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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.