Boardrooms and business schools alike.

We are trapped in a web of our own making, a web of concepts, beliefs and practices that  places the entire world in service of the economy: but the economy is a sub-system of society, and society is a sub-system of the bio-sphere. A subsystem just can’t grow beyond the capacity of the total system of which it is a part. To make policy as if it can is, to quote Jonathan Porritt, is “as close to biological and thermodynamic illiteracy as it is possible to get.” 

Business thinking and most business school teaching sees humans as separate from the living world, operating “on” the world and having an instrumental relationship to it. This fallacy of “separate from” allows us to view the living world as “resources”, legitimising the “take, make, waste” processes of the way business works.

There is an alternative framing available, seeing the entire earth as a living process of which humans are one interwoven thread, but this perspective has little currency in the world of business or in most business teaching.

We need business schools to be much more rigorous about what is taught and with what consequences. Leading academic Sumantra Ghoshal wrote that “bad management theories are destroying good management practices”. He might have added that they are denuding the planet too. In trying to make management into a science we have stripped out ethical responsibility by simplifying the role of managers into the empirically testable proposition that management’s role is to maximise shareholder value.

This is too small a role and too small a way of studying business. We need business schools to expand their ways of looking and their ways of knowing and to bring in insights from many fields into the management curriculum. We need less scientific management papers and more honest explorations of people experimenting with better ways of working in practice with the complexities of really being a sustainable organisation.

The truth is that no one yet knows what a sustainable economy is and we need business schools that develop people to explore creatively to find out. The Ashridge MSc in Sustainability and Responsibility is based on the principles of Action Research – asking leaders to question their assumptions and reflect on the consequences of their actions. This form of management education opens the way for a creative exploration of possibility that is not bound by blind acceptance of commonplace assumptions about the purpose of business and the role of managers.