Earth Day 2023: The Titanic is about to hit the iceberg; we should be working out how to stop the collision

This Q&A was written by Professor Anette Mikes and Dr Steve New, both fellows at Hertford, as part of a paper they co-wrote for The Journal of Management Inquiry in response to Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel “Ministry for the Future”. The full paper can be read here.

How to Create an Optopia? — Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Ministry for the Future” and the Politics of Hope

Hertford College and Saïd Business School, Oxford University

Interview answers by Anette Mikes and Steve New

What motivated you to pursue this research?
AM: First, as a scholar, I have always been interested in man-made disasters, and apart from the recurring organizational crises in banks and supposedly safety-conscious institutions, I have been increasingly worried about climate change. Anthropogenic climate change is the largest disaster made by humans, a truly existential risk, that we face. While during much of my career we could consider climate risk as manageable, there are now loud and clear scientific warnings that we are probably on a trajectory towards catastrophe. That is, it is possible that we shall break certain planetary boundaries, leading to devastating outcomes such as “hot-house Earth”, or an ice-free planet, putting our civilization and countless other species at risk. My key motivation for this work comes from the necessity to face up to this challenge. I agree with author Kim Stanley Robinson that however dreadful and bleak the future appears, we have a moral obligation not to give up. There are already people who are suffering from climate impacts and doing their best to cope – for those in more privileged positions it becomes a duty to work towards a liveable world and a more hopeful future.

Second, I have been following the “climate wars” that have been unfolding since scientists first started to warn us about the dangers of environmental change influenced by global warming. For me, it was the work of Naomi Orsekes and her co-authors that served as a turning point; I came to understand that climate inaction – an insufficient societal response to a globally serious risk – has deep social-psychological, economic, and political roots. Many of our most powerful corporations – not to mention politicians and governments – were implicated in climate denialism and inaction, as there were entrenched interests fighting to maintain the status quo. This led to questions about the roles and responsibilities of corporations and governments (and those who back them) and what we teach in business schools, public governance schools, and beyond.

Third, it is my conviction that we need to end the ideological “climate wars” and work towards an optimal society, the best one possible, given where we are now, given everything, using the most constructive and least destructive tools humanity has developed: politics and diplomacy; business and economics; laws and treaties. The alternative is the spectre of violence and war, and suffering imposed on the powerless and on future generations.

SN: Like Anette, I’ve come to a slow realisation of the urgency of climate change, and an accompanying sense of unease about academic practice in business schools and universities generally. In particular, I’ve been struck by the increasing erosion of serious engagement with the world and its problems, and the growing dominance of instrumental behaviour – behaviour which appears to be continually reinforced by institutional pressures. Sure – there is a burgeoning interest in responsible capitalism in business schools. But if you scratch the surface, the underlying motivation is often attracting students or winning funding or building academic careers. Furthermore, ethical concerns need constantly to justified by some appeal to some other, more orthodox agenda. This seems to be the exact parallel of what happens in business; questions of ethics and justice are somehow only legitimate if they can be bent into a more comfortable frame of reference. A recent Private Eye cartoon by Andrew Evans sums this up: a group of serious-looking men sit solemnly around a table, with one reflecting “What we need is a good economic argument for giving hungry children free meals”.

What I found so impressive about Robinson’s novel is that it doesn’t flinch from a singular focus on the reality of what we face. Unlike much eco-fiction, it’s not using the crisis as a convenient mise-en-scène for some other literary purpose. It relentlessly sticks to being a story about the crisis and our response to it. Our research should be like that. The Titanic is about to hit the iceberg; we should be working out how to stop the collision. Instead, we’re observing the chaos on the bridge and noting the fascinating interplay of conflicting authority structures – and thinking how we can publish an article on how this connects to the existing theory on distributed decision-making.

Were there any specific external events—political, social, or economic—that influenced your decision to pursue this research?
The Paris Climate Agreement, in December 2017. I have been following climate diplomacy and climate action since my student years and have been increasingly concerned about the dissonance between rhetoric and reality. While in principle the world’s nations have agreed to rein in climate risk and to reduce carbon emissions, at a global level, emissions continue to rise. The 2020s are seen as a watershed decade – in this decade, and not later, we must make changes so that we don’t break certain important planetary boundaries. Yet emissions are continuing unabated. Unsustainable growth practices and resource exploitation remain as well, ushering in ecological disaster. Clearly, there is a need to understand and close the gap between rhetoric and reality. Either the mainstream science is wrong, or we must engineer a giant societal and economic transformation.

What has been the most challenging aspect of conducting your research?
In this article, our goals were to build a provocation and develop some propositions about the direction of capitalism and the purpose of management research in an age of climate crisis. If the foundations of our civilization—and even the survival of humanity—face such a serious threat, does the research being encouraged and conducted by business schools make sense? Do the ways we engage with corporations and institutions provide challenge or solace to those steering our liner towards the iceberg? And does the current compartmentalizing of academic work undermine our ability to engage with the oncoming challenges? Our initial answers to these questions were depressing; there is a lot of greenwashing, cynicism, nihilism; a collective loss of positive visions of the future. The most challenging aspect of our research is to see beyond dread and greed and plutocratic capitalism. Against this backdrop, we had to find a politics of hope.

Having read Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Ministry for the Future” and reflected on it in the context of the managerial literature around the climate crisis, we set out to imagine a middle ground between utopia and dystopia; an optimum scenario which can still leave us with a liveable future.

Were there any surprising findings?
Yes. First, we conclude that climate response is too important to be left to corporations or the governments alone. Rather than falling back on government or the corporation as an “either/or” choice, we need a “both/and” approach. For business, the challenge is that capital (at least in our kind of capitalism) seeks investment opportunities that offer the highest expected rate of return. Many decarbonization projects do not offer the highest rate of return – we give the example of drawing down 500 gigatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (which some experts estimate we have to do by 2100). Achieving that would more likely be possible if the problem was viewed more like a community’s investing in sewage treatment and infrastructure – if and where it is done, government pays for this work, often by hiring private firms to do it, and often using taxes to pay the costs. The same approach is probably going to have to be true of CO2. In that project too, there is not enough market demand to do the necessary. So, we need government.

Second, we go against the neoliberal belief that free markets can take care of the decarbonization problem. No, they can’t and won’t, at least not at the scale and speed that we need now.

Third, we highlight the power of the active inclusion of communities and citizens in climate response through democratic, polycentric governance structures. Here we take a page from the Nobel-laureate economist Elinor Ostrom who depicted, against the once dominant theory of the “tragedy of commons,” a hopeful and varied world of polycentric systems capable of governing common-pool resources such as the global atmosphere. I believe that the crucial fault lines lie not between capitalism and the climate, but between capitalism—in its corporate plutocratic variant—and democracy. Ostrom’s polycentric systems of governing commons may well be our best hope.

Fourth, as the corporation is a legal fiction, its terms of engagement with society can be changed by society itself. So, just as in Robinson’s optopia, governments could get their act together, close loopholes for tax havens, legally bind corporations to provide environmental stewardship, and—via a large-scale “carbon quantitative easing”—pay entrenched private corporations and sovereign states for leaving fossil fuels in the ground (and substantial profits on the table), while obliging them to invest their compensation funds in the green energy transition. Such expansionist economics had been labelled as wasteful and irresponsible during the free-market–oriented Reagan-Thatcher era; however, in our time, Keynesianism is back with a vengeance. This brings our key insight into focus: economics is essentially quantified ethics. There is nothing inevitable about the superiority of either neoliberal market economics or Keynesianism. The questions are: which is ideologically acceptable in a given context and which can, through its distributive practices, match the prevailing values and priorities?

In what ways is your research innovative, and how do you think it will impact the field?
With respect to the management field, we advocate, and hopefully demonstrate, an approach to the crisis which embraces the need for holism. All the problems are interconnected, as are all the solutions. The climate crisis defies disciplinary boundaries. We need to consider accounting as much as geo-engineering: a system-level response. Yet we in the academic universe, faced with a problem demanding the combined efforts of both private enterprise and the state, carry on an intellectual life carved into artificially neat domains. At some point we quip that everyone believes in the importance of a multidisciplinary perspective, except at those moments that matter most in a practical academic career: earning one’s doctorate, receiving a promotion in rank, and the award of tenure. On a more hopeful note, recent developments in leading management journals are pointing to a broadening of research formats and perspectives, which we certainly support.

Second, our approach is humanistic, and focuses on an exemplar of what the economic historian Deidre McCloskey calls “humanomics”- the economics in Robinson’s work is informed by a deep understanding of the power of the stories humans tell, and the emphasis is on the importance of meaning, persuasion, talk, and relationships in cooperation and economic life. The implication for an economic science – and we would go as far as claiming, for management science – is that it needs the humanities. We posit that such a humanistic turn is essential for the Academy as Ministry. In the face of an existential threat, businesses and their leaders face existentialist choices, and the essence of leadership becomes the definition of the response strategies as meaning-giving projects, informed by universal values and a willed optimism in the face of the dread of disaster. Management scholars, preparing and inspiring students for meaning-giving leadership that is capable of championing various decarbonization projects, must learn from literature and philosophy, as well as from the physical sciences.

Finally, we need to treat academic work as scholarship, driven more by lofty values and commitment, and less by the dogmatism of the prevailing journal architecture and third-party rankings. The question for the academy is, how do we keep an inter-generational and costly climate-action project going; how do we commit multiple generations to it? Along with Robinson, we advocate a pragmatic turn in which economics, finance and accounting take on the mantle of creating the requisite incentives that also reduce inequality and injustice; history, philosophy and legal scholarship engages further in matters of social and climate justice, with diplomacy and political science in tow, helping to create the frameworks for a grand historical transformation. What we envision is what my friend and educational scholar William D. Greenfield calls “the rebirth of the normative”; and we see an important role for academics in imagining a more hopeful future and creating a more narratively rooted management and organizing practice.

What advice would you give to new scholars and incoming researchers in this particular field of study?
Courage. You will be a historically critical generation of academics who can redefine the academy as Ministry – undertaking multidisciplinary work to further a more just and liveable planet, while representing future generations as well as the voiceless of today, as well.

Methodological pluralism. It allows managerial researchers to stay relevant and close to practice. Engage in case studies and field experiments to understand and evaluate emerging practices, and diverse policies and response strategies in the contexts in which they occur. Methodological pluralism is important if we are to humanize our subject – following McCloskey, treating our subject as humanomics – so the intelligent use of numbers, statistics and models ought to complement, rather than substitute for qualitative and field-based insights.

Interdisciplinarity. We’ll need management scholars to join forces with other disciplines: economics, accounting and finance, the humanities, and the natural and engineering sciences, if they are to be relevant in imagining an optopia. We need multiple disciplines working together to determine the answer to questions such as:

  • Should people profit from exploiting the environment?
  • Or should they profit from not exploiting it further; that is, should we compensate fossil-fuel companies and petro-states for leaving fossil fuels in the ground?
  • Should we as society allow unimaginable plutocratic wealth as our only escape route? As we provocatively put it in the paper, should Elon Musk become rich enough to take a few remnant souls with him to Mars?

Willed optimism. Gramsci popularised a phrase, which describes this advice: deploy the pessimism of the intellect, and the optimism of the will. It’s the will that is very important in that phrase. Given our situation, along with Robinson, we would recommend being fuelled by dread, but also buoyed, and kept focused on the necessary work, by willed hope. At a fundamental level, our concern is that the – current doom-laden zeitgeist, with its heightened sense of dread, simply obliterates hope for a worthwhile future, and so the grubby ambitions dominate because the lofty ones are crushed under the prospect of societal doom. The metanarrative of inevitable doom crowds out those of building a sustainable and positive future. So, along with Robinson, we offer cautious optimism, the optimism of the will.

Embrace the normative. In this paper, we invite proposals and solutions to cover the middle ground between managerial utopias, popular in conservative neoliberal circles, in which the corporation and the market act as our saviours, and critical scholars’ dystopias, in which the economic hegemony leads us to catastrophe. Show that organizing can be done in many different ways! We don’t need to believe that capitalism will save us, but we must start with the existing political and economic framework, challenging and pushing its boundaries as we proceed. In this way, we can help accelerate evolution and prevent creative destruction from turning into creative self-destruction.

What is the most important/ influential piece of scholarship you’ve read in the last year?
AM: Economic historian Deidre McCloskey’s Humanomics; the late economist Elinor Ostrom’s writings on polycentric governance of complex economic systems; and the late philosopher Mary Midgley’s work on The myths we live by, and her impassioned attack on the growing mistrust of narrative moral judgement (Can’t We Make Moral Judgments?). These authors are all in agreement on the importance of meaning, persuasion, talk, and relationships in cooperation and economic life. Further, on the existentialist challenge of creating meaning-giving projects in the face of uncertainty, my friend and colleague Alan Morrison pointed me to Simone de Beauvoir’s brilliant reflections on The ethics of ambiguity. What I draw from all these works is the conclusion that management needs the humanities. Management scholars need to embrace both the humanities and pragmatic realism in order to give voice to future generations and the silent (or silenced) victims of the present and inspire a liveable future—an optopia—that we can still forge from where we are.

SN: I’ve been impressed by those scholars who work in the domain of my home field (supply chain) but from perspectives informed by political science; I’ve been particular impressed by the work of Sarosh Kuruvilla (Private Regulation of Labor in Global Supply Chains: Problems, Progress and Prospects), and Genevieve LeBaron (Combatting Modern Slavery: Why Labour Governance is Failing and What We Can Do About It). These authors address the question of what might be achieved by the private sector in regard to labour standards, and point to the substantial gaps between corporate aspirations and real outcomes; an issue of direct relevance to the climate crisis.