“The ultimate, hidden truth of the world, is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.” —David Graeber, RIP
Happy new year, and welcome back—to a year that we all hope is really new—and that is already busy shaking us up! (I love all the hopes and wishes for a better year in 2021, but I’m reminded that history is not driven by calendars. It’s driven by human actions, and the contingencies the world offers up to us. The assault on the US Capitol is just one reminder.)
It’s been a long time since I last posted at length, so let me give you a quick update on an unquiet year, let you know what I’m up to now that I’m back in the saddle (after an extended hiatus focusing on personal matters), and share a few reflections on the year and decade. Not a top 10, but some perspectives on this year, on what may lie ahead, and on the promise—and problem—of purpose. (We’ll be rolling out some new offerings this year, so be sure to stay on—or join—this list to make sure you get the word.)
RECENT WORK (in a “quiet” year)
- Thought partnerships with CEOs, CFOs, and CSOs offer an opportunity for thinking—deeply—and what’s so and what’s next.
- A growing focus on climate finance (including work with the ZNEAlliance on regional climate strategies for the SF Bay Area—and how to finance them; with the UN on engaging the finance organizations that manage ~30% of total global assets on “systems change for the common good”; and developing some new financial offerings of our own.
- Life online, with keynote provocations to BuiltGreen on sustainable cities and retrofits at scale, Conscious Capital on the structural defects in modern “capital-ism,” the Buckminster Fuller Institute on design science, the Energy & Environment 100 on my nearly 50 years in the sustainability trenches, and our own webinar series on Covid, Climate, and Living with Grace, Calm, and Power in a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) World. You’ll find some of these on my YouTube channel; we’ll post others soon.
In the world around us, the fossil fuel industry appears to be entering terminal (though slow) decline, with renewable energy and distributed energy resources in the ascendant, and EVs gaining momentum as country after country bans internal combustion vehicle. But the sustainability catechism has taken some hits:
- Recycling and circularity are buffeted, as global supply chains are challenged—in both directions. One potential outcome: the return of short loops. One certain outcome: the continued rapid rise of renewables, perhaps the ultimate short loop. As Grist put it, 2020 was a win for climate activism in many ways.
- Breakdowns in the “S” of ESG, as the gig economy joins the neoliberal agenda of dismantling government and hard-won workers’ rights, and income disparities widen. On the other hand, ESG is on the ascendant in the global investment world. Which are you going to take as the better leading indicator?
- Despite loftier-by-the-month GHG emissions reduction goals, we still live in the land of “predatory delay,” with very few companies, countries, or cities meeting those goals.
- And we find ourselves in the tenacious grip of not one but three plagues: COVID-19, the climate crisis, and systemic racism.
THE CERTAINTY OF UNCERTAINTY
I wrote this fully recognizing the folly of writing anything these days—since anything I write may be overtaken by events by the time you read it!—certainly until the US political theater settles down on January 20. Hopefully. But one of the lessons of this crazy year is that
“Uncertainty is the only certainty there is, and knowing how to live with insecurity is the only security.” -John Allen Paulos
A deep realization rippled through society as we came to terms with Covid last spring: the profound uncertainty that we are living in as the pandemic era emerges. The joke is that we’ve always lived in a world of uncertainty; we’ve just acted lived and acted as though we could count on the ground beneath our feet not shifting, as though we could predict what is to come. That’s how we’ve interpreted personal experience, but it’s not what history tells us. So we’re challenged to consider:
- How will we live, manage, and invest in the world of utter uncertainty?
- How will we prepare our selves, and our institutions, to be agile and adaptive.?
- How will we develop strategies and cultures of contingency?
- How will we maintain peace of mind, and organizational coherence, in the face of roiling change?
THE PROBLEM WITH PURPOSE
Living with purpose, having purpose at the heart of your business’s core commitments, seems to be one answer. It’s a way to keep all eyes on the prize, on a longer time horizon that buffers you from the addiction of quarterly earnings reports, the crisis du jour, and the seemingly constant stream of “breaking news” (which seems to be the only sort of news there is these days).
The purpose-driven organization is, arguably, more adaptive—able to operate with a more flexible notion of what business it’s really in, able to “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” able to shift its near-term focus in service to its long-term purpose, able to maintain a steady gaze on the horizon while riding out the storms of the moment?
“A visionary company carefully preserves and protects its core ideology, yet all the specific manifestations of its core ideology [from strategies to products] must be open to change and evolution.” -Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras
But there’s a problem with purpose, one that the brilliant anthropologist and cybernetician Gregory Bateson wrote about more than 50 years ago in a chapter titled “The effects of conscious purpose on human adaptation,” in his seminal Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Purpose, for all its focusing and generative power, risks narrowing our field of view, risks losing the perspective and context that we so desperately need in order to be wise. Especially in tumultuous and historic moments like these.
So here’s another challenge:
- to be committed to purpose, but not lose the context, the relationships, the utter interconnectedness and interdependence of all life;
- to act effectively in the short term in the face of the uncertainty of the medium term with a commitment to the long-term;
- to learn to ride out the storms with a measure of calm and clarity, while others panic or dither.
TALKING THE WALK
How? Well, that’s worth a conversation, don’t you think? There are no playbooks, no checklists, no algorithms that can figure it out for you. The path comes alive as we walk it, as we talk together about our journey, our commitments, and what we’re learning.
Traveller, there is no path. The path is made by walking. -Antonio Machado
I’ve learned this year that people are hungry for meaningful conversations. Conversations that move worlds. Shall we have one?
Those are the conversations I piloted in the spring, and which we’ll resume early this year with series of new offerings—courses and discourses that I promise will open new worlds and opportunities for you, your businesses, and your communities.
“The old idea was not simply to turn the page or change a number on the calendar and simply start over again; that way leads to the next world being just like this one. Rather the world had to be symbolically dissolved before it could be created anew. Time has to be not just stopped, but broken open in order to break the spell and the hold that the dying year has on life.” – Michael Meade
Thank you, as always, for all you do. Watch for the announcements about what’s to come.
Meanwhile, stay resolute, stay safe—and stay tuned!
Gil Philip Friend
CEO, Natural Logic Inc.
Founder, Critical Path Capital and the Critical Path Academy
The task ahead (if we were to really tell the truth about it):
Reinventing the economy of an entire planet.
This planet. In one generation.
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