Editor's Note: It's that time of the year again and we're ready to wrap up 2012. Like last year, we've assembled an impressive lineup of thought leaders and experts who will examine the year that was, guide us on what might be ahead and offer their advice on how our business, social and environmental consciousness continues to converge. They will spotlight achievements, highlight trends and activate the change makers among us in our end of the year CSR & Sustainability 2012 series. Consider this series a call to action.
Today's editorial is by Marc Choyt, a journalist, public speaker and director of Fair Jewelry Action, an environmental justice and human rights network.
Right now, circles inhabit my environment, shaping trees, my round fingers, a clay pot, a light bulb, and my husky, looking up through her round brown and blue eyes, curled up in a circle by my feet.
Beyond the immediate visual, I have a circle of friends and community. Together we live and breathe in seasonal cycles. In fact, circles are so common that it is easy for any of us to pass a lifetime without considering their profundity.
The Profundity of Circles…
At its most basic, a circle is simply the locus of all points equal distant from a central point. Circles function as a foundational structure or underlying blueprint to life giving systems. They are both completely adaptable to whatever inhabits them, and infinitely scalable, from the roundness of a planet, to the membranes around a single cell. They embody a wholeness and openness, which supports the process of birth, life and death.
…Triangles & Sustainability
While nature works with circle as a primary shape for life giving systems, the main blueprint of business is the triangle. The wide base of the triangle generates direction and focus toward the point of the triangle, which drives revenues through a product or service.
Of course, business activity generates benefit for the economy and its community, but it does so by drawing its resources from the larger ecosystem—hence climate change and massive extinction. And sometimes, after the accumulation of revenue, we give back to a community circle.
The problem: human beings work from triangle to circle, while nature works from circle to triangle.
For example, just look at a tree or plant. The trunk or stem is almost always round. From linear branches grow pointed leaves or needles, often with linear or triangular forms. Feathers, shark fins, waves and even our own teeth are triangle. But their activities are in a sustainable and holistic relationship because their functionalities are intimately woven into the very expression of the greater circle of life.
Collectively, our exchange pulls from natural systems without giving back enough. Even awareness of what is being taken is hidden in commodity chains. Our society and culture support the triangle approach. Circular is not part of the lexicon of institutional religions because they, like businesses, are power structures that work hierarchically in a pyramidal structure.
Fragmentation: Circle or the Triangle?
The symptoms of the malaise are very apparent in many businesses in the form of fragmentation—few more extreme than in the jewelry sector, where I do my work. The gold in the average wedding ring worn to represent commitment and love may well have caused tons of mercury-laden sludge to be poured into a river where some child bathes every day. Perhaps you bought a diamond in the 1990s, which funded wars that resulting in the death of 3.7 million Africans.
Slowly but surely we must realize that the world is too small for us to ignore patterns in nature as models for business. We have to start working like nature and think about profit that is regenerative to communities. But this is very, very difficult.
Circular Wisdom for Business
Why is it so hard to make this leap?
Given how the circle is so foundational to life, any genuine approach to sustainability and corporate responsibility would attempt to understand, study and apply principles of the circle. Yet, this is not the case.
First, our models of how to apply circle to life are few. Over the past few centuries, indigenous people – the circle keepers – have been coopted, destroyed or marginalized. With them, circle wisdom has been forgotten or fragmented into broken arcs of incompleteness, making any kind of real holistic understanding of circle a cultural artifact lost in broken whispers between generations – just when we need it most.
Second, the concept of the circle is entirely different than grappling with its application. What does it mean, for example, in context to employees, wage distribution and supply chain?
We are left on our own to struggle with what it mean to have a business based on circle. The result: a few of us begin to gather arcs of approaches from sources and take risky experiments, as I have for the past 15 years.
It starts with questioning traditional views about our role as human beings in the universe. We are used to seeing ourselves as the wisest beings on Earth and as separate beings, capable of anything. But the circle demands equal importance for every part of the circle.
Shifting Toward Circles
Another challenge, particularly in business, is that a shift toward circle cannot happen without support from a broader community willing to think in the long term. A company launches into a values market competing in a world where triangles are king. The pioneers either die trying to get their message out, or if successful, are bought and eventually coopted.
Perhaps the key is to believe that there is no life worth living without bringing some element of circle into our interactions with our world, whether it is about finding our own wild indigenous heart, and walking backward into the future—because the future of our species depends on reestablishing relationships illustrated by how seasons move through time— or deeply connecting and integrating the perspective of circle into our lives.
The circle itself can be used for destruction or creation, of course. The movement from our current state of fragmentation to an economy that is truly circle-based and sustainable will require finding ways to weave together an infinite number of broken relationships.
If we delay too long, Prometheus’ flame will be quenched by the movement of circles finding balance though time sooner than we’d like.