Have We Become 'Nothing More Than Homogeneous Globules of Desire'?

Published: Jul 12, 2011

Topics: CSR       

Should there be a limit to the amount of money that an individual can earn in today’s society?

“Hard work should define earning potential.”
“No, we do need limits. Just like in big companies, how much the top layer makes is usually capped in relationship to how much the lowest-paid employee makes.”
“I’m reminded of greed, the last three years and Wall Street. From that perspective, yes there must be a limit.”
“If you’re not asking us what we do with the money, then yes, purely based on the statement above, there should be no limit on how much money we can make.”

All those people who think of “green” or “sustainability” professionals as warm, fuzzy, tree-hugging hippies, here’s a reality check: They believe in the power of the capitalist market as much as you do. They want to make money, even profits, yes.

These responses were from a class of roughly 30 attendees -- ranging from senior sustainability professionals, consultants, entrepreneurs, campus faculty, several MBA students, and yours truly -- who had gathered for a workshop on sustainability. And when social impact, responsibility and philanthropy come into the picture, was the general consensus, these answers begin to change.

The week-long workshop: University of Vermont’s Professional Certificate in Sustainable Business Practices: Practices in Support of People, Profit and Principles.

The aim: To define sustainability, understand the meaning of sustainable business practices, and learn from Vermont entrepreneurs and leaders (think Seventh Generation, Ben & Jerry’s, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters) on how to embed business processes with these practices.

On Day 1 in Burlington, considered by many the heart of green business, Professor of Ecological Economics at the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont Jon Erickson had clearly touched a nerve.

And these attendees, while representing a diverse spectrum of backgrounds, have all either seen the consequences of environmental ruin firsthand, are working to solve

Income Inequality, Social Justice & Sustainability

But for him, this question wasn’t about income equality or personal dignity but about sustainability -- and sustainable business practices.

In an invigorating three hours, Erickson took the class on a journey through neuro-economics (role of economics and morality), behavioral economics (cognitive decision making), and experimental economics (consequences, strategic behavior, etc.).

How does the question relate to sustainability, he asked? Because sustainability cannot be an achievable goal in a global economy without accounting for income inequality and the impact our decisions have on the rest of the world.

“Every time I think of sustainability, I think ‘Do we care about the future?’ he asked. “Do we care about each other? Do we care about what of other people think of us? Or are we just homogeneous globules of desire?” he continued.

“How can we even begin to talk about sustaining our planet without questioning our choices, our priorities, and how we react to economic and ecological dynamics?”

And these questions require understanding human psychology and how we react to different stimuli, especially when our morality is questioned.

Moral vs. Economic Logic

For decades, economists have theorized and predicted market movements based on numerical logic. But this is changing, he said. When faced with dilemmas that challenge our morality while making perfect economic sense, what do most people pick?

For example, picture this: There are four workers that will most certainly get killed by a train (trolley) because they are doing track work and don’t hear the train coming. But you have the ability to turn a lever that would change the train’s track to an alternate route.

Here’s the catch: By using the lever, the train would detour to a track that has one man worker repairing the track, who will most certainly die from the collision.

The question: Will you pull the lever and save four lives?

Let’s say your morality kicks in and you say yes like the majority of the class did.

Now consider this: Instead of a lever that can change the train’s track, there is a horizontal bridge above the tracks where a man is standing. He is so fat that his impact with the train will most definitely stop it from reaching the four workers.

The catch: You have to push the fat man in front of the train.

Will you push him and save four lives?

Do you go with morality or economic logic?

Next: Seventh Generation’s Director for Corporate Consciousness answers some tough questions, including, where does the beacon of sustainability continue to struggle?