Imagine being an executive in a business that is experiencing one of the limits described in Stead & Stead (1994). Write one short paragraph starting a memo or speech on how to make a strategic shift so that you will become more sustainable.
Can Humankind
Change the
Economic Myth?
Can Humankind Change the
Economic Myth? Paradigm
Shifts Necessary for
Ecologically Sustainable
W. Edward Stead and Jean Garner Stead
East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, Tennessee, USA
Historians have not referred to the past 250 years as the “Industrial Revolution”
for nothing. Joseph Campbell (1988) points out that myths reflect the underlying
paradigms that guide the thoughts and actions of the people of a particular
culture. Espousing society’s myths is a primary function of all of its institutions,
be they political, religious, educational or economic. Campbell (1988) says that
you can tell the dominant myth of a given society by examining the heights of
its buildings. The multi-storey seats of economic activity that define the
skylines of our cities today demonstrate that humankind’s most dominant
current myth is economic wealth.
However, the myth of economic wealth has now come face to face with
ecological sustainability. Father Thomas Berry (1988) says, “The mythic drive
(for economic wealth) continues to control our world, even though much is
known about the earth, its limited resources, the interdependence of life
systems, and the delicate balance of the ecosystems …” (p. 76) This is echoed
by Smith and Hawken founder, Paul Hawken (1993), who says, “Corporations,
because they are the dominant institution on the planet, must squarely face
the social and environmental problems that afflict humankind” (p. 54).
Modifying myths means making paradigm shifts, changing the
fundamental assumptions and values from which the world is viewed (Kuhn,
1962). Lewis Mumford (1956) points out that such fundamental shifts are rare,
occurring only a few times in all human history. Nevertheless, if the myth of
economic wealth is to remain viable in the face of the ecological challenges it
faces, business organizations will have to experience paradigm shifts which
encourage them to view themselves as part of a larger, interconnected, social
and ecological network governed by biological and physical processes. This
means that business organizations in the twenty-first century will be faced
with changing the fundamental assumptions and values which underlie their
relationships with the larger ecosystem.
Journal of Organizational Change
Management, Vol. 7 No. 4, 1994,
pp. 15-31. © MCB University Press,
The purposes of this article are:
(1) to underscore the magnitude of the organizational change efforts
necessary for achieving a truly sustainable relationship between
business activity and the planet; and
(2) to delve more deeply into some of the theoretical frameworks that
support the ecologically-sensitive paradigms which need to underlie
humankind’s economic myth in the future.
In pursuing these purposes, we hope to demonstrate that managing in a
sustainable way will eventually require that firms engage in fundamental
change efforts which reach to the heart of defining “How much economic
activity is enough?”
Changing the Economic Myth Is No Easy Matter
Changing the underlying assumptions which constitute paradigms that
organizations use to view their world is anything but simple. According to
Mumford (1956), such changes mean adopting new metaphysical and
ideological foundations on which the assumptions are based. Kuhn (1962)
points out that paradigm shifts must be pursued on faith in the face of
convincing empirical evidence which supports the old paradigm; they must be
communicated in ways which are typically incoherent to old paradigm thinkers;
and they require that people be willing to look at what they do from the
periphery where objective observation is possible.
Research by Post and Altman (1992) supports the point that organizations
wishing to adopt ecologically-sensitive management practices will require
fundamental change processes. In their investigation of three firms, they found
the organization with the highest level of environmental performance was the
one that had successfully integrated ecological performance into its strategic
planning, had instituted concern for the ecosystem at the operational level,
regularly scanned the ecological expectations of its customers, used a team
approach in managing ecological issues, and modified its performance
measurement systems to account for nature. They point out that achieving this
“innovative phase” of environmental management generally requires secondand
third-order, double-loop change efforts which involve the adoption of new
philosophies, new values, new structures, and new operating principles – in
short, new ecologically-sensitive paradigms. They say “… internal paradigm
shifts and transformational change are necessary as companies attempt to
adjust to the rapidly changing world of green politics and markets” (Post and
Altman, 1992, p. 13).
Further, as humankind progresses through the twenty-first century, business
organizations will probably have to pass through two progressively difficult
stages of change in order to achieve true ecological sustainability. The first
stage, which we call the “profit stage”, is based on the idea that ecological
concern is good for business and, thus, fits somewhat comfortably into the
Can Humankind
Change the
Economic Myth?
current myth of economic wealth. Real change can occur, but within basically
the same system of ideas. Firms can ask themselves, “How can we improve our
wealth by being environmentally sensitive?”
The profit stage defines the state of most of the ecological change efforts
occurring in business organizations today. This stage has emerged as
businesses have made efforts to respond to the increasingly loud cries that
change is necessary from several corners of society. There are now vast
numbers of green consumers jamming the marketplaces demanding products
that are more environmentally friendly. There are also cries for ecological
responsibility rising out of the investment markets, where investors are seeking
quality investment opportunities in environmentally-friendly companies,
technologies and industries. Add these voices for change to the chorus of
regulatory requirements and legal actions in the name of clean air, clean water,
the rights of other species, and the spiritual value of the land, and it becomes
clear that a global social network has emerged which supports doing business
with a serious environmental flair (Stead and Stead, 1992).
There has been no shortage of organizations recognizing these social
demands for environmentally-responsible business and responding to them in
economically beneficial ways. Strategies designed to enhance revenues and/or
reduce costs by improving environmental performance are pervasive among
organizations in some of the world’s most polluting industries (Stead et al.,
forthcoming). Firms like 3M, Dow, Monsanto, and AT&T have instituted very
successful environmental management systems within the framework of total
quality environmental management (TQEM). The Body Shop, the Scott Bader
Commonwealth, Ben & Jerry’s Ice-Cream, Tom’s of Maine, Patagonia, Smith and
Hawken, Seventh Generation, and many others have proved that organizations
can reap significant economic wealth by offering ecologically-sensitive products
and services which spring from strong green corporate philosophies.
However, it is important to stop here and question whether or not a
worldwide sustainable economic system can be neatly achieved within the
framework of increasing profits and economic growth. Many, including Paul
Hawken, believe that the answer to this question is a resounding no. Hawken
(1993) says:
If every company on the planet were to adopt the environmental and social practices of the
best companies – of, say, The Body Shop, Patagonia, and Ben & Jerry’s – the world would still
be moving towards environmental degradation and collapse … Today there is a contradiction
inherent in the premiss of the socially responsible corporation: to wit, that a company can
make the world better, can grow, and can increase profits by meeting social and environmental
needs. It is a have-your-cake-and-eat-it fantasy that cannot come true … (p. 55)
Thus a second stage of societal and organizational change will probably be
required for truly sustainable business: the “survival stage”. In this stage firms
will have to be willing to ask themselves: “How much economic wealth can the
earth afford us to earn?” It is in this stage that the paradigm shifts will become
even more crucial and change efforts even more difficult. As Willis Harman
(1988) says:
(There is a) growing suspicion that, without some sort of fundamental change, modern
industrial society (will be) unable to resolve the socio-political and ecological dilemmas that
beset us … The problems seem more and more intertwined, and the trade-offs progressively less
and less favourable. The change required is not simply a shift from one form of industrial
society to another, but rather a major change in the basic assumptions underlying … industrial
society (p. 107).
In short, long-term survival of the myth of economic wealth is tied to society
finding answers to the question: “How much is enough?” Because business “is
all pervasive in modern society (reflecting), any major change in any portion of
it” (Harman, 1988, p. 130), organizations must take a central role in society’s
search for reasonable answers to this question. Finding these answers will
require that organizations adopt very different scientific, economic, and
management paradigms within which to operate. Again quoting Hawken
(1993): “There must be an integration of economic, biologic, and human
systems in order to create a sustainable and interdependent method of
commerce that supports and furthers our existence” (p. 55).
What Paradigm Shifts Are Necessary for a New Economic Myth?
The shifts necessary for an environmentally-sensitive economic myth involve
three basic paradigms, one nested within the next. By nature, ecological issues
are, first and foremost, scientific issues. Thus any myth which adequately
informs business managers about the relationship between nature and
economic activities must be encompassed within a scientific paradigm which
adequately explains the biological and physical limits of the planet. Within such
a scientific paradigm can fit a more realistic economics paradigm allowing for
economic principles which more adequately weigh the ecological, as well as the
monetary, costs and benefits of business activity. Finally, within a more
ecologically-sensitive economics paradigm, a management paradigm can
emerge which informs managers that the earth is the ultimate stakeholder, and,
as such, must be accounted for in the organization’s values, visions, strategies,
structures and processes.
The Scientific Paradigm
Since business activity is practised within the biological and physical confines
of Mother Earth, it would seem reasonable to assume that a myth of economic
wealth which will account for the natural environment should be founded on
sound scientific frameworks which will help organizations define the carrying
capacity of the planet. Unfortunately, such scientific frameworks cannot he
found within the mechanical, Newtonian concepts that have dominated human
thought processes for the past 250 years (Harman, 1988; Mumford, 1956).
Business must turn to more holistic scientific models which can account for the
interconnectedness between organizations and the natural environment
Can Humankind
Change the
Economic Myth?
(Harman, 1988). Three interrelated scientific theories useful in this regard are
systems theory, Gaia theory and thermodynamics.
Systems Theory
Systems theory is one of the most powerful and integrative theories for
explaining the relationship between humankind and nature. Having emerged
during the 1920s and 1930s, it has served to provide a strong framework for
transcending the boundaries that have historically separated various scientific
and social fields (Boulding, 1956; Sheldrake, 1991).
Essentially, living systems exhibit characteristics of life: they exchange
information, matter and energy with their environments in order to maintain a
dynamic equilibrium and counteract uncertainty, destruction, etc. They are
morphogenetic in nature, meaning that they can renew, reproduce, and/or
regenerate themselves. Living systems are complex, composed of
interdependent subsystems which themselves process information, matter and
energy. They are also irreducible, meaning their survival is threatened if any of
the subsystems break down, grow out of control, etc. Living systems are
synergistic, displaying properties which cannot be anticipated by summing the
effects of the component subsystems. They develop control mechanisms which
must become more complex as environmental forces became more complex.
Finally, living systems are purposive, serving some larger role, and sometimes
purposeful, defining that larger role for themselves (Lovelock, 1979, 1988;
Sheldrake, 1991; Van Gigch, 1978).
The component subsystems of living systems exist in nested hierarchies,
each subsystem contained within a larger system (Boulding, 1956; Schumacher,
1977; Sheldrake, 1991; Van Gigch, 1978). Kenneth Boulding (1956) says that the
existence of nested living-systems hierarchies means that there are “systems of
systems” (p. 202). From this perspective, we can see that there is a hierarchy of
nested living systems associated with economic activity. Individuals form work
groups, work groups form the foundations of business organizations, and
business organizations together with their consumers represent the economic
system. The economic, political, religious, educational and social systems
together constitute societies, and these societies exist within the confines of the
supranational system called earth. Because of this supranational position, the
earth cannot be defined simply as the sum of the individuals, organizations,
economies and societies that comprise it. Rather, it is a qualitatively distinct
entity which supersedes and transcends any of its economic subsystems, thus
constituting the “system of systems” (Boulding, 1956, p. 202) in which economic
activity takes place.
Therefore the economic system must function within the biological and
physical limits of the planet. These limits are largely defined by the planet’s
morphogenetic processes, which operate on an evolutionary time-scale. The
earth can and will renew itself, as it has been doing for some 4.5 billion years. It
simply cannot accomplish this feat in human time-frames. For example, the
planet will renew the topsoil and the petroleum that humankind is so rapidly
depleting in its economic activities; unfortunately, it will take hundreds of
thousands of years to accomplish this regeneration, regardless of the economic
Gaia Theory
The basic contention of Gaia theory is that the earth is a living superorganism
which can be accurately understood only from an interdisciplinary geologicalphysiological
perspective ( Lovelock, 1979, 1988, 1991). Although livingsystems
processes such as self-regulation, homeostasis, and morphogenesis
form many of the foundations of Gaia theory, Gaia theory goes beyond systems
theory in hypothesizing that the earth is a living organism which has evolved
from purposive (and possibly purposeful) interactions between the planet’s
biological and physical processes.
With roots in the ideas of nineteenth-century scientists such as James Hutton
and H.T. Huxley (Kirchner, 1991; Lovelock, 1988, 1991), the development of
modern Gaia theory is generally attributed to two scientists – James Lovelock
and Lynn Margulis. Lovelock explores Gaia theory from a macro perspective,
studying how chemical, atmospheric and climatic processes vary as the
diversity of planetary life varies. His research shows that species diversity
holds the key to the ecological balance necessary to support life. His computer
models of “Daisyworld” demonstrate that fluctuations in the weather become
more severe as diversity declines (Lovelock, 1988). He says, “Sparse life on a
planet would be as unstable as half an animal” (Lovelock, 1991, p. 10). Margulis
examines Gaia theory from a micro perspective. Referring to herself as the
“unofficial spokesperson for the silent majority of life on earth, the microbes”
(Margulis and Hinkle, 1991, p. 11), Margulis points out that, through symbiotic
processes, the planet has become a single living organism composed of
coevolving biological and physical processes which cannot be separated in any
meaningful sense (Joseph, 1990; Margulis and Hinkle, 1991).
Although Gaia theory is often referred to by its original designation, the Gaia
hypothesis, Lovelock (1988) makes it clear that research support for the idea
has moved it well beyond the hypothetical stage. Kirchner (1991) identifies five
Gaia hypotheses, ranging from the least extreme to the most extreme:
(1) biological forces have a substantial influence over the physical world;
(2) the relationship between the earth’s biological and physical forces is one
of mutual influence;
(3) long-term stability of the earth’s physical processes is dependent on
biological processes;
(4) biological processes are teleologic, controlling the physical environment
for a purpose; and
(5) maintaining a biologically-optimal physical environment is Gaia’s
Can Humankind
Change the
Economic Myth?
Kirchner (1991) points out that testing the less extreme hypotheses has been
and will continue to be fruitful, but that testing the more extreme hypotheses
will be quite difficult, if not impossible. Others point out that the scope of Gaia
theory is so vast that, like Newtonian physics and Darwinian evolution, it will
take centuries of research to explore (Kirchner, 1991). However, Lovelock (1991)
counters that evolutionary science leaves room for only one reasonable
conclusion concerning the purposive/purposeful dimensions of Gaia: “Living
organisms must regulate their planet; otherwise the ineluctable forces of
physical and chemical evolution would render it uninhabitable” (p. 10).
Rooting a scientific paradigm about the relationship between business
activity and the natural environment in Gaia theory provides a holistic
planetary perspective. Further, it makes it clear that humans’ environmental
sensitivity need not be altruistic. Although environmental debates are often
couched in terms of “business needs to clean up its act in order to help save the
planet”, Gaia theory helps us to understand that the planet can take care of
itself; it is humankind’s way of life that is threatened. Lovelock (1979) says, “It
may be that the white-hot rash of our technology will, in the end, prove
destructive for our own species, but the evidence for accepting that industrial
activities … may endanger the life of Gaia as a whole is very weak indeed” (pp.
Living systems survive by exchanging energy, wastes and information with
their environment. This process is subject to the laws of thermodynamics – the
conservation law and the entropy law. These laws explain the dynamics of
energy transformation and waste generation in the universe (Ehrlich et al.,
1977). The conservation law says that there is a constant amount of energy in
the universe. Thus energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed
from one state to another. The entropy law says that, every time energy is
transformed, it will lose some of its order and usefulness. As this occurs, the
degraded energy becomes waste.
Basically, an economy functions by using knowledge and energy to convert
materials from their natural states into usable products or services for
consumption by human beings. Because of the role of energy in the economy,
the interactions among these variables are governed by thermodynamic laws.
Problems arise because energy transformation in the economy occurs at highentropy
rates as energy is used to power production, distribution, and
consumption cycles. These high-entropy rates are not in balance with the lowentropy
energy transformation rates found in nature. The predictable results of
this imbalance include the rapid resource depletion and waste generation
currently occurring on the planet (Boulding, 1966; Capra, 1983; Daly, 1991;
Georgescu-Roegen, 1971).
Several scholars have focused their attentions on the relationship between
economic activity and thermodynamics. In his classic work, The Entropy Law
and the Economic Process, economist/physicist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen
(1971) eloquently demonstrates that: “The entropy law emerges as the most
economic in nature of all natural laws” (p. 3). Economist Herman Daly (1991)
says: “To deny the relevance of the entropy law to economics is to deny the
relevance of the difference between a lump of coal and a pile of ashes” (p. 199).
Physicist Fritjof Capra (1983) points out that the dismissal of the natural
environment in classical economic models means that the thermodynamic
characteristics of the planet are unaccounted for in economic activity. He says:
“Unlimited expansion in a finite environment can lead only to disaster” (p. 213).
Theologian Thomas Berry (1988) says: “In the natural world there exists an
amazing richness … There is a minimum of entropy … The difficulty comes
when the industrial mode of our economy disrupts the natural processes … In
such a situation the productivity of the natural world and its life systems is
diminished” (p. 71).
However, the news does not have to be so bleak. Although, eventually, life on
the planet will succumb to entropy as the sun cools and dies, the timing of the
process is by no means a certainty (Georgescu-Roegen, 1971). It does not have to
happen in the next century, as many predict, if humankind will focus its efforts
on the one variable in the formula of economic activity which defies the entropic
processes of the universe – human knowledge. Systems which stress the need
for relevant education and encourage the continuous, free expansion of
knowledge and information can literally create order out of chaos, beauty out of
degradation (Boulding, 1966; Ornstein and Ehrlich, 1990; Wheatley, 1992). Thus
thermodynamics teaches that energy transformation is a linear process which
produces disorder and wastes, but it also teaches that humankind can use its
ever-expanding knowledge to intervene effectively in this process, either
speeding it up or slowing it down.
Together, systems theory, Gaia theory and thermodynamics present a
framework for viewing the earth as a living, holistic entity with a myriad
interconnected subsystems that must function within the evolutionary time
scales of the ecosystem. These theories make it clear that humans must find
ways to balance the economic subsystem with the earth’s evolutionary entropic
and morphogenetic processes, or the planet will use its own mechanisms to
restore that balance. Therefore these three theories represent an overarching
scientific paradigm for defining and operating within the carrying capacity of
the planet, providing a solid theoretical base for such concepts as industrial
ecosystem, industrial ecology, total environmental quality, and industrial
metabolism (Ayres, 1989; Frosch, 1992; Frosch and Gallopoulos, 1989; Sharfman
and Ellington, 1993). In other words, they help to define “what is enough”.
The Economics Paradigm
Like all disciplines, traditional economics operates on simplifying assumptions.
Three of these assumptions are:
Can Humankind
Change the
Economic Myth?
(1) the economy can grow forever;
(2) the natural resources and energy necessary for economic activity will
always be there; and
(3) individual self-interest provides the best mechanism for the fair
allocation of resources (Stead and Stead, 1992).
These three assumptions are possible in current economic thought because
traditional economic theory considers the economic system to be a closed
circular-flow of goods and services between business organizations and
households which is virtually independent of the planet where these activities
take place.
Yet the previously described scientific theories demonstrate that the
economic subsystem can survive only so long as it operates within the entropic
and morphogenetic limits of the earth. Factors considered external to the closed
circular-flow economic system, such as the value of resources in nature, the
aesthetic value of the earth, and the values of the greater communities and
societies where economic activities take place, will have to emerge as legitimate
economic variables (Daly, 1977, 1991; Daly and Cobb, 1989; Etzioni, 1988, 1993;
Henderson, 1991; Schumacher, 1973). Otherwise, humankind faces reduced
natural resources and beauty, the potential for violence born of greed and envy,
and meaningless work for many citizens (Schumacher, 1973). Two related
theories which open the economic system to the greater social and ecological
systems are steady-state economics and communitarianism.
Steady-State Economics
Herman Daly argues in Steady-State Economics (1977, 1991) that the economy
is a subsystem of the larger social system and ecosystem powered and
maintained by throughputs of energy and materials from the environment. He
Studying economics in terms of the circular flow without considering the throughput of
energy and resources is like studying physiology in terms of the circulatory system without
ever mentioning the digestive tract (Daly, 1991, p. 196).
As mentioned above, both Daly (1977, 1991) and Georgescu-Roegen (1971)
implore that, if economic theory were rooted in the entropy law, then businesses
would recognize that unlimited economic growth on a finite planet is physically
Since the throughput of matter and energy is ignored in current economic
theory, the issue of the optimum scale of economic activity as it relates to the
earth’s carrying capacity is never considered (Daly, 1991; Daly and Cobb, 1989).
Thus economics must be opened to entropic throughput; this means the
unlimited growth assumption must be replaced by the assumption of
“enoughness” (Daly, 1977, 1991; Schumacher, 1973). Based on this assumption,
Daly (1977, 1991) proposes a sustainable, steady-state economy which exists as
a subsystem of the larger ecosystem. He defines a steady-state economy as one
that is “maintained at some desired, sufficient levels … by the lowest feasible
flows of matter and energy from the first stages of production … to the last
stage of consumption …” (Daly, 1991, p. 17). He notes that a steady-state
economy develops but does not grow. In a steady-state economy, “land” (the
economics term for natural resources) would no longer be considered a perfect
substitute for man-made capital; it would be renamed “nature” in order to
account for the long-term consequences related to natural resource depletion
and pollution (Daly 1977, 1991; Daly and Cobb, 1989).
Communities are “complex cognitive structures which form around the values
and expectations of the individuals and organizations that comprise (them)”
(Stead and Stead, 1992, p. 140). They are not so much identified by the fact that
people are living in some defined physical space as they are defined by groups
of people who share a “sense of we-ness” (Etzioni, 1991, p. 5). In this regard,
communities exist in a variety of forms, and cannot be differentiated in any
meaningful way from societies. Etzioni (1991) explains: “Communities exist like
Chinese nesting boxes, in that smaller ones – families – are embedded in more
encompassing ones – say, villages – and these still in more encompassing ones
– say national societies” (p. 5). Campbell (1988) speaks of the need for the
emergence of a “society of the planet”, an all-inclusive, worldwide community
based on values of planetary responsibility rooted in peace, justice and deep
ecological awareness.
Communitarianism forms an excellent framework for bringing economic
activity into concordance with the larger society in which it exists. Pioneered
and vigorously promoted by sociologist and management scholar, Amitai
Etzioni, communitarianism has emerged recently as a field of study and a
political force committed to accomplishing the economic and social changes
necessary to achieve a society like the one envisaged by Campbell. Etzioni
(1988, 1993) explains that communitarianism is based on the idea that
individual economic satisfaction must exist only within the moral dimensions
of a meaningful community structure. He (1988) discusses what he calls the
“I/we paradigm”, which assumes that: individuals are complex beings with
spiritual, moral and social needs as well as economic needs; emotions and
values are as important in human decision making as logic; and people exist in
collectives called communities which exert moral standards on their members.
Daly (1991) asserts, “The attainment of an optimal scale (of economic activity)
will require collective action by the community” (p. 242). He and John Cobb
(1989) present what they call the “person-in-community paradigm” which
establishes the self-sufficient, sustainable community as the basic economic
unit rather than the selfish individual.
Other business scholars and practitioners are now recognizing that
community must be a foundation of the new economics paradigm. Michael Ray
Can Humankind
Change the
Economic Myth?
(1991) of the Stanford Business School says that business organizations must
“relate to the surrounding community in an integrated instead of an us-versusthem
contentious way” (p. 44). Strategic management consultant and World
Business Academy fellow, Juanita Brown (1991), points out that community has
its roots in the word, unity. Thus adopting community as an economic
framework means developing unity with the larger society and ecosystem.
A myriad changes in the economic system will probably have to occur as the
economics paradigm shifts, such as: redefining the Gross Domestic Product,
developing technologies which are environmentally friendly and in keeping
with the human spirit, restructuring the entire tax system, re-engineering the
theories of international trade, establishing depletion quotas to replace
depletion allowances, and reintroducing the spiritual value of work back into
business organizations (Daly, 1977, 1991; Daly and Cobb, 1989; Etzioni, 1988;
Hawken, 1993; Henderson, 1991; Schumacher, 1973; Stead and Stead, 1992).
Hawken says: “We need to imagine – and then design – a system of commerce
… where the natural, everyday act of work and life accumulate into a better
world as a matter of course, not a matter of altruism” (p. 55).
The Management Paradigm
So, framing the economic system within the concepts of systems theory, Gaia
theory and the laws of thermodynamics allows humankind to devise an
economy that can serve the greater society while operating within the
biophysical limits of the planet. However, one key ingredient remains.
Organizations must recognize that they are the central actors in this new
economic system and, thus, achieving such a system rests on their willingness
to adopt management paradigms which support it. In short, the organizations
in the business world must go through what Shrivastava (1992) calls “corporate
self-greenewal … a transformation (which involves) recognizing and making
adjustments to new market forces, and realigning organizational products,
systems, and resources” (p. 18).
We propose that these fundamental transformations in corporate behaviour
can occur within a management paradigm that includes:
(1) a cognitive framework that can help to explain why and how the value
systems which underlie strategic decision-making processes must be
modified to include nature;
(2) a strategic framework which provides a means by which organizations
can analyse their underlying value systems in light of their roles in
serving the needs of the ultimate organizational stakeholder – planet
earth; and
(3) a structural framework which supports the fundamental change efforts
necessary for organizations to effectively institutionalize the planet into
their strategic management processes.
Three existing concepts which provide such frameworks include organizational
cognition, enterprise strategy and learning organizations.
Organizational Cognition
Given that paradigm shifts require significant examination and modification of
value systems, we turn our attention to the burgeoning field of organizational
cognition which offers some important lessons about the role that values play in
developing environmentally-sensitive strategic decision-making processes.
Human cognitive systems are interconnected mental networks of sensations,
memories, assumptions, values, information, knowledge, aspirations, opinions,
etc., which interact in order to allow people to form perceptions and make
decisions. Building on this, organizations can be seen as interconnected
cognitive networks of human perceptions which emanate from the collective
assumptions, values, goals, memories, information, and knowledge of the
organizational membership.
Values are cognitive, emotionally-charged abstractions which arise from
people’s perceptions of what is important for their survival. Organizational
cognition researchers have found that strategic decisions made in organizations
are both framed and limited by the value systems that pervade strategic
decision-making processes (Schwenk, 1988). Further, successful
implementation of strategic decisions requires that the key values that guide
these strategic decision-making processes become a part of organizations’
common cognitive frameworks (Finney and Mitroff, 1986; Weick and Bougon,
Thus, if organizations are going to be able to integrate values for sustainable
business into their strategic processes, they will have to develop shared
organizational perceptions which reflect that their long-term survival depends
on their relationship with the natural environment. They will have to perceive
the earth’s physical limits; they will have to perceive the interconnectedness
between themselves and the ecosystem; and they will have to perceive the true,
long-term ecological implications of their strategic choices (Stead and Stead,
Ornstein and Ehrlich (1990) point out that this means developing new ways
of thinking, and new ecological minds. Humankind has evolved in a world
historically characterized by abrupt changes and immediate dangers. Humans
have responded by developing perceptual processes designed to deal with such
situations. Unfortunately, the nature of the current ecological problems cannot
be easily perceived through such short-term, crisis-oriented cognitive processes.
Humans are now capable of creating long-term global changes which are not
perceivable via the same cognitive processes used to deal with immediate
danger. The result, according to Ornstein and Ehrlich, is that the human mind
is now out of sync with its environment. They believe that humans can change
these out-of-date perceptual processes, “replacing (their) old minds with new
ones” (Ornstein and Ehrlich, 1990, p. 12), by educating themselves about how
their short-term thinking exacerbates the ecological problems they face.
Can Humankind
Change the
Economic Myth?
Enterprise Strategy
The earth is a significant player in the economic system. It is the ultimate
source of the economic capital that fuels and supplies the system, and it is the
recipient of the waste products of the system. In short, the earth is a significant
organizational stakeholder (Post, 1991; Stead and Stead, 1992). Indeed, its
supranational position in the hierarchy of planetary living systems means that
the earth “should be considered the ultimate stakeholder in business
organizations” (Stead and Stead, 1992, p. 14). Further, as discussed earlier, the
earth is directly represented in the marketplace by other significant
organizational stakeholders – green consumers and investors, legal and
regulatory interests, etc. Thus a management paradigm that effectively
incorporates the earth into the decisions of strategic managers must provide a
framework which includes the earth and its green representatives.
Enterprise strategy has emerged as an important concept for understanding
how organizations relate to their larger environments (Ansoff, 1979; Freeman,
1984). Enterprise strategy focuses on basing organizational strategic decisions
on an analysis of organizational value systems in the light of critical issues and
the needs and expectations of key stakeholders (Freeman, 1984). It provides a
means for organizations to answer the question, “What do we stand for?”
(Freeman and Gilbert, 1988, p. 70) Answering this question provides a clear
understanding of the ethical foundations which should underlie organizational
strategic choices, and it gives important insights into the values which
comprise these ethical foundations (Freeman and Gilbert, 1988).
Thus enterprise strategy provides organizations with a framework for
purposefully integrating the earth into their strategic processes. By assuming
that the earth is an organizational stakeholder of significant import, enterprise
strategy allows organizations to develop purposefully a value system which
encourages them to continuously examine and modify their relationships with
the planet and the stakeholders that represent it. Values such as wholeness,
posterity, smallness, community and quality, which allow organizations to
account effectively for the natural environment, can become a part of the
strategic decisions in business organizations. With such values defining the
basis of what organizations stand for, they can proceed to take actions which
support a synergistic relationship between themselves and their ultimate
stakeholder (Stead and Stead, 1992).
Learning Organizations
Learning organizations are holistic, interconnected structures that can
successfully define their own futures by questioning and changing the
foundation visions, values and assumptions that underlie the way people in
organizations think. In the words of Beckhard and Pritchard (1992), learning
organizations are structured to reach to “the very essence of organizations –
their basic purposes. their identities, and their relationships …” (p. 1) Learning
organizations require vision-driven leadership which focuses on designing,
teaching, and stewarding the organizational vision. Teams are the basic
learning unit in learning organizations; they employ double-loop learning
processes which allow them to engage in continuous, honest dialogue which
questions basic organizational values and assumptions. All of this is done
within a framework of systems thinking which focuses on identifying points
of leverage within circular, archetypical models representing the
interrelationships among key variables (Beckhard and Pritchard, 1992; Senge,
Learning organizations provide a framework for a more intrinsic, spiritual
view of the purpose of organizational life (Harman, 1988, 1991; Ray, 1991;
Senge, 1990). Ray (1991) explains this by saying:
The new paradigm is more than just a move to the powers of technology or the individual
mind. It is a move to the spirit; to inner qualities such as intuition, will, joy, strength and
compassion … (It refers) to the power of inner wisdom and authority and the connection and
wholeness in humanity (p. 37).
Since learning structures are designed to focus continuously the attention of
organizations on the underlying values and assumptions that guide them,
bringing a holistic, spiritual dimension into the psyche of organizations, they
provide ideal structures for integrating ecological awareness and sensitivity
into the organizational cultures. Post and Altman (1992) support this point in
their recent research. They found that successfully institutionalizing ecological
responsibility into corporate strategic processes means implementing learning
structures which create the interconnected networks of policies, programmes,
team structures, and reward systems which support new, ecologically-sensitive
strategic processes.
Thus there seems little doubt that the paradigm shifts necessary for a new
economic myth will require long-term organizational and societal change
efforts. Virtually all of the organizations which comprise the underlying
economic forces of our culture will have consciously to adopt shared
organizational value systems which support ecological sustainability, they will
have to examine and modify what they stand for in the context of serving the
needs of their ultimate stakeholder, and they will have to develop learning
structures which emphasize and perpetuate ecologically-sensitive values and
assumptions, supporting a nurturing, synergistic relationship with the small
planet, earth.
Summary and Conclusions
Myths reflect the paradigms that form the frameworks for the way human
beings think. Currently, the paradigms which underlie the economic myth do
not adequately guide business organizations in their relationships with Mother
Earth. Organizations need a new scientific paradigm which allows them to
understand that they are integral parts of interconnected, holistic, entropic
planetary processes which function at evolutionary morphogenetic rates.
Organizations also need a new, community-based economics paradigm which
allows them to recognize that there is such a thing as enough. Finally,
Can Humankind
Change the
Economic Myth?
organizations need a new management paradigm that allows them to explore
the deepest levels of what they stand for in order to redefine their core values,
strategies and structures to include the carrying capacity of the planet.
Whether or not such paradigm shifts can occur within the organizations that
form the economic subsystem of the planet is far from certain. The change
efforts necessary to accomplish pervasively an ecologically sustainable
economic myth are nothing short of monumental – requiring system-wide,
fundamental changes in the way organizations perceive their relationships to
the natural environment. Thus we end where we began: by asking the question,
“Can humankind change the economic myth?”
Ansoff, H.I. (1979), “The Changing Shape of the Strategic Problem”, in Schendel, D. and Hofer, C.
(Eds), Strategic Management: A New View of Business Policy and Planning, Little Brown,
Boston, pp. 30-44.
Ayres, R.U. (1989), “Industrial Metabolism”, in Ausubel, J. H. and Sladovich, H. E. (Eds),
Technology and Environment, National Academy Press, Washington DC, pp. 23-49.
Beckhard, R. and Pritchard, W. (1992), Changing the Essence, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.
Berry, T. (1988), The Dream of the Earth, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, CA.
Brown, J. (1991), “Corporations as Community: A New Image for a New Era”, in Renesch, J. (Ed.),
New Traditions in Business, Sterling and Stone Inc., San Francisco, CA, pp. 131-47.
Boulding, K.E. (1956), “General Systems Theory: The Skeleton of Science”, Management Science,
Vol. 2 No. 3, pp. 197-208.
Boulding, K.E. (1966), “The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth”, Environmental Quality
in a Growing Economy, Johns-Hopkins Press, Baltimore, MD.
Campbell, J. with Moyers, B. (1988), The Power of Myth, Doubleday, New York, NY.
Capra, F. (1983), The Turning Point, Bantam Books, New York, NY.
Daly, H.E. (1977), Steady-state Economics,W.H. Freeman, San Francisco, CA.
Daly, H.E. (1991), Steady-state Economics, 2nd ed., Island Press, Washington DC.
Daly, H.E. and Cobb, J.B. Jr (1989), For the Common Good, Beacon Press, Boston, MA.
Ehrlich, P.R., Ehrlich, A.H. and Holdren, J.P. (1977), Ecoscience,W. H. Freeman, San Francisco, CA.
Etzioni, A. (1988), The Moral Dimension: Toward a New Economics, The Free Press, New York,
Etzioni, A. (1991), “What Community, What Responsiveness?”, The Responsive Community, Vol.
2 No. 1, pp. 5-8.
Etzioni, A. (1993), The Spirit of Community: Rights, Responsibilities and the Communitarian
Agenda, Crown Publishers, New York, NY.
Finney, M. and Mitroff, I. (1986), “Strategic Plan Failures: The Organization as Its Own Worst
Enemy”, in Sims. H. and Gioia, D. (Eds), The Thinking Organization, Jossey-Bass, San
Francisco, CA, pp. 317-35.
Freeman, R.E. (1984), Strategic Management: A Stakeholder Approach, Pitman, Boston, MA.
Freeman, R.E. and Gilbert, D. R. Jr (1988), Corporate Strategy and the Search for Ethics, Prentice-
Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
Frosch, R.A. (1992), “Industrial Ecology: A Philosophical Introduction”, Proceedings of the
National Academy of Science, Vol. 89, pp. 800-03.
Frosch, R.A. and Gallopoulos, N.E. (1989), “Strategies for Manufacturing”, Scientific American,
September, pp. 144-52.
Georgescu-Roegen, N. (1971), The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, Harvard University
Press, Cambridge, MA.
Harman, W. (1988), Global Mind Change: The Promises of the Last Years of the Twentieth
Century, Knowledge Systems Inc., Indianapolis, IN.
Harman, W. (1991), “21st Century Business: A Background for Dialogue”, in Renesch, J. (Ed.), New
Traditions in Business, Sterling and Stone Inc., San Francisco, CA, pp. 19-30.
Hawken, P. (1993), “A Declaration of Sustainability”, Utne Reader, September/October, pp. 54-61.
Henderson, H. (1991), Paradigms in Progress: Life beyond Economics, Knowledge Systems Inc.,
Indianapolis, IN.
Joseph, L.E. (1990), Gaia: The Growth of an Idea, St Martin’s Press, New York, NY.
Kirchner, J.W. (1991), “The Gaia Hypotheses: Are They Testable? Are They Useful?” in Schneider,
S. H. and Boston, P. J. (Eds), Scientists on Gaia, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, pp. 38-46.
Kuhn, T. (1962), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
Lovelock, J. (1979), Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, Oxford University Press, London.
Lovelock, J. (1988), The Ages of Gaia, Bantam Books, New York, NY.
Lovelock, J. (1991), “Geophysiology – The Science of Gaia”, in Schneider, S.H. and Boston, P.J.
(Eds), Scientists on Gaia, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, pp. 3-10.
Margulis, L. and Hinkle, G. (1991), “The Biota and Gaia: 150 Years of Support for Environmental
Sciences”, in Schneider, S.H. and Boston, P.J. (Eds), Scientists on Gaia, The MIT Press,
Cambridge, MA, pp. 11-18.
Mumford, L. (1956), The Transformation of Man, Harper Brothers, New York, NY.
Ornstein R. and Ehrlich, P. (1990), New World, New Mind, Touchstone, New York.
Post, J.E. (1991), “Managing as if the Earth Mattered”, Business Horizons, July/August, pp. 32-8.
Post, J.E. and Altman, B.W. (1992), “Models for Corporate Greening: How Corporate Social Policy
and Organizational Learning Inform Leading-edge Environmental Management”, in Post, J.
(Ed.), Research in Corporate Social Policy and Performance, Vol. 13, JAI Press, Greenwich, CT,
pp. 3-29.
Ray, M.L. (1991), “The Emerging New Paradigm in Business”, in Renesch, J. (Ed.), New Traditions
in Business, Sterling and Stone Inc., San Francisco, CA, pp. 33-45.
Schumacher, E.F. (1973), Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, Harper & Row, New
York, NY.
Schumacher, E.F. (1977), A Guide for the Perplexed, Harper & Row, New York, NY.
Schwenk, C.R. (1988), The Essence of Strategic Decision Making, Lexington Books, Lexington
Senge, P.M. (1990), The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization,
Doubleday/Currency, New York, NY.
Sharfman, M. and Ellington, R.T. (1993), “Managing for Total Environmental Quality:
Antecedents and Organizational Implications”, paper presented at the meeting of the National
Academy of Management, 4 August, Atlanta, GA.
Sheldrake, R. (1991), The Greening of Science and God, Bantam Books, New York, NY.
Shrivastava, P. (1992), “Corporate Self-greenewal: Strategic Responses to Environmentalism”,
Business Strategy and the Environment, Vol. 1 No. 3, pp. 9-21.
Can Humankind
Change the
Economic Myth?
Stead, J.G. and Stead, W.E. (1993), “Implementing Sustainability Strategies: A Matter of Values”,
paper presented to the meeting of the Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics, 28
March, New York, NY.
Stead, W.E. and Stead, J.G. (1992), Management for a Small Planet: Strategic Decision Making
and the Environment, Sage Publications Inc., Newbury Park, CA.
Stead, W.E., Stead, J.G. and Zimmerer, T.W. (forthcoming), “An Empirical Investigation of
Sustainability Strategy Implementation in Industrial Organizations”, in Collins, D. and Starik,
M. (Eds), Sustaining the Natural Environment: Empirical Studies on the Interface between
Nature and Organizations, JAI Press, Greenwich, CT.
Van Gigch, J.P. (1978), Applied General System Theory, Harper & Row, New York, NY.
Weick, K. and Bougon, M. (1986), “Organizations as Cognitive Maps”, in Sims, H. and Gioia, D.
(Eds), The Thinking Organization, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA, pp. 102-33.
Wheatley, M.J. (1992), Leadership and the New Science: Learning about Organization from an
Orderly Universe, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, CA.