March 10, 1998
My company recently boiled its mission statement down to a single sentence: “helping companies and communities prosper by embedding the laws of nature at the heart of enterprise.” It’s hopefully both a more elegant and a more thought-provoking way of saying “Make more money being clean.”
The words were chosen carefully. “Prosper” refers not only to making money (which is typically all people think of when they think of “prosperity”) but also, in the true sense of the word’s etymology, to moving toward hope, toward the dream — pro + spera. “Embedding” speaks of shifting “environment” and “sustainable development” from peripheral, operational concerns to central, strategic business drivers. The “heart of enterprise” (a phrase shamelessly borrowed from Stafford Beer’s fine book of that title) suggests both that strategic core and the place in organizations where the dream lives, where the most fundamental course-setting decisions get made.
But “laws of nature” may seem less familiar, less evident. As an American, even more as a child of the non-conforming 60s, I’ve been congenitally suspicious of laws, rules and external constraints. “Question Authority” was after all a best selling bumper sticker in those halcyon days.
I began to understand even the most traditional rules with new insight, though, after I heard Oakland (California) Rabbi Burt Jacobson observe that perhaps the “Ten Commandments” — those stern pronouncements of a jealous, patriarchal god — weren’t commandments at all; perhaps they were gifts, a roadmap, a clue. Along the lines of: “Listen carefully. I’m going to let you in on a secret. Here are the rules for how things really work. If you pay attention to them in your life, your life will probably go a lot better than if you don’t.”
It provided a moment of great release and clarity for me, as dogma suddenly transformed into practicality, and an echo of what we try to tell our clients: if you pay attention to the ways things work, things work better.
As much as we all may favor individual freedom and the right of people to choose their own path in life, it’s generally clear that the items proscribed by the Ten Commandments (and by the core teachings of most religious and cultures, which despite cultural variation show up with a great deal of commonality) — murder, covetousness, dishonor of parents, and the rest — are not, shall we say, very conducive to stable communities. Societies whose citizens internalize certain basic constraints — call it morality, call it workability — are likely to run more smoothly than those that don’t.
(I know I risk having my motives misunderstood here, so let me clarify. I draw this analogy neither to preach religion, particular or in general, nor to promote fundamentalism. But sometimes it does make sense to pay attention to fundamentals.)
So it is with our exploding world of commerce and industry; there are ways things work, and ways they don’t. The world of commerce, in its single-minded pursuit of economic growth, has come to believe its own metaphors of money as the measure of all things. But money is calibrated not to physical reality but to the passing breezes of exchange rates, comparative advantage and technological evolution. It floats free, seemingly independent of more durable realities like the laws of thermodynamics and more fundamental factors like the value of “Nature’s services” [see NBL 6.07: Nature’s Services: Our invisible bank account comes into focus], and the other aspects of our lives that we still conveniently dismiss as “externalities” — as though there were anything “external” in a biosphere essentially closed to significant entry or departure of matter. But of course money is not independent of the physics that underlies the chemistry that underlies the biology that underlies the ecology that underlies the human economy.
We all recognize this, of course, if we just take a moment to think it through; we just rarely do. I suspect this is in part because we really don’t like to give up wiggle room we’d prefer to pretend we have. But nature’s laws are not like society’s laws. They disclose cause and effect, not legislation and jurisprudence. Management consultant Steven Covey, in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, quotes Cecil B. deMille, who “observed of the principles contained in his monumental movie The Ten Commandments, ‘It is impossible for us to break the law. We can only break ourselves against the law.'”
And so it is with the laws of nature. It is ultimately impossible for us to break the law — whether the law of gravity, the laws of thermodynamics or any of the 95 other generalized principles that Buckminster Fuller observed as operative throughout the universe. It sometimes seems that we can, but there is an inevitable price to pay. Sometimes we pay the price benignly by expending energy to leverage one principle to overcome (but never eliminate) another — as by using the Bernoulli effect to lift an aircraft. But we get into more trouble, and pay the price in far less pleasant ways, when we pretend that the laws don’t exist — for example as the byproducts of industrial society continue to clog up reproductive chemistry and other biological processes.
So while a moral anchor offers a clear imperative for human conduct, the laws of nature — the way things work in the physical universe — offer a clear design imperative for successful societies, and for successful businesses, which typically seek to avoid unnecessary costs. Once they understand them.
Next time: The Story of O.
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(Many previous NBLs have touched on related territory; most recently NBL 6.25, Some Food for Thought. Please Chew Thoroughly., suggested some guiding principles for design and management in line with nature’s laws, while NBL 7.2, A Simple Business Model. A Profound Business Challenge., offered some strategies for their application.)
For links to the books mentioned in this NBL, you can visit the Natural Logic/Amazon.com Bookstore . (If you don’t see what you want, please check back; we update it periodically.)