Can you change this story and culture?

Our global, economic, science-based culture and our societal and organizational cultures can help or hinder us to transition to a future where all can thrive. In my last post, we looked at the ABCDE layers of culture. Let’s explore level A today. What’s the narrative of our current culture that caused our global ecological, social, and governance issues?

Today, let’s look at the ecological, social, and governance challenges that we face. Let’s look at the narrative that got us here and what a new story and culture might look like. This post addresses layer A: We Are – Identity and narrative. And some level B – Beliefs and assumptions.

In this series, I explore several aspects of culture and what is needed to face our current ecological, social, and governance challenges and to become future-fit. My main focus is organizational culture, but also our global and societal culture that influences organizations and vice versa. Organizations can play a crucial role to bring about change when they make their products, services, and actions sustainable and just. But their culture has an even deeper effect. Organizations can be great spaces where people learn crucial new ways of thinking and doing, and where they find support and meaning. People take their culture home and to their communities and spread it. Organizations can help people learn and adapt as the world faces several transitions.

A future-fit culture provides the glue, the speed and trust, the shared identity, the narrative, the purpose, the core values and priorities, the key behaviors, and the openness to learn new skills needed in the VUCA-world, that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.

Last year, I followed several courses about sustainability, social justice, diversity, and so on. The IPCC also issued alarming reports on climate change. The news covered me-too issues, racism, and discrimination, but also increasing global inequality and suffering in the global south.
I knew our world was in bad shape, but I was alarmed when I learned the precise details in these courses.

Addressing these issues should be part of a positive organization’s culture. A positive purpose is one of the elements of a positive culture – and ESG issues should be solved or at least alleviated. We’ll get to that in another post. For now, I want to give an overview of the global challenges and the narrative and culture that caused this situation.

The current environmental, social, governance, and spiritual crises that humanity faces are global and urgent. This quick overview of challenges is based on the 2-hour online video course by the Pachamama organization, an excellent resource if you don’t have time to read books or do extensive courses.

Ecological issues

The ecological challenges are piling up. The industrial system achieved great things for most people for a long time; more food, less death by violence, medical treatments, comfort, and transport. But it’s not sustainable and it’s destroying the ecosystem on which we rely.

World overshoot day happens earlier every year. It’s the day when a country has used up the natural resources or caused pollution that the earth can restore in one year. Most of us are living on our planetary credit cards.

With the current lifestyle, the USA needs 5 planets, Europe uses 3 planets, China 2, and India will join with 2 planets soon.

Our lifestyle is wreaking havoc, with soils eroding, increasing deserts, rising water levels, plastics and man-made toxic molecules everywhere, more heavy storms, and more global warming – causing non-linear (thus: unpredictable and accelerating, sometimes exponential) change.

The biggest threats are global warming and climate change, largely caused by burning fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. In the pre-industrial era, the atmosphere held 270 ppm (parts per million) of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. The current number is 420 ppm. That’s an enormous increase over the last 200 years…

Right now, 80% of the world’s original forests are eliminated, 30% of the arable land was lost in the last 40 years, we count more than 400 oceanic dead zones worldwide and 90% of large fish are gone from the oceans. We have had a devastating impact on other species – there are 90% fewer lions in the past 100 years. It’s never happened on this scale before, this is the 6th mass extinction.

No civilization has ever survived the collapse of its natural support system and nor will we. For those who think that this information has no place in business or organizational culture – please think again. There’s no business on a dead planet. Global warming will disrupt your market, too. Global warming isn’t just another issue. It threatens life as we know it.

Social and governance issues

What’s the social issue? Social justice is the equal opportunity to live lives free of oppression, discrimination, and injustice. It also entails the feeling that our lives have meaning. Sadly, social justice is still far away. You can read more on ESG and a positive organizational purpose here.

The rich are growing richer, with an increase during the pandemic. 1% of the population owns half of the wealth in the world, with half of the population living on less than 2,50 USD a day. This increasing inequality erodes the fairness and cohesion of societies and the world order.

Inequality weakens democracy, as people with money will use that to influence systems to their advantage. Our current systems reinforce injustice, also environmental injustice. Here’s a governance issue that needs attention.

Gender oppression and racism dehumanize all of us and it makes our society and culture less safe. If you feel this is exaggerated, ask yourself if you want to trade places with a young black man in the USA or with a girl in Afghanistan.
Our privilege is the right not to know – “it’s not me and I’m already so busy”. But it will affect you and yours too, at some point.

Mental and spiritual issues

At the same time, many people in our societies feel lonely. Working hard, always busy and tired. Even though we have more comfort, communication technology, and entertainment than ever before – are we happier? Studies show that we were happiest in the 1950s…
We, individualistic consumers and professionals, yearn for connection. Many people in modern societies suffer from addiction, depression, and anxiety.

As eco-sopher and Buddhist Joanna Macy states: pain is useful, it’s a normal reaction to our current global state. To feel pain (or resistance, irritation, anger, sadness, hopelessness, etc) comes from love, our love for this world.

If you want to get past this pain, retrieve hope, and take action, please see my article on Macy’s Active Hope process.

How did we get here?

The culture got us here, it is level A: We Are – Identity and narrative. And some level B – Beliefs and assumptions. (See my earlier post)

Since the enlightenment and the scientific revolution, Western thinking perpetuates the separation between humans and the natural world. Man is separate, humankind is supposed to rule the planet and use it as we see fit. It’s our planet.

You can read more about the story of separation here, as explained by Charles Eisenstein

Eisenstein says: Humanity was destined to create a perfect world through science, reason, and technology; to conquer nature, transcend our animal origins, and engineer a rational society. The story brought great material wealth to the industrialized world. (…) We once thought economics would fix poverty, political scientists would fix social injustice, chemists and biologists would fix environmental problems, and the power of reason would prevail.

Some assumptions in this worldview are:

The Earth’s resources are there for us to use as we see fit
The natural world is there to satisfy our desires
We have to compete as there’s scarcity
The price we pay for something reflects the full cost of making it
Everyone can make it if they just work hard enough
Racism is personal, not institutionalized
We have “throwaway” resources, species, and people
There is some place called “away” – see the plastics and toxic pollution

What if we adopted the opposite assumptions and acted on them? 

The Earth’s resources are there for us to steward
The natural world is there for all species and is our habitat
We have to collaborate to find sufficiency, sometimes abundance
The price we pay for something reflects the full cost, so we buy less, repair, lend, and recycle
We all do our best, but we’re interdependent in world society – there’s a collective responsibility for mutual success
Racism is institutionalized as we were taught to rank people – let’s unlearn that
Single-use, disposable resources, species, and people do not exist – that’s unacceptable. All resources, species, and people are unique.
There is no place called “away” – all the plastics and toxic pollution are still on earth

Questioning the assumptions and the culture helps to wake up from this habitual way of doing things on autopilot. Taking the above assumptions to the heart leads us to the beginning of a new story.

A new story, identity, and culture

So, what would a new story entail? Eisenstein observes an emerging story of Interbeing. “We also have the desire to serve something transcending the separate self. We are interbeings – longing to belong to the whole.”
Based on the latest science, he states: We are connected on a quantum level, which goes beyond “mechanistic” interdependency. What we do unto another, we do to ourselves. Every act is significant and affects the cosmos. No matter how small – the quantum particle influences the universe.

For example, can the climate activist underpay his janitor and neglect his children? It doesn’t matter in the story of separation – but it does when interconnectedness applies. Small things matter just as much as large things, from a quantum, systemic, non-linear perspective.
This aligns with systems theory that shows that complex systems can change suddenly (non-linear, unexpected change) when a tipping point is reached. This means that every act and every individual counts. You can be the person that tips the balance. It matters, it is meaningful. (This goes for improving organizational culture as well – you can make a difference with every interaction).

The Pachamama organization refers to spiritual traditions and quotes Thich Nhat Han: “To Inter-be is a verb.” You need other beings to be – not just your ancestors, but also other people, plants, earth, animals, micro-organisms, and the stars (the molecules of our bodies). Many indigenous people say: The land is your body.
Science agrees: all space and time and things were a singular point, 4.5 billion years ago. We are all one, from the same source. We weren’t placed on this planet, we emerged from the earth.

In a new story, humans are no longer conquerors and rulers, above all other species. We are together and equal, with different roles. We inter-be. Humans take care of the planet and each other. Organizations exist for the common good and enact a positive purpose. We all do meaningful work and all lives matter.

What is possible now?

Once we adopt and enact the new story, we will make other decisions and take other actions. Though the global, mainstream culture is still based on the story of separation with its competition, force, scarcity, money, and materialism, and aiming for quantitative growth – there’s another movement happening. As the author Paul Hawken says in his book Drawdown: “This movement flies under the radar, is grass-roots. This is the part of humanity that starts to heal economic, political, and environmental disease.”

The new story and culture are based on interbeing – with collaboration, engagement, sufficiency and sharing, support, and counting your blessings. It aims for qualitative growth or personal and collective wisdom.

It’s embodied by B-corporations that don’t maximize short-term profits and do their best for the world. We also see that awareness and activism are on the rise, on topics like equality, democracy, ending the use of fossil fuels, eating no or less meat, and so on. So much is already happening.
Hawken says: We know what to do. We need 200 billion USD to stabilize the population, eradicate poverty and restore natural support systems. That is a third of the US military budget of 598 USD and an eighth of the global military budget of 1600 billion USD.
What will we do?

  • Imagine that you and your organization work in a world with a story and culture based on interbeing. We are together and equal, with different roles. We inter-be. Humans take care of the planet and each other. Organizations exist for the common good and enact a positive purpose. We all do meaningful work and all lives matter.
    Allow yourself to dream. What do you see yourself and/or your organization doing?
  • Which field matters most to you now: environmental, social, governance, mental/spiritual?
  • What is your commitment? What will be your role in contributing to an environmentally sustainable, socially just, spiritually fulfilling human presence on this planet?
  • Ask yourself: in a culture based on interbeing what would I and what would the organization do? If your answer differs from your current actions in reality – what can you adjust? It’s okay to start with small steps – what matters is that we do something different.

Can you change the current story and culture? Yes, you can. One interaction at a time, one action at a time. Try something different. 

Ask that powerful question: What if….?

© Marcella Bremer, 2023

The time for a positive transition is now. This decade until 2030 determines the future. Let’s help people and organizations become future-fit.

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