Building Companies’ Sustainability Stories: A Role for Coaching by Geoffrey Ahern

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Mobilising the company’s stakeholders on behalf of full sustainability entails the development of their stories about the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is our era in which we humans have an increasingly significant influence on the Earth. 

This article/blog outlines the most common Anthropocene stakeholder stories I am aware of. They vary greatly, and can aid or hinder sustainability. I have encountered each one in stakeholder contexts, mostly amongst senior employees. There is a large background literature (for a start, see the references). As I shall describe in the section that follows, these stories are rarely ‘pure’ but get mixed up. I aim to demonstrate that employees, customers, suppliers and other stakeholders are already acting them out.

In sharing my approach on how to recognise and develop them, I hope that the development of Anthropocene stories can be added to coaching’s unique expertise in helping clients build their visions. As coaches at different levels – individual and team – we already do development work by interpreting what’s going on through our blends of person-centred, cognitive-behavioural, psychodynamic, existential and other approaches. Anthropocene stories add to these a focus on sustainability.

Development of the stories – the single quotes in the bullets below − seems to me to fall into three groups: 

  • Relating future ‘doom’ and ‘utopia’ − i.e. apocalyptic dreads and hopes − to reason in the present. The challenge is to channel apocalyptic energies constructively now 
  • Adding to ‘back-to-nature’ stories so they can meet organisational realities. The challenge is how glimpses of paradise at the heart of stakeholder back-to-nature personal behaviour and feeling can complement organisational complexities
  • Integrating ‘geological fatalism’, ‘the technological fix’ and ‘ecology as a development of consciousness’ into a good (i.e. sustainable) Anthropocene. This is a challenge: the insight these mindsets bring tends to be isolated

Multinational and other companies can develop their global operations through the surfacing of their stakeholder’s sustainability stories, if only through understanding better how their location varies; for example, research demonstrates that apocalypse is deeply embedded in Western but not Asian culture.

This article/blog on companies achieving conscious sustainability competence completes the previous one in the good coach (July 19) on getting to conscious incompetence (itself a considerable achievement). My earlier blogs introduced this invited series (January 11) and went on to environmental science’s ethical consequences for coaching (March 20) and individual freedom’s exclusion from ecology (May 17).


Stakeholder stories about environmental science

Doing fieldwork as a sociologist of religion (before I became an executive coach), I became very aware of how diffuse our individual stories about the world are in practice; my or your take on life is not likely to be conceptually tidy. Worldview influence at the level of the individual is often weakly signalled, latent and overlapping. But frequently occurring diffuseness can combine into powerful patterns at a cultural level (hence the notion of ‘ideal-types’), not least when cultural railways carrying ancient stories merge with recent findings from environmental science. 

It seems to me that probabilistic environmental science, once downstream of peer-review rigour, usually ceases to be science and becomes story. Thus the scientific accuracy which is necessary for us to secure the future tends to get lost.

I tend to use the term ‘story’ because it is imaginatively human. ‘Mythology’ as the word is used now –  for originally ‘mythos’ meant ‘story’ – might more exactly describe those stories which are deeply embedded, though not ‘myth’ in the sense of necessarily untrue. I avoid ‘narrative’ because it has become today’s public relations (PR) buzzword, and ‘sense-making’ because it can belittle rather than respect clients.

Much corporate PR banks on environmental science being interpreted as unscientific story. If, in contrast, companies embraced the Anthropocene, they could become a positive force for conscious sustainability competence. They already have many techniques in place for stakeholder networking and industry level collaboration.

The story themes follow. Diagnosing the implicit stories…

Relating future doom and utopia to reason in the present 

We should be careful about what we imagine.

Apocalypse has been defined as revelation in which there’s a single, final consummation in which the elect will live as a unanimous collectivity on a transformed and purified earth, while the human agents of evil will be physically annihilated or otherwise disposed of [1]. 

The ancient thought-form of apocalypse is making tracks today in the form of technological utopia and of environmental doom and gloom. This splitting of stories about the world into these two extreme opposites and projecting them into the future makes adverse circumstances bearable, but can too easily degenerate into avoiding taking reasonable responsibility in the present. 

Environmental doom 

Probabilistic scientific environmental predictions are sombre enough, but in the grip of eco-doom stakeholders add a further, mythological turn. For example, coaching clients may point to China’s huge pollution and, feeling overwhelmed and helpless, become ‘can’t do’. Ironically, this would overlook China’s hopeful side, its huge investment in clean technologies and a green future, for example through its panda-shaped solar farm for educating children http://shanghaiist.com/2017/07/04/panda-solar-farm.php.  Environmental doom collapses the ‘we can do’ approach we are familiar with into a stunned sense, outside usual historical agency, of inevitable geological disaster. Apocalypse has taken over.

There’s a danger, going beyond the salutary need to responsibly know what to avoid environmentally, that in the minds of company stakeholders – consumers, suppliers, employees etc − the capacity to act is paralysed by life imitating the annihilating images of apocalyptic disaster movies, sci-fi, literature and art. 

Ecology has been linked to doom in archetypal Western (pre-ecological) works of the imagination, for example:

  • Mark Lynas’ Six Degrees uses Dante’s architecture of eternal damnation (his Inferno) as an extended illustration of global warming
  • James Lovelock’s The Revenge of Gaia (p.146) compares human-caused climate change to the breaking of the ropes of fate in Wagner’s Ring, the event which in the opera prepares us for the cataclysmic end of the world (Götterdämmerung)

Technological utopia

The California-based Breakthrough Institute imagines a life of abundance achieved through technology. The optimism of ‘eco-modernism’, going far beyond the 1980s neo-liberalism of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, envisages a utopia in which the environment will become an extension of mankind. This is through technological progress and acceleration, with the way there often being given a so-called Darwinian justification. For example, high-tech coaching clients might be in the grip of a belief that gene editing has no major eugenic problems. Elect eco-utopian assumptions about progress have taken over.

Eco-modernism even extends to a cybernetic fusion with biology which gives rise to a trans-human consciousness (‘singularity’). This software-inspired hubris is supposedly wonderful. It aims to transcend death without paying an all too human existential price. 

Order based on fantasy has become unrealistically split off from chaos. A narcissism indicator for this is often that realistic time-scales are replaced by magical thinking: for example, where environmental problems are forecast to be averted through the more efficient use of materials without any consideration of the speed of oncoming climate change. Or, as in the case of the cybernetic rapture of singularity, the environmental crisis may simply be ignored. Or in eco-modernist mythology, as in John’s Christian Revelation two thousand years ago, salvation may come about through the very struggle with catastrophe [2].   

The 3000-plus year tracks of apocalypse in the West

The formidableness of the apocalyptic thought-form, both doom and utopia, arises because it has been on-going in Western culture (though not Eastern) for 3000-plus years. It has gathered momentum and shaping force − in periods of great change it can be as if its imagery charismatically possesses us, dreams us:

  • The long-influential Revelation of John at the start of Christianity foretells a new heaven, a new earth. The apocalypse then and later operates through divine intervention, but in the industrial era apocalyptic mythology was also brought down to earth to manifest through history itself: in Marxism as a final withering away of the state; in Nazism as the Thousand Year Reich 
  • The apocalyptic thought-form was ancient even at the time of John. It became accessible through a branch of Judaism, through the influence on it of the dualist Persian Zoroastrian religion, and through the building up to these by developments in Near Eastern combat mythology [3]. 

Liberation from the dynamics of apocalypse

Thus apocalypse splits good and bad and projects both into the future. John’s Revelation speaks of “things which must shortly come to pass” (King James translation), and Ray Kurzweil’s singularity has a similar time-scale. The splitting of present reality and projection into the future have been explained as reactions to stress − under the persecutory Seleucid Greek and Roman empires; or through the destabilising environmental predictions of the Anthropocene.

Liberation from apocalypse would integrate these splits and projections into the present situation. Coaches are well-placed to enable this.

Beneficial influences of the apocalypse, for example, its sophisticated sense of time, can be retained while its imaginative grip on stakeholders is loosened, making more energy available for corporate sustainability ‘can-do’:

  • Emerson, a founder of environmentalism, himself understood that the veil of the apocalypse can be taken off in the here-and-now: indeed, ‘apocalypse’ originally meant uncovering
  • The transcendent ending of doom/utopia can be understood (among other interpretations) as a human drama occurring in every moment of experience

Liberation from the apocalyptic stories of some employees and other stakeholders would enable multinational companies to connect more fully with non-apocalyptic others. As a largely Western construct, apocalypse is alien to many in China and elsewhere in Asia: it differs from reasoned focus on the present in quasi-Confucian and post-Buddhist cultures [4]. 

Adding to ‘back-to-nature’ stories so they can meet organisational realities 

Many stakeholders, including coaching clients, are personally motivated to go back to nature: for example through hiking, white water rafting, keeping pets, gardening, yoga. Back-to-nature stories have become clichés in advertising: for example, linking the precision of new cars to mountain roads through rugged landscapes, or using images of baby-eyed mammals like seals (not flies!). In urban conditions there are a back-to-nature yearnings.

Companies will need to expose stakeholder back-to-nature energies to practicalities in order to harness them to sustainability innovation. Critically important issues include:

  • Responsible restraint of innovation, i.e. the ‘precautionary principle’, needing to consider the risks of not going ahead as well as those of doing so (for example, nuclear power in relation to global warming)
  • There not being enough Earth for organic farming alone to feed the vast human population
  • Restoration of wilderness having no easily identifiable point in time 

The genie of technology being already largely out of the bottle, mankind’s future might depend on new corporate ground-rules for when the stopper should be pulled out no further, or even put the genie back. This could involve a reformed capitalism with processes for agreeing slow down, acceleration, sufficiency or even re-enchantment. 

A more sophisticated back-to-nature seemingly appeals to some coaches and people developers: for example in calling for a metamorphosis supported by ground-breaking scientific discoveries as well as by tapping into ancient wisdom cultures [5].  Back-to-nature’s pantheism and mysticism − for example Spinoza and Goethean science from the West, non-dualist Vedanta and Jainism from the East – need to deploy sufficient differentiation to be capable of influencing companies and politics. Otherwise the unity of everything can justify anything, as with the Charles Manson murders. 

The hold of the back-to-nature story is partly explicable by its shaping in the era of early industrialisation. The Romantics recast Eden: Jean-Jacques Rousseau imagined his noble savage, and against the backdrop of new, grimy factories nature became sublime [6].    


Integrating ‘geological fatalism’, ‘the technological fix’ and ‘ecology as a development of consciousness’ into a sustainable Anthropocene 

I suggest below that further insightful stakeholder stories, which I shall outline, could be taken out of their isolation and integrated into the big picture of a good (I.e. sustainable) Anthropocene:

Geological fatalism

In Werner Herzog’s (2007) Antarctica documentary Encounters at the Edge of the World, participants explain the current dominance of mankind as just another evolutionary bloom in which ecological mishap is to be expected. The Earth will survive, humans are insignificant; in the light of the Earth sciences, to understand this is merely to discover what has been there all along.  

Such a ‘geological fatalism’ fails to make sufficient connection between human causation of the Anthropocene and human responsibility. No difference is perceived between human-caused extinctions today and natural processes in earlier extinctions. Educated, maybe poetically expressed, doom is somehow thought to get one off the hook of having to act. Geological fatalist employees are often clients of coaching.

Geological fatalism’s Sadean vision of the cruelty of nature contrasts with back-to-nature’s tendency to rosy sentiment, and if they are related to each other there’s potential for a more satisfying vision.

The technological fix

Reliance on technological fixes to solve environmental problems need not be utopian. It is often pragmatic, a one-dimensional decoupling of human development from natural resource use through intensifying farming, forestry, house-building, solar and wind energy storage, planning for asteroid mining etc. Sadly clients motivated by technological fix stories often do not see that sustainability solutions also involve morally considerable subjects with whole life engagement [7]. 

Ecology as a development of consciousness

A development of consciousness approach involving ecological agency, or responsibility transcending biological determinism, is a strand in much environmental thinking. Examples: the emergence of the shamanic personality through the development of consciousness; ‘ecosophy’, that is a personal worldview guiding decisions involving oneself and nature; eco-therapy; the earth awakening [8]. 

The downside is that where spiritually aware clients talk about developmental stages, other corporate stakeholders may sense elitism. It is difficult to rank human development on an ascending scale without implying that some people are more valuable than others. 

On the upside, consciousness is essential for achieving sustainability, and its development is, for some, an overall story capable of integrating apocalypse into the present, differentiating back-to-nature, adding responsibility to geological fatalism etc.


Towards each company making its own Anthropocene story

To summarise, collective motivation coming from the diversity of stakeholders is necessary for the company to be fully sustainable. Anthropocene stories of different kinds are already latently present. Through engaging with and integrating them each company has an opportunity to consciously shape its own. This will be around what is most material to its industrial, social and geographical context, crafting its particular microcosm of the planetary whole through continual dialogue.

Existing models include consumer’s concerns about the ethics of food production being addressed through consultation [9].  Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan https://www.unilever.co.uk/sustainable-living/ speaks of integrating sustainability into its brands, marketing and innovation, and of changing behaviour. Coaching may be uniquely well-placed to take the further step of motivational vision-building through enabling the surfacing of stakeholders’ sustainability stories.

Regional types of Anthropocene culture already seem to be emerging. Research in Northern European, post-Protestant cultures has linked environmental leadership to evolutionary, developmental, spiritual-unitive perspectives, including positive views about human potential, an emphasis on the internalisation of authority, and an integration of multiple modes of knowing [10]. 

As we have seen, stakeholders’ Anthropocene stories sometimes border on experiencing the sacred. In integrating its own story the company is likely to create a pragmatic platform which is acceptable to the pluralism of both revealed religions and secular outlooks. 

I wonder if what I have attempted to say here relates to the experience of other coaches.

To connect with Geoffrey Ahern

References
[1] Cohn, N. (2001), Cosmos, Chaos & the World to Come. The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith, 2nd ed. New Haven: Yale University Press: 105,163,215.
[2] For the preceding on apocalypse see: in 2010 ed. S. Skrimshire, Future Ethics. Climate change and apocalyptic imagination, London: Continuum - Hulme, M. ‘Four meanings of climate change’, and Buell, F. ‘A short history of environmental apocalypse’: 21-22, 31; Danowski, D. and De Castro, E. (2017), The Ends of the World (tr. R. Nunes), Cambridge: Polity; Jonas, H. (1984), The Imperative of Responsibility. In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age, Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 62-63; Macfarlane, R. (2016), ‘Generation Anthropocene. How humans have altered the planet forever’. The Guardian, Review pp.1-4, Saturday 02.04.16; Ridley, M. (2015), The Evolution of Everything. How Ideas Emerge, New York: Harper Collins; Desrochers, P. (2010), ‘The environmental responsibility of business is to increase its profits (by creating value within the bounds of private property rights)’, Industrial and Corporate Change, 19(1): 161-204; Pellizzoni, L. (2011), ‘Governing through disorder: neoliberal environmental governance and social theory’, Global Environmental Change 21: 795-803; Arnaldi, S, (2012), ‘The end of history and the search for perfection. Conflicting teleologies of transhumanism and (neo)liberal democracy’, in Neoliberalism and technoscience: critical assessments eds Luigi Pellizzoni and Marja Ylonen, Electronic book: Ashgate Publishing. 
[3] See Cohn, N. (2001) cited in 1 above; Hall, J. (2009), Apocalypse. From Antiquity to the Empire of Modernity, Cambridge: Polity.
[4] Hodder, A. (1989), Emerson’s Rhetoric of Revelation. Nature, the Reader and the Apocalypse Within. London: Pennsylvania Univ. Press: 24.33.71; Skrimshire, S. (2010), ‘’Eternal return of apocalypse’, Future Ethics. Climate change and apocalyptic imagination, ed. S. Skrimshire, London: Continuum: 223; Boyce, M. (1979), Zoroastrians. Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul: 84.
[5] Hutchins, G. (2015), ‘The next stage of organizational evolution’, Triple Pundit, Wednesday May 20th, www.triplepundit.com/2015/05next-stage-organizational-evolution.
[6]  Kumar, S. (2013), Soil, Soul, Society. A New Trinity for Our Time, Lewes: Leaping Hare Press; Armand, J. (2012) ‘The bringing together of technology, sustainability and ethics’, Sustainability Science 7(2): 113-116; Pellizzoni, L. and Ylonen, M. (2008), ‘Responsibility in uncertain times: an institutional perspective on precaution’, Global Environmental Politics 8(3): 51-73; Attia, P. (2013), ‘Mega-sized concerns from the nano-sized world: The intersection of nano- and environmental ethics’, Science & Engineering Ethics 19: 1007-1016.
[7]Matthews, F. (2011), ‘Towards a deeper philosophy of biomimicry’, Organisation & Environment, 24(4): 364-387.
[8] Berry, T. (1988), The Dream of the Earth, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books; Naess, A. (1989), Ecology, Community and Lifestyle. Outline of an Ecosophy. Tr. D. Rothenberg, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Jordan, M. (2009), ‘Back to Nature’, Therapy Today, April: 26-28; Russell, P. (1982) The Awakening Earth, London: Arkana.
[9] Korthals, M. (2008), ‘Ethical rooms for maneuver and their prospects vis-à-vis the current ethical food policies in Europe’, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 21(3): 249-273.
[10] Hedlund-de Witt, A. (2014), ‘The integrative worldview and its potential for sustainable societies: A qualitative exploration of the views and values of environmental leaders’, Worldviews, Culture, Religion 18(3): 191-229.