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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : May/June 2002 : Frankel-y Speaking

Frankel-y Speaking
Beneath the Surface

Sustainability has depth. Even the experts—especially the experts!—overlook this.

by senior columnist Carl Frankel

I got a divorce the other day.

Not from my wife. From my publisher.

And therein lies a tale. About the occupational hazards of my profession, to be sure, and something else as well: the chasm between the conventional view of sustainability and its very different meaning if we bring ourselves into the picture frame—all of us, inner lives and life choices and all.

I’ll save my laments about the writing game for late-night cognacs with long-suffering friends and elaborate here on my thoughts about sustainability.

My book, currently without publisher, elaborates on the arguments I’ve been making in this column. It proposes that sustainability is more than the oft-cited “Three Es,” which define sustainability as the harmonization of environmental protection, economic growth and social equity. It argues that this view omits something essential from the picture—sustainability’s internal dimension. Sustainability is also about our meaning systems, about what postmodernists would call our “construction of reality.” It is about our self-sense, our values. The sustainability crisis isn’t only a problem “out there” in the world, to be solved by policy wonks, technology whizzes and the like. It also lives “in here”—inside our souls. And so it requires us to examine who we are as well as what we do, and to find that magical place inside ourselves where purpose and policy, soul and strategy, are aligned.

My ex-publisher, whose identity shall remain my own dark secret, took on the book a few months ago. Eventually it made its way to the editor-in-chief. The first time we spoke, she let it be known that she had a Ph.D. in international development or some such discipline, so she had a special interest in the book. For a time I thought this was good news. It was the beginning of the end.

Soon suggestions for new titles were flowing my way. Making Way for Others: Bringing Sustainability into Free Trade was one. The Struggle for Sustainability: Global Environmental Priorities and Economic Equity was another. I was advised that although my book was purportedly about sustainability, “We don’t really know your point of view on the specifics of trade, manufacturing, development policy, which is a little odd.”

In vain I tried to explain that my book was about something different. It was about the dangers of an approach to sustainability that focused exclusively on that sort of thing. Over the days that followed, our dynamic became clear. My book was about the need to re-frame the discourse about sustainability. She wanted more of the same old conversation. From there it was a short, straight shot to divorce.

Beware the policy wonks.

I offer this story not because my case is special, but because it’s not. I was bumping up against conventional wisdom, which just may be an oxymoron. When experts talk about sustainability, they usually focus on its structural aspects, i.e., on the sort of thing my editor wanted me to opine about in the book. They don’t see any connection between sustainability and soul or spirit or whatever inadequate term we use to characterize the part of ourselves that, when activated, transforms not just what we say (and a lot of us say the right thing!), but also what we do.

In this secular world of ours, the experts’ disregard of spirit is understandable. But it’s a problem, too. It keeps us from seeing the whole system and from identifying an entire palette of possible solutions that flows from imbuing sustainability with a soulful as well as structural dimension. As much as anything, sustainability is about getting people to wake up and take action, and to do so as if the world depended on it—which it does. This is a soul-challenge. But the experts are mostly blind to this.

It seems to me that these people have been suckered by the system. Take my ex-editor, for instance. Her education had narrowed her vision, and her profession made things worse. The publishing industry has become appallingly corporatized, by which I mean two things: consumed by a pigeonholing mentality, and focused exclusively on the bottom line. Books that cross categories tend to be viewed with apprehension. They are, quite literally, misfits. If you can’t slot a work as an environmental book or a self-help book or whatever, you won’t know where to stock it at Barnes & Noble. If you don’t know where to stock it, you won’t be able to sell it. And if you can’t sell it, you probably shouldn’t be publishing it at all! Thus marketability becomes king and it becomes identified with fitting neatly into categories, never mind that we humans have a natural penchant for building bridges between categories—and love to read books that do so!

My editor had decided the right category for my book was Nature/Environment, and was trying to shape its contents to fit her conception of the slot. As it happened, it was the best available category, but it still misrepresented the book, which is a cross-category mix of musings about philosophy, psychology, contemporary culture and the nature of sustainability (which doesn’t even have a category, believe it or not!). Like many other books, mine resists categorization—but tell that to the big bookstores, which these days call the shots. There’s a word for this forcing of concepts into a fixed frame—procrustean, after the giant of Greek legend who amputated or stretched his prisoners until they fit his bed. The trade was doing it to my editor, and she was doing it to me. We were both victims of Procrustes.

In the end, it wasn’t really my editor I was up against. I was facing something deeper and more menacing, a military drumbeat that threatens to pound us all into submission with its relentlessness. You hear this drumbeat in our educational system, in our business culture, and a thousand other places, too. It’s the drumbeat of specialization and categorization, and it’s devastating our souls, not to mention the natural world.

Beware the drumbeat that binds.

Is resistance, as they say, futile? I don’t think so, although the Army of the Drum is very powerful—we fight losing battles all the time. But there are still ways to say no, and sometimes even win. Saying no is largely a matter of remembering who we are in the face of the drumbeat hammering at us to forget. We are not “consumers”—we are citizens and human beings. We are not our social security numbers or our market categories—we are people whose special gift is the capacity to make unlikely connections. The psychologist James Hillman has counseled passive resistance in the face of the Army of the Drum. He has even speculated that the epidemic of depression sweeping our country could be the soul’s way to “just say no.” And who knows, maybe he’s right! Maybe, here in Prozac-land, we’re wiser than we know.

But resistance isn’t only about remembering. It’s also about doing, and here the phrase that springs to mind is market opportunity. An awful lot of people, to paraphrase that famous line from Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network,” are “madder than hell and don’t want to take it any more.” Recent consumer research (you should excuse the term) has identified a widespread longing for authenticity, which I understand to mean a yearning to experience oneself outside the relentless rhythms of the Army of the Drum. For lots of people (and the numbers are increasing all the time), the standard-issue version of the Life Well Led is a really bad joke. These people long to lead lives of integrity and to feel vitally alive and “real.” Enterprises—products, services and the businesses themselves—can be structured to provide this. But first we must have the vision to see and respond to this profound and pervasive yearning.

From one vantage point, and it’s one where policy wonks fear to tread, this is what, more than anything else, sustainability is about. Awakening the soul. Or, rather, souls—the souls of millions, even billions, of people around the world. Do that and out of the burst of creativity that follows, you get entirely new notions of what an enterprise is. You get fundamentally new relationships between “producers” and “consumers.” You get new notions of value and new structures of ownership. Key to it all is infusing the vision with spirit—not the desiccated, eyes-turned-heavenward notion of spirit that ascetics favor, but the burstingly vital energy of self- and world-creation.

This, for me, is the aspect of sustainability that’s missing from the conversation. Of course it’s about tariffs and taxes and all that. Of course it’s about tinkering with the machinery. It has to be: the machine is broken, after all! But it’s also about birth. We are creators as well as engineers. Sustainability has depth.


Carl Frankel (cfrankel@aol.com) is a writer, journalist and consultant specializing in business and sustainable development.

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