As we try to predict scenarios for the coming year, it might be worth reflecting on where that sense of being right comes from.
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 Per Grankvist, CSRwire columnist, journalist and author.
As I visited Tsinghua University in Beijing a year ago, I had the opportunity to have lunch with some of the students to discuss their views on sustainability and how it would impact China going forward. Asked to share my own view, I essentially said that in the next 10 years sustainability is going to change the way we do business much like the way the Internet changed it in the last 10 years. One of the students asked me if I felt sure of this. I went one step ahead and predicted that I was a hundred percent sure this scenario would play out.
Wait, let me explain.
Predicting the Future With Your Gut
In his book On Being Certain – Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not, Robert Burton systematically and convincingly shows that the feeling that we know something is a mental sensation, rather than a mere evidence of fact. It’s a feeling of knowing that stems from our subconscious and from primitive areas from our brain and does so independent of active, conscious reflection and reasoning.
Just because something feels right, doesn’t necessary mean it is so.
This insight put my impression of climate change deniers, clean coal enthusiasts or plain old sustainability adversaries into new perspective. Some of their arguments have struck me as so silly that it’s impossible to believe that someone with a rational mind could subscribe to such ideas. But understanding that the feeling of being certain is a overwhelming feeling, disconnected from rational facts but colored by our opinions, experiences and habits, makes me feel I understand them better.
Because, as Goethe once put it, we see only what we know.
Even those blinkering moments Malcolm Gladwell writes about in his bestseller, is filtered by what we know. In fact, there is no such thing as a rational mind, let alone a rational area of the mind able to make decisions unbiased by the opinions, experiences and habits that shape our way of thinking from a very early age.
And as Burton points out in his book, even Gladwell’s desire to believe in the idea of a rational mind is too strong that it overpowers his knowledge of all the rational scientific evidence of the contrary that he cites as true early in his book!
Sustainability or Plain 'Ol Facts: When You "Know"
If you “know” that climate change is a conspiracy thought up by Al Gore, then you don’t see the scientific consensus on the fact that it’s been caused by human activities over the past 100 years. If you “know” carbon capture and underground storage is safe and will be inexpensive some day, then you don’t see the evaluations of all those carbon capture pilot projects that so far points at the opposite being true.
If you “know” that incorporating sustainability into your business drives cost, you don’t see the logic in that using less resources or using resources in a more thoughtful way, by the evidence of common sense, always lowers cost.
It’s in fact this very logic, along with having studied hundreds of cases all over the world where this thinking has made businesses more profitable, that made me draw the conclusion that sustainability will change business at its core in the coming decade. Once more people start to make their companies more resourceful.
Thanks to Burton's book, I can no longer claim I’m certain.
Now I believe this will be the case, based on experience. Substituting “I know” with “I believe” also serves as a constant reminder of the limits of objectivity and knowledge. And it does so while opening the possibility that there are another opinions.