Ability to Create Sustainable, Economically Viable Outcomes Stems from Humility
Several things happened this past week that caused me to spend a great deal of time thinking about the importance of humility.
First, Maya Angelou, a powerful and insistent voice for justice, education and equality passed away, leaving a legacy of work that influenced several generations and will, I hope, continue to inspire many future generations.
Second, the 250 people who among them manage roughly one-third of the world’s total investable wealth (yes, there are just 250 of them managing about $30 trillion worth of assets) met in London on May 27 for the first ever conference on “Inclusive Capitalism.” The goal was to discuss practical ways to “renew the capitalist system” — a recognition that capitalism as we know it today is under siege and Darwinian principles apply. Survival means adaptation.
Finally, on the other side of the Atlantic, and representing a lot less wealth, I was invited to participate in a conversation on sustainable urbanization organized by the United Nations Economic and Social Council. The objective of this session was to bring together representatives from national government, local authority, civil society, academia and business to discuss how to successfully integrate economic, social and environmental goals into a strategy for successful, sustainable urbanization. My role was to represent the 45,000+ members of AECOM and our private sector colleagues on what and how we could help transform urbanization processes into partnerships that create healthier, more just, more sustainable and more economically viable outcomes.
The thread that ties these three events together is the pressing need for humility. Maya Angelou states it far more eloquently than I ever could,
“Humility comes from inside out. It says someone was here before me and I’m here because I’ve been paid for. I have something to do and I will do that because I’m paying for someone else who has yet to come.”
In the case of the capitalist meeting in London, it is the failure to be humble, the single-minded focus on generating economic benefit, that has led to a situation where business is viewed, in the words of Lynn Forester de Rothschild who organized the conference, “as one of society’s problems.” Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, gave the keynote address at the conference and cautioned that rebuilding trust in the world’s financial systems will not be possible unless economic growth is more inclusive, providing for the needs of many rather than just a few.
As I have discussed here before, it is this unwavering focus on financial capital that has blinkered us to the importance of the three other types of capital upon which success is founded.
Social capital is the result of creating healthy, equitable civil environments that engage every citizen in societal life and offer each individual the opportunity to be successful on his or her own terms. It is only by creating such environments that we allow the possibility to build human relationships, networks and the trust that allows business to succeed. Without strong social capital, governance is not possible and without governance, security is impossible.
Natural capital (our global commons) encompasses all of the Earth’s natural resources and the ecosystems that sustain life: air, water, earth and energy in the form of the sun. There is not a business operating on the planet that does not rely on taking these natural resources and converting them to some other purpose in order to generate profit. There is not a life on this planet that does not depend upon clean air, clean water, an uncontaminated Earth and clean energy for survival. The Earth will continue with or without us — our lives and livelihoods depend upon responsible stewardship of our finite natural capital.
In stark contrast, the only natural resource that actually improves through use rather than being diminished is human capital. The inventiveness, intellectual ingenuity and diversity of our species are unique to Homo sapiens as far as we know. When the human mind is given the space to be curious and the opportunity to explore, great things become possible. This does not happen when the mind is occupied with feeding and sheltering the human body, scraping a subsistence living from day to day.
This brings me to the third group I mentioned, the United Nations Economic and Social Council. The discussion revolved around the question of how the government and private sectors could work together to increase disaster resilience and optimize conditions for human development. The disconnect here, and the consequent need for humility, was that the public sector believes the private sector has a moral obligation to solve these sorts of problems. In my role as private sector interlocutor, I ventured to point out that nothing could ever be achieved from this moral viewpoint. Business is in business to benefit business. Business also holds all the wealth. In reality, without the wealth being generated by the private sector, the meeting that brought all of us together that day to ponder such problems would not even have been possible. Private sector taxation is the source of government funding. Clinging to the perception that the private sector is a bunch of robber barons and mistrusting private capital will prevent the government sector from making any progress at all.
The question is not one of moral obligation, but rather of self-interest. Government can engage in meaningful conversation with the private sector if instead it asks, “What is in the interests of the private sector in helping society be more successful?” Then rather than moral obligation, the question becomes one of degree. Is the private sector keeping too much of the wealth from the use of natural resources for which it paid nothing? Does the health burden of contaminated resources outweigh the cost of responsible resource management? What are the financial consequences of resource depletion or unpredictable availability to business operations? Are we investing enough in educating individuals to develop the technical and entrepreneurial capacity necessary for the private sector to be successful into the future? When education is only accessible to those who have the ability to pay for it, the wealth continues to flow disproportionately to the already wealthy. In reality, human intelligence is distributed in a bell shaped curve across the human race. The money should be flowing to the middle of the curve where there is a huge amount of potential but no money.
None of these questions are “either or.” They are all “both and” questions. Matters of degree. The private sector has a role to play in ensuring that resources and the human potential necessary to keep the private sector functioning are protected and improved. If you don’t care about the poor, education, resource degradation or the impacts of climate variability then the notion of future prosperity is nothing short of ridiculous.
We don’t have the answers. The best answer possible today may be very different from the best answer possible tomorrow. The only attitude that makes sense here is one of doubt. But, we still have to make progress. Humility is the quality that will allow us to start down a path but recognize if it’s a mistake and find the courage to change paths.
Gary Lawrence is chief sustainability officer and vice president of AECOM Technology Corp. You can follow Gary on Twitter @CSO_AECOM.
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