Wisdom and a return to values in the attainment of sustainability

Dr.L.Graham Smith

University of Western Ontario, Canada

Paper presented at the International Sustainable Development Research Conference
University of Leeds, UK, 25-26 March 1999


We all need to grow. To grow we must choose to change. We resist change because of arrogance, ignorance, laziness and/or apathy. How we change collectively, is a function of our collective consciousness, which in turn is a reflection of our individual consciousness. Thus, for us to change collectively, we must first choose to change individually. The nature, extent and pace of that change is largely a function of our own individual path towards wisdom.

This paper is in agreement with calls for knowledge that is grounded in moral and ethical values in the facilitation of change. It differs in its understanding of what values represent wisdom in achieving sustainability. It presents a challenge to many "accepted" norms that are both implicit and explicit in the sustainable development literature, arguing that these propositions are in opposition to the true wisdom needed for sustainable change. Rejecting the mainstream pillars of postmodernism, socialism and equity in outcomes, this paper builds upon the pillars of spirituality, free enterprise and equity in opportunity to develop a vision of compassionate capitalism as an emancipatory praxis to achieve freedom, justice and sustainability.


Change is inevitable: only growth is an option. This aphorism accurately conveys the dilemma facing both individuals and societies at the onset of a new millennium. Lately, it appears as if both the scale and pace of change have been increasing. Individually and collectively, people have found this change to be problematical. For many there is a profound sense of unease stemming from a lack of control, an absence of suitable guidelines and an apparent erosion of stability. Widespread fear of the unknown and the undiscovered has become the lifeblood of populist culture. Almost imperceptibly, the future has been transformed into society's biggest nightmare. Rather than embrace the future with optimism, hope and ambition, most now have acquiesced to an overwhelming barrage of bad news and pessimism about the future.

This division of perspective has been excellently characterized by Postrel (1998) as the difference between stasis and dynamism. Stasis implies a regulated, controlled balance that originates with a command and control, technocratic approach to governance and the desire to implement a prescribed, reactionary sense of stability. In contrast, dynamism reflects a belief in the possible, in constant creativity, fluidity and a balance that is characterized by a freely-evolving equilibrium. Primary criteria under dynamism are resiliency and adaptability.

Stasis and dynamism define contrasting belief systems that differentiate widely different paths regarding the determination of wisdom in the attainment of sustainability. The debate surrounding sustainability has very little dissension in its identification of the problem (a global crisis induced by continued human mismanagement) or in the goals of its resolution (a globally sustained balance between environment, economy and society). However, stasis and dynamism offer radically different definitions of (a) the need for change, (b) the nature of that change, and (c) the barriers/constraints to change. Even at its best (e.g. Welford, 1998), stasist social criticism presents a critique that censures on the presumption that the failure to realize a sustainable, equitable outcome is the fundamental failing of the defined crisis. In contrast, a dynamist perspective focusses on the development of new options based on the application of value-based questions that emphasize equity in opportunity. As Patten (1998, 245) noted the 'pursuit of equality of outcome -- as opposed to equality of esteem, of opportunity, and so far as possible, of access -- is a doomed and impoverishing business'.

Stasists envision sustainability as a prescribed, stable balance. Dynamists recognize sustainability as an adaptive, evolving equilibrium. These differences reflect that fact that wisdom as it is used in the attainment of sustainability is defined, developed and differentiated according to what one believes. In a globalized, capitalist society, wisdom is paramount to the effective determination of a sustainable future since 'adopting the hardware of capitalism is the easy part because there's no credible alternative. Its getting the software that's the hard part' (Patten, 1998, 249). Consistent with the view developed by Williamson (1997), it is the contention of this paper that central to the various different dimensions and perspectives on sustainability and globalization are basic differences in the two primary filters of a person's belief system: their sense of spirituality and their political ideology. Moreover, in contrast to the prevailing stasist prescriptions for sustainability, the paper outlines a dynamist perspective on the attainment of sustainable development.

Sustainability, political correctness and intellectual paralysis: academic incrementalism and the adumbration of wisdom by censure.

In the area of sustainability, the purveyors of majority thought have promulgated the implicit assumptions of the dominant model and the postmodernist critique that:

These beliefs persist despite (and, in many cases, in spite of) scientific evidence and data that show them to be false propositions. The basis of their longevity is a tacit acknowledgement of limits to growth and the inherent finiteness of the planet's resources. Only when this assumption is challenged (e.g. Simon, 1996) is the true myopia of many beliefs revealed.

In general, the dominant system is so enamoured with censure that the lust to lay blame obscures true understanding (Williamson, 1997). In the guise of intellectual and political correctness, those who dare challenge the majority thought (such as Simon) often are dismissed with more vehemence than veracity. Rather than examine challenges to mainstream thinking as indicators of new understanding, we modify the status quo to "explain" any discrepancies and academic incrementalism succeeds again in adumbrating wisdom with intellectual paralysis.

From the perspective of sustainability the fundamental flaw in the assumption of limits is that finiteness has not been proven. Indeed, what is evident is that substitutability of resources is increasing and becoming cheaper. Together, decreasing prices and increasing substitutability are counter-indicative of a finite system. This fact requires that short-term, management problems of supply and distribution be differentiated from the issues and principles of long-term progress and growth (Pilzer, 1995).

Scarcity thinking is responsible for widespread and ill-founded guilt. If life is based on scarcity, then prosperity is "wrong" because someone has to "lose" for another to "win". This line of thinking promotes competition, the abuse of power and the concept of over-consumption. Behind this belief is the notion that all resources should somehow be distributed evenly. Because they are not, it is concluded that there is scarcity. Such finiteness is an illusion that is removed when the issues are redefined as problems of supply and distribution solvable by a conscious determination to share wealth and power. Moreover, the advent of a globalized market in information is preemptive to any continued procrastination in that determination.

Equity (particularly inter-generational equity) is inherent to the very notion of sustainability. And it is precisely because sustainability is inherently concerned with long-term progress and growth, that the concept of sustainable development is not an oxymoron. There can be no development without sustainability, no sustainability without development. Far from being an oxymoron, the two terms are more wisely conceived as synonyms.

Similarly, to suggest that environment and economy are a dichotomy is a failure to assess either term within a societal context. Sustainability is inherently defined as a long-term balance between society, economy and environment (Smith, 1993). It is important to remember that both environment and economy exist only in relation to society, as they are both societal constructs. The majority of the extant literature on sustainability largely ignores societal context and, thus, acknowledges a false dichotomy between the remaining two constructs, economy and environment. What exacerbates this mistake is that it leaves analysts in an untenable position to then address the global realities affecting today's society.

Most people have no problem seeing the environment as being global, but they are overwhelmed by the complexity and magnitude of environmental science on a global scale. Most can acknowledge and accept the existence of increasing global economics, but do not understand the dynamics of globalization sufficiently to have any sense of "control" over the rapid changes it engenders. However, people have been totally unable to conceive of a global village, because social values have not been a focus nor often a component of our debate around sustainability. In short, the problems are globalized: we are not!

To move forward, a new paradigm for sustainability is needed that places social values first. Social values supply the context within which effective environmental strategies can be used as guidelines for the implementation of micro-economic solutions. Under this paradigm, sustainable development is implemented at local and regional levels within the larger global network of societal values. Moreover, sustainability itself is understood to be a dynamic process of social transformation based on the continuous development and use of wisdom.


Dalla Costa (1995,3) provides an excellent definition of wisdom as a 'combination of knowledge and experience' involving an equilibrium 'derived from a strong, pervasive moral conviction'. He then outlines four coincidental imperatives for wisdom as being (a) the paralysing effect of paradox, (b) the disappearance of boundaries, (c) information overload and, (d) a sense of powerlessness and despair. All four of these imperatives are readily apparent in the debate concerning sustainability. Moreover, by emphasizing the fundamental morality of wisdom, Dalla Costa (1995) underscores the need to address political ideology and spiritual beliefs as they directly affect how people view the role of technology, environmental governance, cultural change and societal organization regarding the achievement of sustainability.

Three dominant systems of knowing exist: science, psychology and religion (Barrett, 1995). What these three systems lack is the common ground to build a unifying belief system. Reality has been reduced into fragmented components wherein the experiences of the body are explained by science, the mind by psychology and the soul by religion. Reductionism has become so accepted that most people have abdicated the responsibility for individual awareness in favour of the judgement of relevant experts. The absence of any common dialogue has promoted a sense of separateness that has obscured the fundamental fact that reality is consciousness (Barrett, 1995, 27).

All belief is a function of consciousness. Individual and collective change is thus based on a series of propositions (Barrett, 1995; Dalla Costa, 1995, 1998; Dyer, 1997; Walsch, 1995, 1997, 1998) :

Changing our individual and collective consciousness requires reconfiguring our dominant belief systems.

Applying a 'Be Do Have' paradigm for change (see Walsch, 1995, 1998) to the concept of sustainability helps define the shift in consciousness required for a social transformation in beliefs. Under the conventional model people believe they must have the right job to give them the time, money and security to allow them to do the things (buy a home, a new car, take vacations) that will allow them to be content and fulfilled. In contrast, under a value-based model people would understand that being happy lets them start doing things (acting compassionately, taking responsibility, having integrity, initiating free enterprise) that would bring them what they always wanted to have (lifestyle, freedom, choices, security). Similarly, the conventional model for us collectively is that we must have equality in order that we might develop the necessary controls for us to do more with less for us to be sustainable. In contrast, a value-based model for collective consciousness would maintain that we must be responsible so that we can engage in free enterprise to do compassionate capitalism so that we might have equity, justice, harmony and freedom. We must shift from trying to do sustainability to being sustainable in our thinking. As Walsch (1998, 292) notes 'human beings have been trying to solve problems at the "doingness" level for a long time, without much success. That's because true change is always made at the level of "being" not "doing".'

Opening the Parachute for Change

The preceding discussion is premised on a conviction that (a) globalization and sustainability are not only compatible but symbiotic, and (b) social transformation is the key to achieving sustainable development.

To many, these beliefs might seem counter-intuitive. They are not. But they do contradict what is widely accepted under the prevailing paradigm for sustainability in the literature. The basis for contradiction and the case for dynamic optimism regarding sustainable development rests five principles:

For most people, the first principle of abundance mentality is the toughest construct to grasp. We have been conditioned to think in terms of limits, that our world is finite and that the planet is deteriorating. Factually, finiteness has not been proven. Resources continue to get cheaper and their substitutability easier. Factually, quality of life indicators concur that we have never lived longer, healthier nor wealthier now than at any time in recorded history. Moreover, the 'essential reality of our being is that it is infinite' (Chatterjee, 1998, 23)

Does this mean that we are without problems? No. But it does mean that we should begin to redefine such fundamental problems as poverty, wealth inequality and famine for what they are: problems arising from conscious human decisions resulting in poor distribution, mismanagement and inadequate stewardship. They are not problems that result from a fixed supply, an excessive population base nor globalization. They are problems that stem from stasist thinking and an unwillingness to acknowledge the global interconnectedness of each living spirit (Walsch, 1998). We are where we choose to be: individually and collectively. We are stewards and our world has been provided with all we need. We just need to make a conscious decision to share, to accept that we can only give out of abundance and that the act of giving attracts greater abundance. Belief in scarcity results in a win/lose philosophy and widespread guilt. Abundance mentality leads to win/win solutions and belief in a better tomorrow.

Most skeptics are statists. They cannot believe in what they cannot see. They dismiss abundance thinking as naivety, rife with platitudes and imprecision. Believing it's possible means overcoming the conditioned reflexes of skepticism. It is believing that people are capable of change. That given an option, people will embrace change as a positive force in their lives. That fear, anger and pessimism can be suborned, subdued and eventually substituted for by love, hope and optimism. It is having faith in a brighter tomorrow.

The importance of belief to the manifestation of our destiny has been a consistent and vital message that has mirrored the growth of technology in the last sixty years (e.g. Hill, 1937; Schwartz, 1959; Dyer, 1997). It is a message that has to be repeated because too many people suffer from a lack of efficacy, connectedness and self-esteem. They are the modern-day embodiment of Thoreau's 'lives of quiet desperation' and a major source for the worldwide spiritual reformation that has occurred over the past decade (Williamson, 1997). Simply put, people want to believe and are searching for answers. Stasis merely acts to codify their existing condition. Dynamic optimism, and the conviction that it is possible, offers the greatest hope for the greatest number. The only remaining issues are whether or not people can find sufficient faith to believe without experiencing spiritual reformation. And, if indeed they cannot, what form their increased spiritual awareness will take.

It is important to note here the distinction between religion and spirituality. Religion requires that people 'learn from the experience of others', whereas spirituality urges people to seek their own experience (Walsch, 1997, 80). Organized religion is much like any other stasist thinking institutional entity: more concerned with promulgating its own power than empowering individuals. The key to individual efficacy and self-esteem is seeking to understand the inherent spiritual connectedness in us all. For sustainable development to be realized, individual spiritual awareness is a necessity.

The central pillar for wisdom identified by Dalla Costa (1995) is morality. The third principle for attaining sustainable development addresses morality within the context of economics. Building upon Adam Smith's contention that 'all economic transactions are moral transactions', DeVos (1993) developed the concept of compassionate capitalism. Compassion involves both seeing a need and acting to meet it. When coupled with capitalism, compassion requires that economic transactions be conducted with a conscious morality and a comprehension that "profit" derived from ' human or planetary suffering is not profit at all' (DeVos, 1993, 10). Thus, compassionate capitalism is premised on the understanding that 'compassion, not profit, is the ultimate goal of capitalism' and that the 'secret to real lasting success in business is compassion', (DeVos, 1993, 10). That is, sustained profit (and, therefore, sustainable development) is a function of compassionate capitalism.

As envisaged by DeVos, (1993) capitalism should be based on an equity built from fairness and justice and not a prescribed equality of outcome. Compassionate capitalism is founded on a credo that embodies free enterprise, entrepreneurship and the provision of equal opportunity. It is capitalism that is people-centred, not one based on the primacy of financial capital. It is a capitalism that DeVos has successfully practised for over 40 years in over 80 countries and territories worldwide. It also is a vision of capitalism that parallels the Japanese model for economic success characterized by Ozaki (1991) as human capitalism. Capitalism is not the enemy. Capitalism is merely an 'economic system that reflects whatever integrity and compassion we choose to express within it' (Williamson, 1997, 122). The hardware of capitalism is being rapidly extended by the globalized free-market in information (Gates, 1996). Compassion provides the necessary software for capitalism to deliver fairness, justice and equity.

To be effective, compassionate capitalism requires the political and social freedoms necessary for individual empowerment and entrepreneurship. Unfortunately, entrepreneurship and self-responsibility are foreign concepts to many who have been lulled into economic complacency by decades of job dependancy and state economic intervention. Like sheep, the majority drifted away from individual empowerment, drawn by the lure of job security. With economic globalization, job certainty has evaporated and many are fearful of the future and their role in a globalized society. Because most lack the necessary sense of efficacy and self-esteem, strong principle-based leadership is essential for a dynamic response to change to be effectively realized. Covey (1991) likens this leadership to a moral compass that can guide people in the direction of self-empowerment. In the Covey model, effective daily habits are seen as the central vehicle to self-growth. True leadership seeks to invoke individual empowerment. It does not rest on power over others. Principle-based leadership also involves discarding the fashionable distinction between public morality and private morals often drawn under the guise of liberalism. True leadership requires that situational ethics be rejected in favour of an absolute morality founded in integrity, wherein a leader is in public who they are in private. Effective leadership is a function of character and not charisma (Maxwell, 1993, 1998).

On a larger scale, we all have an obligation to develop the leader that is within us. We have leadership responsibility for our own lives and the key to that role is integrity. Simply put, integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is there to notice. Integrity is the antithesis to the sentiment increasingly evident in public life that an action is only wrong if one is caught, and then only if "plausible deniability" fails. In public life especially, continued apologies are a poor substitute for the continued absence of integrity in a person's character.

Embracing integrity requires that we must first know right values, then we must act in a manner consistent with those values and, lastly, we must uphold those values by teaching them to others (DeVos, 1997). Such a prescription requires a considerable consensus around the notion of "right values". DeVos (1997) outlines 24 central values in his description of integrity. These values are closely reflected in the global ethical imperative outlined by Dalla Costa (1998) as a process for incorporating, teaching and reinforcing ethical principles in the global economy. They are the values of a collective consciousness at a crossroads. We are actively engaged in creating the world around us. Our only choice is whether we choose to apply a consciously derived set of societal values to sustain our development or not. Integrity is the cornerstone to any conscious movement toward global sustainability.

Taken in conjunction, these five principles delineate a new paradigm for sustainable development based on the empowerment of both the individual and the community. It is a paradigm predicated upon response-ability and a dynamic vision of optimism that encompasses social, political and economic freedom; unlimited wealth and opportunity, and; the values of personal integrity and systemic compassion (Smith, forthcoming).


We must first raise consciousness before we can change consciousness. Are we seeking to idealize the real, or are we working to realize the ideal? Do we wish the world as we perceive it, or how we can conceive of it? Sustainability as an illusory end point, or sustainable development as a process of evolution? Stasis or dynamism: the choice is ours.


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