|I got a divorce the
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 frameall
of us, inner lives and life choices and all.
Ill save my laments about the writing game for late-night
cognacs with long-suffering friends and elaborate here on my thoughts
My book, currently without publisher, elaborates on the arguments
Ive 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 picturesustainabilitys 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 isnt
only a problem out there in the world, to be solved
by policy wonks, technology whizzes and the like. It also lives
in hereinside 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,
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 dont 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 its
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 dont 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 its 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 itwhich 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 cant
slot a work as an environmental book or a self-help book or whatever,
you wont know where to stock it at Barnes & Noble. If
you dont know where to stock it, you wont be able to
sell it. And if you cant sell it, you probably shouldnt
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
categoriesand 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 doesnt even have a category,
believe it or not!). Like many other books, mine resists categorizationbut
tell that to the big bookstores, which these days call the shots.
Theres a word for this forcing of concepts into a fixed frameprocrustean,
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 wasnt 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. Its the drumbeat
of specialization and categorization, and its devastating
our souls, not to mention the natural world.
Beware the drumbeat that binds.
Is resistance, as they say, futile? I dont think so, although
the Army of the Drum is very powerfulwe 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
consumerswe are citizens and human beings. We
are not our social security numbers or our market categorieswe
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 souls
way to just say no. And who knows, maybe hes right!
Maybe, here in Prozac-land, were wiser than we know.
But resistance isnt only about remembering. Its 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 Chayefskys Network, are madder
than hell and dont 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. Enterprisesproducts,
services and the businesses themselvescan 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 its one where policy wonks fear
to tread, this is what, more than anything else, sustainability
is about. Awakening the soul. Or, rather, soulsthe 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 spiritnot 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 thats missing
from the conversation. Of course its about tariffs and taxes
and all that. Of course its about tinkering with the machinery.
It has to be: the machine is broken, after all! But its also
about birth. We are creators as well as engineers. Sustainability
Carl Frankel (email@example.com)
is a writer, journalist and consultant specializing in business and