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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Jan/Feb 2002 : Frankel-y Speaking

Frankel-y Speaking
The Compassion Connection

Sustainability isn’t all cold policy.

by senior columnist Carl Frankel

Hello there, stranger, great to see you! Welcome to Our World. Welcome to Division Central.

You want divides? We’ve got divides. We’ve got the divide between north and south.

We’ve got the digital divide. We’ve got the divide between rich and poor.

And that’s just the start of it. We’ve got your Christians and your Muslims, your hawks and your doves, your “suits” and your “sandals,” your black folks and your white folks, your Democrats and your Republicans (okay, you’re right, maybe that last one’s not such a big divide!).

The list (and the beat, and the beating each other up) goes on. You’ve got your tribal loyalists and your global citizens, your raving fundamentalists and your raving capitalists . . . and what’s that you say? You get the idea? You get the idea and you want me to stop?

Okay, I will—but not before I mention one last divide. The gap between the secular and the sacred, which shows up, among other places, in the disconnect between business and spirituality. People have been struggling with this latter divide for decades now and without much success—which isn’t surprising. We’re talking two very different worlds here. Business, especially corporate-style business, is clinical and analytical. Spirituality is about connections, about meaning. Mr. Mars, meet Ms. Venus.

For years people have been coming out with books with titles like Soul in Business. Their efforts have been met with dewy-eyed gratitude by the choir and yawns by everyone else. In large measure the problem has been with the angle in. The word “soul” falls flat in this context. It’s too squishy.

The goal of these people is laudable, though—to make business more responsive to the dictates of the heart. Until this happens, the logic goes, business will continue to be a sort of institutional idiot savant, brilliant at producing profits and clueless about everything else. This isn’t good, and not just because it makes employees want to go home and kick the dog. Think mastodon in a china shop. Think stomping on the planet.

But I digress. We’ve got all these gaps. How do we bridge them? “Soul” isn’t the way in, plainly. A tougher, more macho term is required, one that won’t get hooted out of the house by policy wonks, but also has a gentler side.

And hey: it turns out we’ve already got the term. It’s been around for years, actually. But it hasn’t been viewed in this light.

The envelope, please.

And the winner is: sustainable development.

If the relationship between Division Central and sustainable development isn’t immediately obvious, blame it on Rio. On the monumental 1992 Earth Summit that was held in Rio de Janeiro, that is—and on what came before, and after. Terms like “sustainable development” don’t have a predefined meaning: our understanding of them emerges out of a collective conversation (a/k/a “discourse”) that happens over time. And the definitions that have emerged out of the world of Rio are woefully incomplete.

Today, sustainable development has two generally accepted meanings. The first comes from the 1987 Brundtland Commission: sustainable development is development or progress that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The second definition is often referred to as the “Three E’s.” It proposes that sustainable development consists of the harmonization of economic growth, environmental protection and social equity.

Both views are useful. They are also limiting. There are many other lenses through which to view sustainable development, and our cause is harmed to the extent that we neglect them. Here are three alternative (or, if you prefer, complementary) definitions of sustainable development.

First, sustainable development is about right balance. That’s implied by both the Brundtland Commission’s definition and the Three E’s, but there are lots of other issues out there, too. Globalization, for instance: how about balancing corporate and local culture? There’s our so-called entertainment “culture:” how about making it less adolescent and more real? There’s also, lest we forget, the spirituality and business disconnect: Venus and Mars. How about balancing them?

Second, sustainable development is about reconciliation. Think of Division Central and the strong feelings those many gaps generate. Denial. Envy. Desperation. Rage. These are the emotions that, locked into place, tear the world apart. Although sustainable development is rarely viewed that way, one of its central aims is to bridge those divides and heal the wounds they cause. If you’ve ever wondered why so much talk in sustainability circles is about the importance of dialogue, this is why.

Finally, sustainable development is about compassion. Why? Because compassion—empathy for the victims of “wrong balance”—is what inspires people to seek reconciliation. There are other reasons, too, but compassion is especially powerful. It operates at the heart level, and this is where true commitment comes from.

People have felt compassion since time immemorial, but it is usually for people who feel like members of their tribe—family, friends, fellow citizens and so on. Sustainable development expands on this. It invites us to demonstrate our compassion for all the victims of injustice, regardless of race, color, creed or place of national origin. The concept of “tribe” becomes global.

In its embrace of compassion, sustainable development is riding a trend. Over the centuries, we have become much more sensitive to the plight of the have-nots than we once were. Increasingly, we are expected to feel empathy for the victims of suffering, even if they do not belong to our tribe, narrowly defined. This is one reason why George W. Bush, during the recent presidential election, dubbed (or, rather, Dubya’d) himself a “compassionate conservative.” The rules required him to come across as a caring guy. A couple of millennia ago, Dubyus Maximus would have stuffed his pockets and thumbed his nose at the underclass. And that would have been the end of it.

This is, of course, ego-ideal stuff, a reflection of who we think we should be. In reality, we are only selectively compassionate, and appalling amounts of pocket-stuffing still go on. But something very basic has changed. Compassion has become a cultural core value now. Hey, maybe there is such a thing as progress after all!

These three themes—right balance, reconciliation and compassion—are closely intertwined. In large measure, this is because they address the same issue—the uneven distribution of power, which underlies most (if not all) the conflicts in Division Central.

In the broad panoply of sustainability issues, probably none is more important than leveling the scales of power—“right-balancing” them, so to speak. It isn’t easily done, though. It is the rare person who voluntarily gives up power, or even supports structural changes that might have that effect.

How do you get the haves to engage the have-nots in a spirit of reconciliation? There are basically two approaches—appeals to conscience and appeals to reason. The former tends to produce resistance. People don’t like being “should” on, as the saying goes. The second track plays on fear and goes something like: “There’s a bomb at your party, pal. Do something or it will explode.” Unfortunately, people tend to wait for the detonation before taking action, as our conduct pre- and post-September 11th shows.

There is another way in, too, but it’s not something you can sell. It’s the path of compassion, and it’s entirely self-generating. The heart opens on its own or not at all. “Excuse me,” a variation on an old joke goes, “can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?” Answer: “You’ve got to want it very badly.”

We all know the difference between doing something because we have to and doing something because we want to. Compassion is an opening to desire: it is a spontaneous reaching out that’s stripped both of duty (it is a Puritanism-free zone) and of fear (we dismantle the bomb because our concern for others makes us want to).

Because it’s spontaneous, it’s also dynamic. It starts in the heart, but isn’t sentimental or squishy. It manifests as action. “Compassion,” the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says, “is a type of energy that needs to be expressed in a very concrete way.”

It’s something else as well—anticipatory. That’s right—anticipatory. Back when I was a kid, compositions were assigned to me every weekend. When I was in the mood to do them, I’d start them on Saturday morning. When I wasn’t, I’d get cracking on Sunday night, and the result usually showed it. Compassion is its own motivation. It is intrinsically proactive. It gets us out from behind the eight-ball—and ahead of the eco-bomb.

Can you have sustainable development without compassion? I suppose so, in the same way you can have a marriage that’s all duty and no heart. Then again, until people let go of their rage, Division Central will continue to be the name of the movie we’ve landed in, so emotions like forgiveness and compassion would seem to have a central role. Do we need green taxes, emissions reductions programs and the like? Absolutely. But that’s not all. Cut through all the fancy grown-up talk and the problem is really quite simple. Do you know what the Dalai Lama’s big and complicated strategy for solving the world’s problems is?

Be nice.

Carl Frankel is a writer, journalist and consultant specializing in business and sustainable development. He can reached via e-mail at

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