Saving the planet from governments and markets

12 May 2016

Think back to the Paris Conference on Climate Change last December and ask yourself which had greater influence on your personal behavior: the clips you saw from that conference on television, or the ads that sponsored those clips?

While governments imagine that pledges and plans will deal with the problem of climate change, markets barrel ahead with business as usual, namely the consumption of goods, and of this planet. We are hooked on a malignant model of more. To paraphrase Hannibal facing the Alps, we shall have to find another way, or else make one.

The politicians pledge, and then their professionals plan, in the hope of driving actions on the ground. But think of all the talk required before any feet can walk on that ground: all the discussions, debates, and deliberations, all the planning, programming, and budgeting that have to work their way through countless public agencies, private businesses, and plural associations. Such a top-down process may be fine for building oil refineries, but is it any way to deal with the environmental consequences of these refineries?  

Politicians Pledging in Paris

Meanwhile economic globalization continues to undermine the sovereignty of nation states around the world. Now trade pacts even give international corporations the right to sue countries that legislate contrary to their private interests. Can the corporations that benefit from the warming of this planet—for example in coal and petroleum—be expected to cease their covert lobbying if not their overt litigating.

The private sector offers another way to deal with the problem of climate change: markets. The very same markets that have been firing on all cylinders with carbon energy are supposed to save the planet from that energy—as if the money to be made in fossil fuels will disappear because there is money to be made in solar panels.1 The problem is not markets per se, but the fact that markets have become so dominant in a world that requires balance across social, political, and economic forces. (See my book on Rebalancing Society and the TWOG on it.) 

Markets barreling ahead

If not governments or markets, then what other way can there be? Look in the mirror: you could be seeing the answer. We buy, we vote, we march. We can refuse, we can reduce, we can replace. As consumers, voters, and doers, we can change our own behaviors while driving our governments and markets to face their responsibilities—if we can act together.  

This will require recognition that there are three consequential sectors in society, not two. The battles that have raged for so long over public versus private—governments versus markets, left versus right, collective needs versus individual rights—have obscured the importance of this other sector, which functions largely at the community level. I believe it should be called the plural sector, instead of inadequate labels such as the third sector or civil society, to help it take its place next to the sectors called public and private.

While many of us work in the private sector and most of us vote in the public sector, all of us live in the plural sector—in our many groups and communities as well as associations (owned by ourselves as members, as in cooperatives, or else organized as trusts owned by no one, as in Greenpeace). This sector is also home to mass movements and to the many community initiatives we see around us, whether to encourage recycling or to support the poor.

Is it utopian to expect us to rise up in some sort of groundswell within this hitherto obscure sector? This question needs to be put differently: Is it really utopian to mobilize ourselves for the survival of our progeny and our planet?

We have seen significant groundswells before: in 1776 in the American colonies, in 1930 in the Indian salt march, in the Prague Spring of 1989. The best example may be the “Quiet Revolution” of Quebec in the 1960s, because of the remarkable shift it brought about in collective behavior. In that one decade, as the people threw off the yoke of the Catholic Church, the birth rate fell from among the highest in the developed world to one of the lowest.

In none of these movements did public pledges, commercial markets, or established leadership play the major role. People did, together. Tom Paine wrote in his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense that “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” How prophetic that proved to be. How prophetic that will have to be now.

It is not plans from some elite “top” that will begin the world over again, but actions on the ground. We are the feet that will have to walk all the talk, connected to heads that will have to think for ourselves. We shall have to confront the perpetrators of climate change—and that includes ourselves—not with violent resistance or passive resistance, but with clever resistance. Some years ago, the angry customers of a Texas telephone company paid 1 extra cent on their telephone bills. This tied the company in knots. It got the message.

Beyond resistance will have to come the replacement of destructive practices by more constructive ones, as has been happening with wind and solar energy. There will be more of this when we “human resources” pursue our resourcefulness as human beings. Imagine, for example, an economy based on growth in qualities instead of quantities, of better instead of more—in education, health care, and nutrition.

Facing the issue of imbalance last week in our program RoundTables for Experienced Managers.

That conference in Paris was not a wake-up call so much as an event. Pledges and plans will not not wake us up to the problem of climate change, nor will markets. We wake up when our house is flooded, or our crops fail. But surely we cannot await the pervasion of such calamities to drive our actions. Addressing the specific problem of climate change, and the broader problem of imbalance, will have to begin with ourselves, together—locally and globally.

Progeny on the planet

© Henry Mintzberg 2016. A version of this was published on earlier this week. Follow this TWOG on Twitter @mintzberg141, or receive the blogs directly in your inbox by subscribing here. I also just started a new Facebook page to disseminate these TWOGs.

1 The International New York Times reported from the Paris conference on December 11 that “diplomats and policy experts” believe that, for any accord to work, it will have to convince “companies and investors that it would be more profitable to invest in renewable sources of energy” than traditional fossil fuels. On this our survival is supposed to depend!