An Evolutionary Perspective for Richard Branson’s B Team
As holder of the World Business Academy’s Elisabet Sahtouris Chair in Living Economies, I welcome Sir Richard Branson’s B Team as a much needed and promising global initiative! It is a team of experienced, wise people who can not only help guide us through this Perfect Storm we’ve whipped up, but is capable of seeing holistically enough to lead the way to a sustainable, even thriving, future. To its credit, the team encourages supporting ideas and initiatives all over the planet and aims to include them in its work, so this is my “supporting idea” response.
According to Wikipedia, a perfect storm is an expression that describes an event where a rare combination of circumstances will aggravate a situation drastically. That makes it an excellent metaphor as our great crises continue to compound each other, now threatening our very survival as a species while catching us remarkably unprepared to cope. It is now obvious that nothing short of a fundamental reconsideration and reorganization of our economy is required; we know it must be made sustainable, but as yet we have no holistic scenario to guide us in this global redesign. The evolutionary perspective from which I believe the B Team could benefit is this: Throughout its history, Earth has experienced perfect storms repeatedly, and its creatures have learned a lot from the confluent crises they have faced – knowledge that we humans can usefully apply.
Though trained as a scientist, I was led to working with businesses by Nature itself. I realized that Nature is a complex economic mesh-works of species that acquire resources, transform them into useful products to be distributed, consumed and recycled, and provide countless services for each other – all of this powered by a small fraction of available solar energy and Earth’s own energy. Nature’s amazingly complex living economies evolved local ecosystems within the planetary economic whole, including the humanly ‘up close and personal’ economies of our own highly evolved hundred-trillion-celled bodies.
Arthur Koestler coined the useful terms holons (natural entities, such as cells, bodies, species, ecosystems, planets, galaxies) in holarchies (the embedded and embedding relationships of holons). Seeing such relationships helps us see interconnectedness and interdependence in the human economy, where businesses are embedded in local and global economies, and, above all, within Earth’s ecological economy. Earth’s ‘natural resources’ are not a subset of human economy; it is the other way around—human economy is a subset of Nature’s economy. We can only survive our Perfect Storm by understanding this at the deepest level.
The most important thing I discovered in tracking nearly four billion years of Earth’s economic evolution is a repeating Cycle of Maturation in which youthful species expand their economies by competing to acquire as much space and resources as possible until they reach an energy crisis, at which stage they either go extinct or streamline and integrate their economies through peaceful cooperation with competitors. In short, they learn that it is cheaper to feed your enemies than to kill them off.
The B Team is committed to making individual businesses sustainable, and it could be the catalyst that makes the global economy sustainable by developing the understanding and negotiations needed to mature businesses worldwide into exactly such mutual generosity and peaceful collaboration.
Tall order? Yes, indeed, but a wonderfully positive role to play, once we see that our businesses are not efficient machines threatened with breakdown (think Charlie Chaplin in the cogs of Modern Times’ machinery) but potentially resilient living systems on the verge of breakthrough. Nature is rife with wonderful lessons—(1) profound conservation in harmony with radical creativity, (2) the repeating cycle of maturation in which former competitors produce more powerful cooperatives and (3) crises as evolutionary drivers. We can learn from all of these to insure our own evolution into an ever better future. (See the Evolution Biology Background section further down the page for more on these lessons.)
The B Team is charged “to deliver a ‘Plan B’ that puts people and planet alongside profit. Plan A — where companies have been driven by the profit motive alone — is no longer acceptable.” I welcome this mission as I have used this triple bottom line of People, Planet and Profit myself for decades to promote the Biology of Business by moving businesses from mechanism to organism, from engineered companies to living economies, from unsustainability to sustainability. But the most important Living Economy we must now create involves all businesses—the entire global economy that we must hold as the overarching framework while working with particular businesses.
In a recent presentation to global corporate executives at the Xynteo Foundation’s annual Performance Theatre event, I thanked them for having globalized the economy through competition and creative initiative, as that was a necessary evolutionary step, inviting them to lead the way now to a sustainable future based on peaceful cooperation. I apologized for my field of science—for providing only the Darwinian story that guided economists, and businesses in turn, throughout this industrial and globalizing phase, while giving no guidance for the necessary next phase that must now be created with extreme speed. This was followed by my elevator pitch story of how this mature cooperative phase in Nature, comes about and why it is sustainable, as well as repeatable in our human case.
Thomas Berry, walking in the footsteps of Teilhard de Chardin, one of the authors of the word ‘ecology,’ said cogently: “We cannot tell the human story without telling the Earth’s story.” He well understood that we humans are, for better or worse, solidly embedded in and dependant on Earth as one of its myriad species of living creatures, however much our unique brand of consciousness permits us to pretend otherwise—that we are somehow apart from and superior in intelligence to our Earth, that our technologies are superior to her living designs.
As John Cairns, Jr. puts it in “The Human Economy is a Subset of the Biosphere”: Since the human economy is totally dependent upon the biosphere and humans are dependent on the biospheric life support system, why are [we] tolerant of the type of economic growth that damages the biosphere? …Humankind should only engage in activities that nurture the biosphere. (Asian J. Exp. Sci., Vol. 24, No. 2, 2010; 269-270)
The B Team is composed of people who role-model the positive business goal of “doing well by doing good,” and I hope the team will construe this to include businesses doing good for and with each other as well as for people and planet. I trust that in dialogues between the World Business Academy and Team B, serious attention will be given to Nature’s solutions to crises, in order to further the task of evolving new economic guidelines for business, finance and governance in this world so rocked by our perfect storm of compounding disasters that it must be reinvented even to survive, much less to thrive.
The overarching holistic framework needed to develop such a coherent Living Economies strategy can easily be based on Nature’s lessons for growing sustainable abundance through cooperative creativity without further physical growth. Nature has role-modeled the way and reveals it to us if only we look!
The triple bottom line approach will be far richer, with far greater impact on generations to come, if the B Team leads the way to a genuine leap in humanity’s maturation from economy to Ecosophy—even a leap in Earth’s evolution by way of her humans as they truly become cooperative, wise homo sapiens sapiens!
Evolution Biology Background
Unfortunately, the Darwinian account of biological evolution that became the uncontested basis for our now globalized economic system is far from adequate to the task of describing Nature’s most highly evolved living economies. As Darwin acknowledged, his theory is taken from Thomas Malthus’ socioeconomic theory of human populations always outstripping their food supplies—in short, of hostile competition in scarcity—and so is quite inadequate to the task of explaining the highly interwoven cooperative economies of rainforests, prairies and coral reefs, for example (not to mention our hundred trillion cooperative body cells, which together are far more complex than is our entire global economy).
Darwin’s theory, when it became public, provided conveniently ‘legitimate’ scientific rationalization of the capitalist system arising in Europe. Thus it was readily adopted by economists to create the picture of man as a naturally self-seeking individual out for his own gain in a world of perpetual scarcity. Though many an ecologist, and even Darwin himself, came to note obvious instances of cooperation in Nature, within and among species, these were mostly rationalized as self-seeking in disguise.
Nature is actually a treasure trove of lessons in politics and economics. For example:
(1) Profound conservation in harmony with radical creativity: While we humans pit conservative and radical political parties against each other in a competitive struggle for dominance, in Nature we see sustainable systems protected and restored conservatively, ever evolving their resilience, while we also see radical and often rapid changes in individual species or whole ecosystems that have become dysfunctional for one reason or another. If Nature opted for only one of these modes, it would not last long. Both modes must be available at all times, in all situations, and are essentially cooperative.
(2) A repeating cycle of maturation from competition to cooperation: Youthful mode in Nature is Darwinian, as species compete with both creativity and hostilities for space and resources to expand their populations. Mature species, on the other hand, are highly interwoven and interdependent in essentially cooperative and more sustainable ecosystems, as Pyotr Kropotkin taught in the former Soviet Union and described in his book Mutual Aid. Most ecologists recognize the two modes in typing ecosystems as Pioneer and Climax, but see them as characterizing different kinds of species rather than as phases of maturation in which former competitors eventually produce powerful cooperatives.
(3) Crises as evolutionary drivers: Archaebacteria, the sole population of Earth for two billion years—the first half of its evolution—altered Earth’s land, seas and atmosphere, caused crises of global hunger and later global pollution, evolving new lifestyles that solved each crisis in turn. In their most mature cooperative phase, they evolved large colonies that morphed into the first nucleated cells, which, after their own lengthy youth, matured into cooperatives we know as multi-celled creatures . These formed ecosystems that were blasted over time by five global extinction events, each of which was followed by rapid new species and whole ecosystem evolution. We humans are the first species to create such an extinction, now well underway. Will it drive our evolution to our globally cooperative maturity?
Those two greatest leaps in evolution—the formation of the nucleated cell and then of multi-celled creatures—survive to this day. Nature is still comprised of bacteria, nucleated single-cell creatures and multi-celled creatures, all intertwined as ecosystems. Pioneer (Type I) ecosystems are populated by expansive, competitive, predatory species—characteristically Darwinian—while the species of Climax (Type II) ecosystems are interwoven in mutually beneficial and resilient collaborative relationships. The tipping point in this maturation process is key! When hostile competition—however innovative and successful in growing a young species’ economy—becomes too energy-expensive to continue, quite simply, it becomes cheaper (more energy efficient) to feed your competitor enemies than to kill them off.
Note how common the metaphor of killing off competitive companies has been used in the world of business. “Feeding your enemies” is my shorthand for a process of discovering the advantages of conflict negotiation, resolution and collaboration, eventually growing mature economies based on creative and sustainable principles of cooperation and mutual aid (See 16 Features of Healthy Living Systems). Once we see that the greatest leaps in evolution have been a matter of maturation out of the hostile competition characterizing a species’—or an entire ecosystem’s—youthful Darwinian phase, into the mature collaborative phase, our current crises clearly present us with the challenge to our own species’ rapid maturation.