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HPA Perspective on Sustainability: FAQs – 3

Posted by Hemant Puthli on February 1, 2010

This is the third in a series of 6 posts on our perspective on sustainability, and deals with the notion of ‘Common Good’ in contrast to ‘Self-Interest’, and why the pursuit of the Common Good leads to better sustainability. Our first post focused on our definition of sustainability while the second went into details on what exactly we mean by ’social relevance’, ‘environmental responsiveness’ and ‘economic viability’.

Why should anyone want to focus on the so-called ‘Common Good’? What is wrong with plain old ‘Self-interest’? Is one approach sustainable and not the other?

Interesting question, because it helps get to the very root of the matter. Self-interest is a very interesting principle. It is the most natural, the most Darwinian if you like, principle that you see in nature. Seen in the context of humans, it has the potential to evolve from its more primitive and instinctive version i.e., seeking to derive benefit to self by directly accessing value, to a more mature and rational version i.e., seeking to derive benefit to self through value returned by contribution to the ecosystem around self. Animals are not sapient beings and cannot possibly behave in a manner that reflects the latter version, but humans have an opportunity to transcend instinct, act rationally and move towards a better world. In its more evolved form, the principle of Self-interest becomes synonymous with the principle of Common Good – so it is no different, in essence. Do bear in mind that nowhere have we touched upon the concept of charity or philanthropy. Self-interest alone is good enough and will support sustainability, provided it sublimates into its more evolved form. This line of thinking is consistent with age-old homilies such as: ‘You reap what you sow’ or ‘As you give, so you get’ or ‘What goes around comes around’, which are simplified versions of similar thoughts.

In order to test whether a strategy or policy or an approach or a principle, let’s call it X, is sustainable, one may simply ask the question: ‘If everyone were to follow or practise X would it lead to a more prosperous, harmonious and better world?’ and if the answer is in the affirmative, then we may conclude that X is a sustainable idea. While on old aphorisms here’s another adage that resonates with this test: ‘Do unto others as you would have others do unto you’. If everyone were to act in the interest of common good it is likely to result in a feeling of abundance in the long run, whereas if everyone acted out of primitive self-interest it is likely to result in a feeling of scarcity, given the same amount of wealth in the system.

Sustainability Continuum

Apply the sustainability test to other impulses such as Greed or Cheating, and verify the results for yourself. Greed is not a sustainable strategy, and neither is Cheating – the global economic crisis bears testimony to that. It is possible that a few have benefited from it in the short run, and we are not passing moral judgement on them here. All we’re saying is that it is not sustainable. Again, let’s be clear that this is about the plain and simple economics of longevity, not about morality or religion!

The next post in this series will discuss the challenge of sustainability in a competitive situation and will elaborate upon the difference between partnerships and competitive relationships.


8 Responses to “HPA Perspective on Sustainability: FAQs – 3”

  1. […] Puthli, H. (2010). HPA Perspective on Sustainability: FAQs – 3  Retrieved 20/9/11, from […]

  2. […] 243 Continuum of interest (Hemant Puthli) […]

  3. […] 243 Continuum of interest (Hemant Puthli) […]

  4. Shubhranshu said

    This is what we would like the powers that be to follow or implement, but at Copenhagen it was clear that there are different priorities and comprehension of what is the “common good”. Currently the western economies are looking for a way to get the emerging economies to bail them out of the financial crisis… at the cost of the environment. Higher commitment means potentially higher costs in the short term, hence lower probability of investment in increasing jobs… It’s unlikely that the the “commoon good’ is so common at present. Davos has created a triple level recovery profile… only the US seems to have a chance, Europe is is going to be the first bastion of protectionist measures… India & China will need to focyus on their domestic markets for sustainability… we’re likely to have better results within a country rather than outside of it as far as sustainable solutions are concrned… look at the character assassination of Pachauri..

    • Shubhranshu, you make some very valid points. Perhaps the idea of ‘Common Good’ is too large and complex to be addressed by any one forum that focus on only one dimension of the problem?

      COP15 in Copenhagen focused on climate change while WEF in Davos focused on the global economy. No doubt there will be other global conferences that focus on issues related to society and social development (poverty, hunger, etc.). The point is that the way the world is organized right now, these conferences do not take a holistic view …. you really cannot talk about environment without talking about, say, food and water, and you really cannot talk about food and water without talking about economics. According to me, this is the main reason why these talks ‘fail’ (i.e. result in outcomes that at best are weakly positive, at worst just a waste of time). Then of course there’s the politics – regional, national, racial, economic (haves vs. havenots) etc. and the “What’s in it for me” attitude of delegates (generally speaking). But even without that, solutions will be difficult to find if we take a uni-dimensional approach.

      The HPA definition of sustainability address the core issue, taking a holistic perspective that includes all 3 key dimensions. The earlier two posts in the FAQ series aimed to elucidate exactly that. Here’re are the links once again:

      Just to reiterate: We don’t claim to have invented this approach from scratch – the 3-dimensional view was already enshrined in earlier definitions of ‘sustainable development’ from many years ago – we just bring this holistic perspective to traditional business management frameworks that deal with ideas like ‘sustainable competitive advantage’. In short, it is not too difficult to arrive at a converged definition of ‘Common Good’ if one take a multi-disciplinary approach and looks at the bigger picture. However, like common sense, it may not be so common! (and in that sense I agree with you).

      On the ‘half-full’ side – both the COP15 and the WEF this year had the attention of just about anybody anywhere in the world who can make a difference. I think this is unprecedented, and hopefully paves the way for more effective action going forward.

      Thanks for sharing your observations.

  5. R. Pillai said

    Hemant excellent article… BUT….Just one additional “qualifier”.. “Do unto others as you do unto you” BUT “not at the expense of the environment” whether the West (developed nations) follows this qualifier or not.. we (developing nations) should set such an example.. Brazil has announced today of its decison to build “the” hydroelectric dam provided the contractors paid $800 M to address the environmental needs .. a Super Tax of some sort.. an example set by the BASIC group oof nations since Hopenhagen.. still a Bandaid.. vs. lack of any “Super Taxes” for the introduction of the Nano (in its current design) is bringing another class of polluters on board.. No tax free status for imported or domestic Hybrid or Electric cars in India… OR maybe we should look towards Singapore’s law of taking off the road 10 year old + cars and limiting the amount new cars on the street and by forcing owners to buy a Number plate only from another car owner (in most cases) there by dynamically every increasing more fuel efficient and less polluting cars.. maybe these are extreme environmental views but the environment is sustainable.. unlike the smog filled cities of the US, Mexico etc.. we can nip it in the bud but again the auto lobbyists (as one example) have their way… 🙂

    • Thanks for the compliment! And also thanks for your comment – your point is well taken, and I think your ‘qualifier’ applies unequivocally to all considerations across the board in this regard.

      From an HPA perspective, where there is no self-regulation there will always be externally-applied regulation – such is the overarching need for sustainability. Our values and principles are consistent with this view. The need for policing need never exist in a mature society where citizens are highly evolved and regulate themselves and their actions. The same would be the case if one were to substitute the word ‘society’ with ‘economy’, and ‘citizens’ with ‘businesses’ in the previous sentence. Taxation should take the form of contribution, and in the example of Brazil that you have cited, the enterprises concerned should do this voluntarily. Again, this comes out of understanding that the Common Good transcends narrowly defined self-interest / profitability, and the vision of the Common Good as being constituted by what we call ‘social relevance’, ‘environmental responsiveness’ and ‘economic viability’ as elucidated in our earlier post:

    • P.S. Here’s an example of what I meant by self-regulation: “Leading Firms Set Industry Standards for Emissions Management …”

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