Recently on the BBC, presenter Andrew Marr referred to humans not as “wise man” Homo sapiens but as “clever apes in a spot of bother.”
Marr surmised, having traversed through ancient civilizations and the history of man, that if humanity is to have any hope of anything resembling a successful future, we must either radically change our ways or radically reduce our world population.
The message was clear – adapt or die – and business leaders, world thinkers, activists and innovators are increasingly calling for a paradigm shift in our approach to economic and social life.
Competition is Suicidal
The social and scientific revolutions in modern, early modern and even ancient ages have left their legacies in the modern mind. For example, in the early modern period that included the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, major revelations in scientific discovery and philosophy from Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Descartes and Darwin, greatly influenced our western view of the human's place in the universe.
Man became a powerful external actor, disconnected from the very fabric of the natural systems of which he had previously been a part. Interestingly, these events were both profoundly liberating for human societies and also enormously disenchanting.
Our prevailing reductionist approach to science, technology and business, which we use to understand the nature of complex things by reducing them to the interactions of their parts, has encouraged us to see ourselves as separate from nature, and to view the world around us as something to be analysed and over-exploited for our own wants and needs, with scant regard for the consequences.
Our prevailing view of nature as a battleground of competing species, each fighting to survive, is a narrow view of a more complex picture. When Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859, the phrase "survival of the fittest" was quickly co-opted and distorted by powerful elites to promote the idea that only the biggest, strongest, and most powerful can survive.
Survival of the Most Adaptable
In reality, what Darwin found and described in his findings was that organisms with the greatest ability to adapt to their local environment – “the fittest” – would survive where others would fail. He found that sensing, responding, adapting, and aligning with and within the local ecosystem were key to survival.
Recent scientific discoveries, coupled with advances in systems thinking and quantum theory, continue to build on these findings, and are uncovering a more complex and complete view of nature, the workings of the universe, and the evolution of life.
Throughout history, nature has survived and flourished through times of radical change and disruption by dynamic networks and collaborations among species and throughout ecosystems.
Diversity, flexibility and collaboration, we find, is core to the interwoven evolutionary journey of life – the driving forces that provide resilience and regeneration within species and ecosystems. In the words of business pioneers Michael Braungart and William McDonough in their book Cradle to Cradle:
“Popular wisdom holds that the fittest survive, the strongest, leanest, largest, perhaps meanest – whatever beats the competition. But in healthy, thriving natural systems it is actually the 'fitting-est' who thrive. Fitting-est implies an energetic and material engagement with place, and an interdependent relationship to it.”
Breaking the Business-As-Usual Illusion
So how does business go about shifting from the prevalent mindset of reductionism and the goal of maximizing short-term profit - where the world is a collection of things to be consumed (nature’s capital) - to a world-view that has an energetic and material engagement with place and an interdependent relationship with life which is symbiotic not carcinogenic?
In other words, how does the prevalent approach to business (and human society) break the devastating illusion that we are separate from nature?
This is the sixty-billion dollar question - not whether the U.S. defaults on its growing spiral of debt, just one of many symptoms we are now experiencing as a result of our failure to address the root cause of our social, economic and environmental crises: our carcinogenic relationship with life.
Paradoxically, inspiration for the current pressing challenges is all around us in nature. Nature has been dealing with dynamic change for over 3.8 billion years and the more we explore nature, the more we find inspiration for operating in a dynamically changing business environment.
The more we grapple with the challenges our businesses now face, the more we realize that nature’s patterns and qualities inspire approaches and qualities for our own evolutionary success in business and beyond.