I almost bailed out. My back was out of whack when I woke up the day before the two-day conference. I thought: I need to listen to my body. It isn’t up for this trip. As I lay in bed imagining the five hour bus ride to NYC, the additional hour (or more) to get out to Maria’s in Queens, the intensity of the two-day conference schedule, the return trip on Sunday and subsequent “loss” of the entire weekend in terms of everything else I needed to do, I decided not to go.
The luxury of a long weekend of “extra time” stretched out before me as I settled into a hot bath and began reading a gift from my former roommate – a partner in the (idea of) my start-up. As far as I know, Joan Borysenko did not attend the Global Summit, but she got me there by reminding me that I am on to something…
Leaving aside the question of whether or not human activities have caused global warming, the need for climate recovery is the fundamental context for the current and future societal organization of, by, and for homo sapiens. When Goldman Sachs states that without change the planet will be two degrees warmer by 2030, they signal the seriousness of the matter for every human being on the planet, not just the wealthy. The concept of sustainability, however, is severely limited:
a) “sustainability” – as used in the media, politics, business, academia and grassroots movements – can refer to anything (what linguists call an empty signifier), hence is prone to being misunderstood among people using it (what interpreters call a communication breakdown), and
b) the premise of “sustainability” is continuity: the avoidance of change. Hello? This is not a newsflash: change is already here.
From a discourse and group dynamics perspective, continuing to use the term sustainability in the current ways is evidence of mass rationalization of reality. During the Community Circle conference review sessions at the end of the first day of the program, Amy, Devon, Cynthia, Judy, Katie, Marika, Jenny, Mary, Teresa, Nancy, and Mr. Manbassador helped me realize there are similar challenges with the term resiliency. As I’ve continued to consider our conversation about Building Green Economies and Enabling Sustainability, what I realized is that we need the interplay of these two terms – conceptually and in practice – if we are really going to recreate institutional systems capable of maintaining and spreading high qualities of human existence.
“The World Flows on Credit”
The economy, leadership, and change were consistent themes of the Summit. We learned about the current state of the economy, including historical factors and future projections. Barbara Byrne was, as she said, “in the front car of a railroad train that went off the tracks.” She had worked for Lehman Brothers for 28 years prior to “that Sunday morning,” September 15, 2008, “the morning I no longer had health insurance or job security or anything else…(and) had lost 60% of my net worth just like that.” Barbara emphasized the psychological elements of group decision-making during and after the “12 Standard Deviation Event” that was the unintended consequence of Lehman Brothers being deemed a moral hazard.
I was particularly intrigued by Barbara’s perspective because of having watched the Frontline program, Inside the Meltdown, which included an instance of a problematic moment. James Cumming has distinguished group-level problematic moments from difficult interpersonal interactions. During a PM, conflicts in social realities emerge, becoming temporarily evident and available in ways that open possibilities for restructuring hierarchies of relationships within a given sociocultural field. Problematic moments are leverage points for fundamental social change.
Barbara spoke of the select group of male CEOs gathered with Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson at the White House making decisions according to the restricted focus that characterizes group communication during a crisis. Decision-making during crisis is especially challenging when the group lacks diversity. Barbara argued that society needs guardrails (government regulations), while insisting: “Business is important. It’s what makes the wheels turn.” She emphasized the “need (for) diversity in the room,” listing demographic features and knowledge sets so that people can test and push the boundaries of decision-making processes. Ultimately, she argued, “No matter what you think of TARP, [in this instance] government worked,” because Paulson confronted the credit freeze fallout “one piece at a time to open everything up.”
Time, Timing, History and the Future
Barbara emphasized the “need for long-term thinking.” This could have been interpreted as a poke at Abby Joseph Cohen of Goldman Sachs, who (earlier) had opened her talk with a joke: “I was just told I have ten minutes to tell you how to fix everything.” Chuckles spread through the room – we’re all looking for the quick fix, the right answer! This is (unfortunately) not forthcoming. Abby gave us “the one minute CNBC summary”:
- There will be no double dip, what we’re experiencing is the continuation of a natural deceleration
- The slow improvement in the labor force is a big problem that comes from longer-term structural issues – not just the credit crisis or recession (emphasis added)
- The equity market is priced below value, bonds are priced for perfection
“Something has happened…”
Abby described two historical trends in jobs and education. She spoke at the macrosocial, institutional level in the context of global competition, lamenting, “We have not seen this in generations. It goes to the heart of the American dream.” Barbara too expressed concern that Americans are losing our mojo, acting on the basis of fear instead of remembering and celebrating that the US “is fundamentally the most optimistic place on earth.” Abby’s diagnosis was sharp. The problem is the lack of job creation in the United States.
Abby explained that there has been “an ongoing deceleration of new jobs for a decade preceeding” the credit crisis; a 5% loss in jobs overall, and a 10% loss of blue-collar jobs were evident before the financial crisis erupted into public awareness. “When,” Lynn Tilton asked a short while later, “was there a taint on being blue?” Described by Vanessa Angeles of HSBC as “a private equity rock star,” Lynn minced no words arguing for bottom-up restructuring. Abby described the policy decision about the American economy when we switched to “what you know” from “what you can carry.” Lynn put numbers on the current fallout: 1 in 5 Americans is unemployed. One in seven American families is below the poverty level. “Why,” she challenged, “can’t we admit we made a mistake when we decided it is what you know rather than what we make?”
“What do we want for the future?”
Dr Mae Jemison (self-described as “the only person on the Star Trek set who had actually been in space”) put the problem in context by defining globalization in terms of two opposing possibilities.
Jemison: We can design globalization by emphasizing “the ability [of business] to make all markets homogenous,” or we can emphasize “the capacity of business to deliver to people the capacity to do what they want.”
Tilton: Describing how – contrary to the general historical drift – she had become an industrialist: “Nobody really wanted to rebuild the companies, they just wanted to focus on balance sheets.”
Cohen: “Our educational system is not keeping pace” with the rest of the world,” there has been “no improvement” in graduation percentages (especially from college) in more than a decade.
Tilton: “When parents are out of work, children are focused on survival, not education.”
The Blue-Collar Challenge
“We have the most extensive collegiate and university system in the world,” Abby insisted. “This is an important form of foreign aid.” International students who come here to earn degrees need to be allowed to stay.
“We also lose technology,” Lynn reminded everyone, “when we ship manufacturing overseas.”
Lynn argued for subsidized employment as “a better route than welfare.” “We are a nation that doesn’t have enough jobs,” she repeated, describing institutionalized unemployment as an illness which needs to be attacked at the root. “We can recreate jobs if we revisit the policy not to manufacture.”
While Lynn emphasized the absolute necessity of bottom-up restructuring, others focused on top-down policy-making that can “align business with social concerns,” as asked by someone in the audience during the lunchtime roundtable on Women & Innovation: Driving Innovation and Creating a Culture of Successful Innovation.
Later, in the session on The Future of the US and Global Economy: Market Dynamics, Growth, Black Holes & Public Policy, Andrea Feingold described the outdated logic of mortgages, in which people planned to live their lives in a single place, so it made sense to buy in one’s thirties and pay-off by one’s sixties in order to enjoy retirement in a home owned free-and-clear. Overall, however, the top-down discussion about solutions is a muddle. During the same panel, talking about tax incentives, Stephanie Breslow warned that “we can’t wean ourselves off foreign oil and just replicate another kind of dependency.” Joyce Chang described the necessity of ensuring “coordination of regulation or we will just transfer risk to another part of the world.”
Although we teased about HVPS, there are known and established facts which can guide the processes of defining problems and creating solutions:
- investing in women generates greater returns
- supporting the spread of international law serves to counter injustice
- defining terms and coordinating language use builds community
- creating desire promotes motivation to achieve goals
- considering others’ welfare enhances personal well-being and safety
- facing fear enables cooperation at new & different levels
In other words, as Angela Leaney emphasized, “When the plane is going down, its not time to be a jerk. Put your oxygen mask on and help others.”