Thinking the Twenty-First Century

Written by: Terry Link

Primary Source : Possibilitator, August 23, 2015.

I stumbled on this one, Thinking the Twenty-first Century: Ideas for the New Political Economy, during one of my usual visits to the new book shelf at the MSU Libraries.

Thinking the Twenty­-First Century

I had not heard of the author, Malcolm McIntosh, before, but the title was intriguing and the praise on the book jacket was urging me to peek inside the covers.

“This book has restless urgency which demands recognition…This is a powerful work by a man at his peak and will, in fifty years’ time, be seen as a masterpiece.” Tim Smit, co-founder of The Eden Project.

So I added it to the pile at home. I picked it up one morning and then was finished within a week, other books having been started had to wait. The opening sentences compelled me forward.

This is a book about change, about change that is happening now–what might be called rapid evolution. It is transitionary, necessary, nascent and inelectuble. It is a book about the past, the present and the future and its about theory and practice. It contains evidence, anecdote, musings and passion. It is set in the second decade of the twenty-first century and has been written while I have been undergoing treatment for incurable cancer.”

McIntosh, has quite the interesting pedigree as noted at his website at Griffith University (Australia) where he teaches:

          Dr Malcolm McIntosh FRSA is the Founding Director, and a Professor, of the Asia Pacific Centre               for Sustainable Enterprise at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, which he joined in 2009.           He started teaching and writing on corporate responsibility and sustainability in 1990 after                       previous careers in television production and journalism with the BBC, peace research at Bradford           University, and business and language teaching in Sweden, Japan and Australia. He has worked at           the universities of Warwick and Coventry and been a visiting professor at the universities of Bath,             Bristol, Stellenbosch, Waikato, and Sydney. He is the producer, author or co-author of more than             twenty books and numerous articles for journals, magazines and newspapers and he has been a             frequent commentator on television and radio around the world on social issues, business                       responsibility and sustainable enterprise. He has been a special advisor to the UN global Compact           and was the founding editor of the Journal of Corporate Citizenship. In the last two decades he                 has advised governments, corporations and international NGOs as well as working at a                             community level to establish local initiatives. In the words of one reviewer ‘in a world of siloed                 thinking he has concentrated on getting people to talk to people they wouldn’t normally talk to’               and built partnerships for innovative research and publishing projects, pioneered the teaching of             business, human rights, and sustainability in business and management schools, and been at the           heart of many corporate responsibility initiatives. He loves working across boundaries and                       breaking the institutionalised rules that prevent the growth of human and Earth-centred                            development.

Given his circumstance of fighting incurable cancer, it should not be surprising to sense an urgency pulsing through this book. Sometimes that urgency could use some editing, but even where some clarity is missing, McIntosh takes us to visit the weeds on the forest floor, but he’s also giving us an ecosystem level analysis. Having danced in the world of journalism, research, business, and teaching over a number of decades he brings all those experiences to bear as he synthesizes what he has learned and what direction he encourages us to follow. It is clear he has thought deeply about the Twenty-first Century and we would be wiser if we listened to what he has discerned. Some examples:

     Events come and go. Some commentators have argued that activities around the world in the 1960s achieved little, and the Occupy movement in the 2000s fizzled out without much perceivable success. But, as with the Middle East demonstrations, in each case, the ability to meet and break free of the shackles of government or corporations is a liberation; and the questions that are raised by these free and sometimes random voices echo through social discourse long after the demonstrators have been beaten back by tear gas, truncheon, Injunction, dissipation or exhaustion. It is often to these people that we owe human progress in the face of intransigence or inertia on the part of the institutions that have arisen around power, money, religion or other vested interest. (pp.73-4)

     …Our current model of capitalism is still, even in this century of growing planetary awareness, based on a model of expansion and limitless resource extraction. Physicist Fritjof Capra’s 1982 book The Turning Point drew on the idea of the balance of yin and yang in all things to make the point that the world is currently unbalanced. It is too yang: too masculine,right-brained, aggressive, individualistic, and conquering. This has led to the earth being plundered, not respected. We have forgotten (or did we ever know?) that we are not above nature, but part of it. The yin has become inferior and we are out of balance. We need to balance the whole and introduce awe, wonder and respect in our relationship with that which sustains us. Yin has been regarded as a lower-order function.
     Yin and yang are not a question of either-or but a respect for balance or a holistic view of all issues. Too much yang is implicit in ‘scientific/rational’ research and management theory and has led to too little light being cast on subjects such as trust, love, and spirituality in business and management. (p.129)

     …Capitalism and economics did not fail in the 2008/9 crash because capitalism and economics has no memory, soul or conscience. It is simply an idea given substance by its political context. It was that context that failed then and continues to fail now. The dominant model of economics that dominates many large national economies and international trade and banking is illusory, but, in the eyes of commentators such as Philip Morowski, the logic of neoliberalists is that the market ‘is the ultimate information system’. It is omnipotent and superior to human intelligence and should, like god, be beyond our control because, if we dally with it, it will fail us. Mirowski, Yvonne Roberts, Picketty and others observe that this model, which espouses freedom through liberalization, marketization, commodification and objectification, has enslaved us all by quantifying all human activity only in financial terms. It would have us trade every tree, all the Earth’s resources and our love for one another in worship of the market. It has infantilized us all in the pursuit of the false god of financial growth. (pp. 166-7)

…Our global economic system needs new rules, and not NO rules; and our supra-territorial corporations, whether state-, mutually or shareholder-owned, need new rules on governance, transparency, responsibility, rights, reporting and accountability. So, how did we get to this state?
     Let’s distinguish between two issues. First, we all believe in markets, exchange and trade. Who wouldn’t? Second, it is recognized that society is made up of institutions and organizations. Both are made in our own image, but both are now in need of rigorous examination to see if they deliver public and social good and to see if they conform to the principle of ‘do no harm’ and ‘the precautionary principle’. (p.175)

McIntosh does his best to help us see the connections and the possibilities that might build a better future for our heirs. His spirited inquiry just might inspire some to get involved. Hope he lives to see a better day.

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Terry Link
Terry Link is a retired MSU librarian, former founding director of the MSU Office of Campus Sustainability, and co-founder and former chair of the American Library Association’s Task Force on the Environment. He recently served as associate editor for the two-volume encyclopedia, Achieving Sustainability: Visions, Principles, and Practices(Gale/Cengage 2014). He has also served as executive director of a regional food bank and as a county commissioner. Currently he is president of Starting Now, LLC, a sustainability consulting firm, a Senior Fellow for the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development and serves on numerous non-profit organization boards.
Terry Link

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