Monday, June 09, 2008

You say tomato, I say Economicology

I’m on my way home from the 2008 ACUPCC Climate Leadership Summit in Grand Rapids, MI. It was a great success with about 150-200 people in attendance – mostly college and university presidents or their senior-level representatives, plus some sponsors, staff and colleagues. Ray Anderson was the keynote – his speech was great, as usual. The video of him talking is available here: . We also heard a good talk from Mayor Cownie, of Des Moines, who has been a driving force behind the Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement, and called on mayors and ACUPCC presidents to work together to meet their respective climate commitments – something I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about.

The event was generously hosted by the Wege Foundation, started by Peter Wege, who used to run the family business – Steelcase, Inc. – a big office furniture company based in Grand Rapids. I got a copy of Wege’s book, Economicology: The Eleventh Commandment, which I just read on the trip home (clearly, it’s a quick read). The book runs through highlights and quotes from Wege’s favorite thinkers, and in the process draws out his concept of Economicology. In many ways, it’s essentially another way of saying ‘sustainability’ – with the focus, as the word suggests, on the potential for a mutually beneficial marriage of economics and ecology, instead of the common view that the benefit of the two are necessarily mutually exclusive. That is the trade-off mentality that is so deeply ingrained into our thinking – in many ways from birth and through the media – but in particular in economic classes in higher ed.

The book pulls from many great sources – some of which I was familiar with, some I wasn’t – and hits all the big topics – consumption, over-population, non-renewable resources, GDP vs. well-being, quantum physics, systems thinking, etc. A main tenant of Economicology is the 6 “E’s” – Economics, Environment, Ecology, Ethics, Empathy, and Education – all of which are inseparable and vitally important. Again, this is less a departure from sustainability as it is looking at it from a different angle in a different light. While in some ways it doesn’t have the cohesion or rigor of some other frameworks or approaches, that’s not really its intent – the intent is to bring those concepts to everyone (particularly those in business) in plain language, and in that I think it does a brilliant job.

Given that the Summit, and much of our work of late, focused on higher education, it is particularly heartening to see that element come through in the book. Two of the big themes in sustainability with regard to higher ed, are 1) the need for structural shifts to allow for more collaboration and work across the disciplines and 2) the need for an explicit articulation of sustainability – creating a healthy, just, thriving, sustainable society – as the goal for higher education. Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University, and chair of the ACUPCC, addressed the second point brilliantly in his closing remarks at the summit, saying something to the affect that we can’t just keep trying to do good science with ever-greater specialization, and hope that the outcomes are useful or commercially viable.

The mandate of the higher ed sector is to fulfill education, research, and public service missions to create a thriving civil society. What is a thriving civil society other than one in which we meet our needs today without sacrificing the ability of future generations to meet their needs. We so often lose sight of the most fundamental aspect of our activities – to what end they serve. The Sustainability Principles provide that definition of success on the principle level, and in combination with an understanding of basic Human Needs, enable us to make decisions and design cities, buildings, processes, goods, and services in ways that meet needs today and tomorrow.

Wege quotes H.G. Wells, writing on the heels of the Depression in 1939, who said with regard to the importance of an expanded world vision for the future: “and since the existing educational organizations of the world do not provide anything like that vision, nor establish the necessary conceptions of right conduct that arise from it, it (the world vision) needs to be rebuilt even more than the political framework needs to be rebuilt.”

Later, Wege notes that “We have to pull together the world’s intelligence to solve the tremendous challenges we face. Technology alone cannot solve them. Religion in itself cannot, nor can government. Our best hopes are to work through the world’s universities to link industry and technology in a union I’ve called Economicology.”

Call it what you like, it’s great stuff, and the kind of thinking we need more of – particularly from people of influence. It’s tremendously reassuring to come across another great leader in this regard. Stay going.