What book best explains the today’s world of business — the credit crunch, housing bust, diving dollar, etc.? That’s the question that reporter Frank Ahrens of The Washington Post put to some biz luminaries, resulting in a lively story in today’s paper.
Interestingly, my friend Nell Minow (of The Corporate Library and movie mom fame) and my former college classmate Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. recommended the same book, David Copperfield, and cited the same quote, the advice given by Mr. Micawber to David:
‘Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.’ Following that advice will protect you from the worst of economic upheavals.
Ah, yes. In a similar vein, Sheila Bair, chairwoman of the FDIC, recommended a novel, So Big, by Edna Ferber, about a frugal mother and spendthrift son, and wrote:
The shift in values from mother to son can also be viewed as allegory for our own nation’s continuing cultural shift. We have moved away from the values of thrift and financial security held by our Depression-era parents to that of overuse of credit to fund lifestyles we cannot afford, that have not always brought happiness, and — in the case of the foreclosure crisis — that have caused dislocation and despair.
True enough. Frank’s story got me thinking about what book I’d recommend if I were asked to select a single volume that explains the beat I cover–the world of green business, corporate responsibility and capitalism, for better or worse. Many come to mind but my pick for the most recent book that best captures what’s going on in business (and elsewhere) today is the latest from one of my favorite business writers, Paul Hawken. It’s called Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came Into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming (Viking 2007).
In Blessed Unrest, Hawken, whose previous books, Natural Capitalism and The Ecology of Commerce, have shaped much of my thinking about business and the environment, takes on a much bigger topic–the vast array of very loosely networked environmental and social justice organizations, operating in every corner of the globe. They have no orthodoxy or charismatic leader, they often operate independently, many are tiny and local, some well-funded and global–and together they are changing the world of business, and therefore the world. Blessed Unrest is a very optimistic book that connects the dots among such disparate people and organizations as Emerson, Thoreau, Gandhi and Martin Luther King; LEED, Wikipedia and the Grameen Bank; Partners in Health, Amazon Watch and Cree Indians who are fighting development of the oil sands in Alberta, Canada. Hawken writes:
This movement’s key contribution is the rejection of one big idea in order to offer in its place thousands of practical and useful ones. Instead of isms it offers processes, concern and compassion. The movement demonstrates a pliable, resonant and generous side of humanity. It does not aim for the utopian, which itself is just another ism, but is eminently pragmatic.
And it is impossible to pin down….the movement defies conventional typologies…Should the idea of using renewable sources to achieve localized energy independence be categorized as radical, conservative, ecological, good long-term economics or socially equitable?
Hawken’s book, like the movement he’s writing about, is hard to summarize or even categorize. (Although it should be noted that he and his colleagues at the Natural Capital Institute have tried to keep track of what’s going on: See WISER, the World Index of Social and Environmental Responsibility at www.wiserearth.org. It currently lists 109,212 organizations. Amazing.)
In the book, he says:
The massive growth of citizen-based organizations responds to threats that are new, immense and game-changing. These groups defend against corrupt politics and climate change, corporate predation and the death of oceans, governmental indifference and pandemic poverty, industrial forestry and farming and depletion of soil and water….
And they are getting results:
Despite centuries-long practices of despoilation and pollution, almost every responsible corporation in the world is moving away from destructive practices and trying to institute more sustainable ones, and all of them have turned to NGOs to assist, teach, inspire and urge them on.
That, in the journalism biz, is what we call “the nut graf”–the single idea that summarizes the book. To understand how and why citizen groups around the world are changing business, well, you’ll have to read the rest of the book yourself.
Which reminds me–there are a number of promising biz and enviro books coming out this fall that I want to mention. (Disclosure: all three are by authors who are often sources of mine, and who I enjoy a great deal.) Sitting by my bedside are Strategies for the Green Economy by Joel Makower of Greenbiz.com, aka the guru of green business, Coming Clean: Breaking America’s Addiction to Oil and Coal by the activist Mike Brune of the Rainforest Action Network and Greener Than Thou: Are you Really an Environmentalist? by Terry Huggins, the free-market environmentalist (and no, that’s not an oxymoron) who’s a fellow at the Hoover Insitution at Stanford, and his colleague Laura Huggins.