Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Does it make sense?

Compared to the previous five decades, the last ten to fifteen years have seen dramatic changes in many ways. Some say we are going through a fundamental crisis of moral values. They say that selfishness, mistrust and opportunism are taking over, and from their point of view, we need to go back to deeper and stronger moral behavior. As an ethicist I certainly agree that moral behavior – whatever it means – may help us to lead a better life as individuals and as communities. But I suspect that’s not all of the answer. The answer – at least for the most developed countries – lies beyond the question if people used to be morally better or worse in the past.

My suspicion is that the marginal sense-making value of additional economic output and individual consumption is decreasing and about to tend towards zero. You think this answer is somewhat technical? Let me give you two examples:

My grandparents got their first telephone around 1948. Before then, they had to walk to the local post office to call a doctor, their family or friends. A clumsy black device on their kitchen-shelf changed their everyday life, and allowed them to easily stay in touch with an increasing number of people. It connected them to the world – to their world at least.

My parents bought their first car in the early sixties. It literally opened new horizons of freedom and autonomy for their private, as well as their professional life. In the early seventies, we spent our first vacation abroad and my parents bought a TV-set.
Back then, economic growth created jobs and wealth, it opened opportunities for consumption to millions of people – and most important: it all seemed to make sense. People experienced emancipation, dramatic increases in their quality of life. I’m not saying those times were ideal, particularly with respect to the environment.
But let’s be honest to ourselves: What about the last smartphone we bought? What about our newest car, our last vacation and our new TV-set? Do they make sense? Do they have a real impact on our quality of life, compared to what we had before? Maybe yes: the phone has more apps, the car uses less fuel, and so does the airplane that took us to the Seychelles, and the new TV-set is a digital one. But the difference to the generations before us is evident: more than ever, we are confronted with the question: “Does it make sense?”

This is a challenge and an opportunity at the same time. It is a challenge because economy and business firms are still organized as if more output, more income, more consumption and more economic growth were the solutions to all of our needs. But humans want to live in communities they can trust; they want to see perspectives for their future, they are searching for a meaning to their lives. It is an opportunity to face these questions from personal, as well as from organizational perspectives, and to carry them beyond unsustainable consumption patterns.
Future leaders make good use of this opportunity. We need to find them, better understand them, and leverage their wisdom into business schools and companies, in order to create a more sustainable future.

Christoph Weber-Berg

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