This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on February 1, 2021 - February 7, 2021
In recent months, business groups of all hues have announced a slew of measures to address environmental, social and governance (ESG) concerns over their operations.
The changes in business practices — ranging from de-carbonising the supply chain to investing in workers’ well-being — have grown from a trickle to a flood, making it difficult even to keep up with the pace of the transformation that is taking place.
While the shift in priorities from the bottom line towards a more wholesome outlook bodes well for our species, there is a core element that is still lacking in the businesses’ motivations — a moral sense that makes these enterprises inherently ecocentric, just or ethical.
In plain language, the pivot towards ESG concerns is mostly driven by pressure from investors and regulators, although a growing sense of responsibility can be seen in the outlook of many business groups.
A key motivation is avoidance of the risk of damage to a brand’s reputation. Companies are now keenly conscious that this may come with revelations of unconscionable actions such as unethical business conduct, environmental harm from their operations or oppressive labour practices.
For the most part, these changes are being adopted as a reaction to demands for accountability rather than an innate sense of higher purpose beyond creating value for shareholders.
Because of this essentially self-interested outlook, the best efforts of these corporations to live up to public expectations of their responsibility to promote human welfare fail to dent the intractable problems of our modern world — from extreme inequality to ecological collapse to economic instability.
The inability of business to respond effectively to the systemic crises of our times stems from an existential flaw in our current relationship with wealth. This is the belief that the pursuit of self-interest is a natural and positive force that will ultimately result in the good of society.
This belief has been sustained by the promise of abundance arising from the flourishing of capitalist economies. It has taken over three centuries for the weaknesses of unalloyed free enterprise to bring the global economy to its current critical state, but that day has now dawned.
Beyond this blind faith in the power of wealth lies another problematic notion — that matter is the fundamental substance of nature. The prevalence of materialism as a concept in modern times has fostered the attitude that everything is permitted since matter is the only reality, and nature’s resources can be freely exploited for human consumption.
This presumption about a material basis for the universe is a legacy of the censorship of scientific inquiry during the Inquisition. Renaissance history tells us that the dogma which the Church used to quell views that challenged its authority as the arbiter of knowledge gave rise to a bitter opposition to its beliefs.
Ironically, a similar dogmatism now binds scientific orthodoxy to the materialistic view despite powerful evidence of its limitations.
However, the inadequacy of the materialistic paradigm is reaching a point where the growing mass of anomalous data can no longer be dismissed.
In 2019, the authority of scientific materialism was called into question in a report of the Galileo Commission, which represents a distinguished group of over 90 scientific advisers affiliated to 30 universities worldwide.
In his introduction to the report, the commission’s chair David Lorimer explains that its purpose is to expand the presuppositions of science. The commission’s name comes from the refusal of Galileo’s opponent at Padua University to look through Galileo’s telescope at the moon and planets.
The report’s author Prof Harald Walach writes:
“Our motive is to contribute to a liberation of science from needless shackles and freeing the public image and discourse about science of illicit limitations and restrictive conceptions. This, we hope, will contribute to an expanded science that helps us deal with the impending problems, from worldwide social injustice to the depletion of the planet to climate change and the threat of global economic breakdown.”
The report further notes: “In view of the widespread perception that a narrow materialist world view is often uncritically passed on to young scientists by mainstream authorities as an adequate explanation of reality and as a pre-condition for a successful scientific career, we call for an open exploration of this topic.”
Tellingly, this points to a systemic suppression of inquiry and even the undermining of careers for those who raise uncomfortable questions about the flaws of the materialist proposition.
Such rigidity in thinking no longer serves humanity and is even dangerous for our survival.
Given the problems besetting global development, the need for a radical shift in approach to trade and investment to ensure economic and social justice is becoming increasingly acute.
For a sustainable and just economic system to emerge, a future generation of business leaders who are grounded in humanism and holistic living have to be nurtured. At present, such values occupy an exotic fringe in the business education landscape, and work in this area is groundbreaking and experimental.
A notable effort is this area is the Sejahtera Leadership component of an MBA programme run by the International Islamic University Malaysia, which was launched in October. A focus on sustainable development is a key feature of the module, which was pioneered by the university’s rector Tan Sri Prof Dzulkifli Abdul Razak, who is also the founder convenor of the Sejahtera Leadership Initiative.
The Sejahtera concept, as espoused by Dzulkifli over several decades as an educationist, entails engagement at four levels — man’s relationship with his inner self, with the Creator, with his fellow humans and with nature.
Participants in the MBA course are encouraged to evaluate development through a framework of values described by the acronym SPICES, which stands for the spiritual, physico-psychological, intellectual, cognitive, cultural, ethical, emotional, ecological, economic and societal dimensions.
Last month, Dzulkifli took another important step towards creating a new pathway for tertiary education by convening a “Roundtable Discussion on Paradigm Shifts in Economics”.
The event marks the launching of an overhaul of the university’s curriculum to address the fundamental flaw in the global academic establishment that is predicated on a reductionist approach to the inquiry into reality.
Speaking at the online roundtable, Prof Steve Keen of the University College London noted that a 1970 study of the world economy, called “The Limits of Growth”, had correctly identified the problems inherent in the model of continued worldwide growth due to resource constraints and population growth.
However, the conclusions of that study were dismissed by the influential economist Prof William Nordhaus of Yale University as conceptually flawed. Unfortunately, says Keen, much of the world had latched onto the position taken by Nordhaus and ignored the message in the Limits of Growth study.
In so doing, says Keen, the world had lost a valuable opportunity to change its self-destructive trajectory.
By initiating a radical overhaul of the university curriculum, Dzulkifli is taking a bold step to include the non-material dimension of knowledge to produce an integrated approach towards learning.
It requires courage for the university to make a break with the academic establishment, but if our self-imposed blinkers are removed, there is really no other choice.
Rash Behari Bhattacharjee is associate editor at The Edge
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