Consciousness in Action: The Power of Beauty, Love and Courage in a Violent Time by Andrew Beath

 

 

CONTRIBUTORS

Globalization: Introduction by Andrew Beath.
Mark Gerzon's comments are published below.


This article is an excerpt from Andrew Beath’s book Consciousness In Action, the Power of Beauty, love and Courage in a Violent Time (Lantern Press, 2005)

One thing that has interested me since I completed a graduate degree in international finance at Wharton in the seventies is that the ethics of individuals who work in corporations seems to be different at work than when they are home. A loving father who is never unkind at home is sometimes an unfeeling corporate officer, who directs his employees to engage in destructive activities that harm both humans and the surrounding ecology. We see some of the fallout from these attitudes in the Enron collapse, and the resulting criminal convictions in this and similar cases in which accounting reports were altered to create the appearance of nonexistent profits.

I think, in part, this is because the 1886 Southern Pacific Railroad case referred to above conferred special status on incorporated companies, which gave them the protections of private citizens. One result was that the new person-company, not the investors, would be liable for decisions. Passive investors would be afraid to put money into large operations if they were held responsible.

At the same time, the employees, officers and board members were relieved of personal liability for business activities, as long as fraud was not involved. In most cases a company can break the law without the employees being held responsible. The company pays the fine when millions of barrels of oil spill in the ocean, or radiation leaks from a nuclear plant. Except in a few highly dramatized cases in which prosecutors attempt to make an example for others, officers are almost never held accountable.

It’s a structural problem. There’s something insidious about it. Stockholders want the biggest bottom-line profit so their holdings will appreciate. A vice president’s salary goes up when his department increases profits. The corporate imperative is to maximize profits and minimize costs. There is often no other ethic.

If a corporate businessperson is courageous enough to put his ethics ahead of the company, he is filtered out. Another takes his place until the profit motive prevails. An otherwise deeply feeling man or woman is co-opted by the structure of the system.

Serious consequences result. Corporations weren’t designed to redress the problems they cause. But it’s necessary to do more than just oppose corporate procedures. It’s also important to find alternatives that demonstrate how to produce and consume in a harmless way. The anti-globalization movement is learning that their most effective approach is to find healthy alternatives.

Any first-year business student knows we do not have a free economy; it is controlled by regulations. Perhaps we can find the social will to require producers to account for environmental impacts in their prices, so non-destructive products can compete. If we were to do this tomorrow, nonpolluting hydrogen fuel created from solar and wind energy could be less expensive than conventional gasoline.

One solution to the ethical dilemma created by this structural design problem is to redesign the rules for our artificial corporate citizens. Perhaps globalization proponents and those who propose alternatives could think of ways to encourage corporations to participate in this restructuring, but this is antithetical to corporate charters, so it would likely require legislation spurred by changes in levels of social awareness.

Shift in Public Perception

It’s hard to put a monetary value on the loss of diversity in world culture, just as it is for the loss of species. Our challenge is to provide products, technologies and life-styles that are less harmful to other cultures and the Earth’s ecology. To accomplish this it is important to acknowledge the impacts of rampant consumerism and to also include the costs of social degradation. These unaccounted-for burdens include the damage done to world cultures, our health, and our children’s future. Forcing producers to fully disclose and pay their costs would make clean, sustainable technologies price-competitive. This would enable healthy, new industries and create additional economic activity in the process.

The biggest roadblocks to progressive economic change are the entrenched interests of energy, transportation and other major industries. They control resources, provide political campaign financing, and pay lobbyists in Washington to protect their interests. This is a different problem than people’s desire for consumer goods.

Our economy is a complex system of laws that result in a controlled social/economic system. It is against existing laws to monopolize, or to lower prices to put a competitor out of business. But why is it legal to convince poor women, through manipulative advertising, that purchasing powdered milk is healthier for their babies than mother’s breast milk? This complexity of regulation is a social convention that has developed in our legislatures and courts over the past 150 years. It can be modified to embrace a bigger vision.

We require deposits on bottles because a bottle returned and reused is now more socially acceptable than one left by the side of the road. We made this rule in our legislature and created campaigns to gain public cooperation. The same process could occur for other consumer commodities including major appliances currently produced, used or discarded in ways that harm the environment.

A healthy economy is a beautiful, circulating, sustainable system that protects the ecology. Of course, it’s human nature to want labor-saving devices. But human nature, especially when we sense our connection to Mother Nature, also has the capacity to envision a world in which our needs are met without ecological destruction, or oppression of our neighbors. All of these things are matters of social convention that can be changed.

Recent corporate accounting scandals have brought attention to corporate ethics. Consequently there is added momentum for an initiative that started years ago–an endeavor to scrutinize the operations of large corporations that may behave in illegal ways.

If an individual is poisoning those around him, we must think of ways to stop him. We’ve agreed to give corporations the same rights as individuals; perhaps we will find ways that they can also be held to the same or higher standards of conduct.

Mark Gerzon’s activism reaches back decades. He published the first of several socially influential books while still a student at Harvard. His current focus is on conflict resolution, ethics in politics and business, and disparities in the world’s wealth distribution. He recently facilitated meetings with members of the World Economic Forum, who represent mostly wealthy northern countries, and the World Social Forum whose members are primarily developing nations. The major multilateral institutions, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Trade Organization (WTO) are involved in the World Economic Forum. The purpose of these meetings was to develop ground rules and build trust to facilitate public debate. After describing conscious activism I asked Mark how these concepts came into play in his work. Hi answer resulted in this article:

Turning Adversaries Into Allies
by Mark Gerzon

Ever since beginning this work in 1987 my approach to conscious activism has been to bring together activists with their adversaries. That was the United States and Soviet Union in the eighties. We brought together the leaders of the film industries in each country so they could come to know each other and, hopefully, stop creating enemy stereotypes in movies. We forged relationships and it seemed to help.

More recently I was called in to work with members of Congress, the Democrats and Republicans were fighting so fiercely nothing was getting accomplished. So they asked me to lead a retreat in which they could learn to resolve their differences more amicably. This type of constructive engagement between those who hold opposing views is the way we’re going to solve our problems.

The term conscious activism helps me understand the approach I take in social change work. As you know, there’s a movement around the world to protest globalization. My feeling is that as long as we have a construct in which a significant part of mankind is our enemy, we won’t be effective. The institutions creating globalization are part of the world. We have to approach them as collaborators.

When the pro-globalization and anti-globalization people go to war there is a risk they will destroy what they fight over. To develop a dialogue between them is crucial. We need to find a way to blend the resources of both sides to take care of the Earth. Neither side can do it without the other. So to me, conscious activism means becoming allies for a common cause.

Let me comment in terms of another attribute of conscious activism, “not knowing.” There are alternative models to economic globalization. Some are strong and clear. Some make less sense and are probably less viable. But I think it is in the encounter between the critics of globalization and its proponents where we can effectively enter the space of not knowing. It’s time to recognize there is no absolute truth, as the “not knowing” attribute indicates. Both sides can then more readily release their polarized points of view and participate in the unfolding of something new.

My work is designed to bring the adversaries together so they can experience not knowing. Out of the ashes of their old, staunchly held beliefs a whole new awareness can emerge. I believe this is the most effective way to combine our global economic system with the valid concerns brought forth by its critics. In this space of openness, the issues on both sides can combine in a kind of alchemy that will work for the planet.

I get opponents to enter the space of not knowing by making it possible for the individuals on each side to experience the humanity of their adversary. That awakens them to the possibility that they don’t have all the answers. Both sides then become more willing to let the Earth teach them something about what it needs to sustain us in perpetuity.

Wrestling With Human Nature

Natural capitalism is a term that some of my colleagues use. It’s an attempt to say that there is something good in capitalism, but it has to be changed to become nature-based, rather than commodity- or money-based. The problem I would like to introduce into the conversation is that we are wrestling with human nature. I think the critics of global capitalism don’t do a good job understanding this.

The enemy is not horrible multi-nationals; the enemy is not the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, or the GATT regulations. The real enemy is the global consumer society. It is an extraordinarily powerful force that leads people to sell out some of their values in order to get a certain material lifestyle. This is a choice people make all over the world. The critics of globalization don’t want to look at this. Yet each of us is caught in a struggle between our ideals and certain fundamental material wants and the conditioned desire for things we could easily live without.

Corporate folks bet the lower aspects of human nature are the strongest. The more visionary anti-globalization folks count on the higher qualities of human nature. Yet, if you drive a car or fly in a plane, you participate in the global economy. So the conversation has to move beyond these stereotypical and antagonistic positions.

New Vision

We have to create more compelling visions than what we currently have of the consumer economy in order to improve our way of organizing human life. Materialism has a very strong way of communicating to human beings. That’s the challenge of this other vision, the one that requires taking these social and environmental costs into account and acting from higher principles. Let’s consider clean air and water to be material goods. At the rate we’re going, our children will not have clean air, water, health, or long lives. There has to be a persuasive translation of these social costs into material terms, because a lot of our fellow human beings are working on an exclusively material basis.

One of the compelling arguments the critics of globalization can make is, even on a material level, your lifestyle will not improve if globalization continues to cause climate change and pollution, because there will be a decrease in the quality of your life.

The Rich Get Richer

One of the things especially meaningful to me right now is my search for ways to close the growing gap between rich and poor, and to awaken people to the spiritual as well as social dangers this creates. Globally, every major problem on the planet is either caused or exacerbated by the influences that promote greed and cause the growing gap between rich and poor. I’ve worked on these issues for the last six months almost full time for no compensation because this is so important to me. It gives my life purpose.

Half the people on the face of the earth live on two dollars or less a day. That is the conventional estimate. Some people can live adequately on that amount but only a very few. I often think about the holocaust during WWII, in which some of my family members died. Some very decent German people didn’t pay attention while six million innocent people were slaughtered in their backyard. So, I ask myself, “Are we sitting by today as another holocaust happens, one caused by the structural violence of the global economic system?”

I would not feel good if I slept through a holocaust. And at this moment, there are holocausts of hunger, structural violence and violence against nature taking place. Every day, thousands of children die unnecessarily of starvation and preventable diseases. I want to be awake to this travesty and do all I can to end it.

Providing Alternatives

Studies of the rapid growth of AIDS in Africa found that some women will continually expose themselves to AIDS through prostitution because they have no other means to support themselves and their children. If they find an alternative source of income, they stop taking the risk.

When human beings do not need to destroy the environment to feed their families, they will not. Ecological arguments will make sense to them. They will want to protect the animals and the coral reefs unless they need to plunder them to survive. That’s where the question of poverty and environmental degradation intersect. The growing gap between rich and poor causes a situation in which a large percentage of the population will continue to cause ecological damage just to survive.

My passion is to look at the ways human beings are injured by this system called globalization. We need conscious activists who focus on the environment, human rights, hunger, and the growing gap between the rich and poor. Human beings have the power to rise up together against a system and compel it to become safe, equitable and sustainable.

One reason why people may rise against globalization is that it creates increasing inequality. This can galvanize people to a greater degree than many of the other issues, such as species extinction, degraded air and water quality, the loss of topsoil and the destruction of forests. Just think of what we could accomplish if this force were directed toward peaceful, positive change on the planet.

Strategy to Address the Issues

Corporations cause environmental damage. We have to ask ourselves as conscious activists, what are the most effective strategies for awakening the consciousness of the people who run those organizations? One way to touch people’s conscience is to make them realize what the consequences of their behavior are on others. Conscience can be affected by continually emphasizing to the politicians, producers and consumers the impacts of the growing gap between rich and poor. Why does this system make me richer and someone else poorer, and what can I do about that?

I have colleagues who work with different strategies. There are lawyers who want to work with legal changes, and the political organizers work with parties and political changes. I honor all those strategies; each of us has to find our vision and mission. What can we contribute? The thing I can contribute best is to create settings in which people encounter their adversaries and somehow, in that encounter, have their conscience awakened. I see a race between the destruction we cause and the awakening of our conscience. So I try to light a fire under the conscience and creativity of humanity, especially the business and political leaders.

Their creativity, once awakened, will be the answer, for then they will be able to discover a new corporate structure; they will find the new economic theories; they will find the natural capitalism methods. When creativity and genius are directed almost entirely for material wealth for corporations, they are not well used. That is why conscience is so important.

The unwanting soul
Sees what’s hidden,
And the ever-wanting soul
Sees only what it wants.

--Li Po

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