One of the prime sustainable values is reciprocity. Reciprocity speaks to the cycle of giving that is how nature remains resilient and it is a key factor in why life persists. All organisms give back in exchange for their life. Reciprocity happens when they give their life to others. The human species, or more correctly the Western human species, does not do this and withholds. We kill those that dare to try and kill us. This is true from mosquitoes to tigers, to viruses. We don’t just kill the attacker, we kill the species, and then, when we die, we withhold our bodies from the Earth as well.
If we don’t do so well with reciprocity as individuals, does business do any better? I want to address this question from three levels. Each level is a reflection of one of the stages of sustainability. The levels, themselves, move from transactional to transformational.
The first level is transactional and the first stage is resources use. The first stage of reciprocity that business engages in is the monetary aspect. Business ‘gives’ – provides money and through money certain types of power. This is how most people see business, as a provider of affluence. It does this by taking the wealth from nature and converting into forms that humans appreciate so that humans are willing to exchange money for these forms. This level is all about resources and various forms of resource management.
The second level is moving into the transformational, but it still has its roots in the transactional. Here is what W. Edwards Deming called the purpose of business – job creation. When job creation is all about using humans to automate processes then it is very transactional indeed. We see most jobs or even ‘professions’ as really more and more sophisticated ways of automation. We have passed on some tasks to machines and technology, but a great many jobs are just more complicated forms of repetitious actions.
There are forms of jobs, however, that are quite transformational and entrepreneurship comes to mind. Those jobs that are filled with meaning, healing and teaching are often transformational and are expressions of the second stage of sustainability in that they are concerned with sources and effects. This gives them a broader scope and reach. It is here, at the second level that a very interesting conversation can be had about the role of work in a meaningful life.
We have been very conditioned to think of work as something we want to get out of, as something that is beneath us or that is actually demeaning to humans. Our love affair with machinery is based on the illusion that they ‘save’ us for ‘better’ things. So the less physical work is done the more value we place on the job. This flies in the face of the fact that plumbing is necessary and requires considerable intellect even though the plumber has to get his hands dirty. This belief also collides with the fact that as our population increases we need to create work, not eliminate it.
The third stage of sustainability adheres to the adage that all actions create the conditions that support life. This level in business is truly transformational and social entrepreneurs are beginning to work at this level. Here all business actions and even the vary rational for the business is concerned with making the world a healthier and more joyous place. Here the need for more work is not about meaningless and drudge tasks, but for work that requires both heart and mind.
The new approaches to farming fall into this category as the science needed to calculate the precise timing for moving chickens and cattle into new pastures in a rhythm that keeps all cycles at their peak requires a keen intellect, science and technology skills and a deep love for animals and nature. This shift to learning from and with nature results in stronger and more-healthy humans, society and environment. Polyface, Inc. the farm, is an excellent example of this. Wes Jackson at the Land Institute, is another example. He’s working to create perennial grasses that can be grown and harvested together in ways that do not ruin the soil like current agricultural practices do.
Business needs to transition into a more effective manner of doing business, one that ensures the health of both humans and the planet. By doing so new opportunities will open up that will make life on Earth a paradise.