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|Business Ethics in the 21st Century|
Review of “The Meaning of the 21st Century: A Vital Blueprint for Ensuring our Future”
by James Martin. Riverhead Books NY 2006.
Reviewed by Alan E. Singer
James Martin has been a sustained contributor to a voluminous genre of literature that discusses what corporations, consumers, governments and voters (especially in the US) have been doing wrong for the last 30 years or so, what they ought to have done instead and what they must now do with urgency1. Martin writes about these matters with unrivalled authority
as the author of the Wired Society (1978) which turned out to be accurate in most of its predictions, but also as the founder of the Institute for Science and Civilization and the 21st Century School at the University of Oxford,
Numerous reviews of The Meaning of the 21st Century have announced that it’s a “must read, required and essential” and that it ought to be read “by everyone as soon as possible”. These reviewers’ reasons become very apparent as one steadily works through Martin’s global situation-analysis, as summarized in the following section. Thankfully, Martin has also identified several policy and strategy “levers” (listed in section 3 below) that would “ensure our future” if pulled in time. In section 4, the particular implications of Martin’s thesis for Business Ethics in theory and practice are considered. A critique of Martin’s “blueprint” then focuses upon a few aspects of the work that appear somewhat contradictory or incomplete.
2. Global Prospects
Since the 1980’s it has been a practice in many corporations to consider macro-trends (social, technological, environmental, etc.) when analyzing strategy. At the outset of the book, Martin introduces us to the more powerful notion of “momentum trends”, that is, macro-trends that are bound to continue because they have a known freight-train like dynamic. Taken together the momentum trends (such as global population increase) constitute a knowable skeleton of the future. This “skeleton” is being stretched to breaking point: it is pulled in a positive direction by a “steady and eventually massive improvement in the capability of human beings” but in the other direction it is chained to a growing “4th World” population that is utterly destitute, together with an almost universal decline of natural ecosystems and resources, especially the world’s aquifers and ocean life.
Many warning-canaries (and most fish) have already died. They are out of sight and out of mind. By 2006 the entire World’s oceans had lost 90% of all fish and there is no guarantee they will recover. In the Grand Banks, for example, cod stocks to zero between 1951 and 1992 due to overfishing (Table 1). In 1991 the Canadian government responded to the increasingly obvious depletion by setting a quota of 120000 tons per annum when the total stock was 130,000 tons. This guaranteed the end of the entire industry and by 1993 32000 humans were “laid off”. This is why, as Martin firmly suggested, politicians (and of course voters) should “listen to scientists”. Scientists know how to measure and accumulate natural capital for the benefit of future generations. For example we need about 20% of the oceans to be protected parks, whereas the actual figure is less that 0.01% (i.e. 1/2000 of what is necessary).
Table 1. A typical pattern of resource depletion.
There are many other things going on that will assuredly harm the current generation, that scientists know a lot about, but that voters and consumers don’t see because they are utterly distracted (e.g. Bauman 1998). According to Martin “if the public could see the cliff edge they would clamor for action.” That cliff lies directly in front of “us” at the edge of a mid-century canyon (Figure1). This should be thought of as a “deep river canyon with a narrow bottleneck at its centre.” It represents the period when “population will be at its peak and environmental stresses at their worst”.
When we look into the canyon (an interval of time in the middle of the x-axis in Figure1) we see not only the continuing destruction of ocean life, but also the drying up of rivers and aquifers, the end of fresh water supplies in many parts of the world, the spread of pandemics nurtured in squalor or involving GM pathogens, as well as the growth of shanty-cities. There will be mass migrations from destitute ‘4th World’ nations, along with an increased threat of war and suicide terrorism, whose risks are amplified by the potential availability of portable WMD’s. In short the 21st century is “crunch time” and there will be a number of “mega-catastrophes” some of which the insurance industry is already preparing for.
Figure 1. The 21st century
If we then turn our attention to the y-axis in Figure 1 which represents wealth we see a predicted “trans-humanist divide”. There will probably be a gigantic dichotomy (p398) of wealth and poverty, much larger than the so-called digital-divide. Several years before James Martin wrote the “blueprint” Business Week reported that global real per capita income had grown by about 2% per year since 1950 (the magazine was quoting Gary Becker, a Nobel laureate economist). However, at about the same time Joseph Stiglitz (another Nobel laureate) had pointed out that the poorest countries had become “worse off…at a rate of about 2% per year”. According to Martin, that dichotomy has since widened and is likely to continue to do so (see Figure 1). Martin draws our attention to the 4th World comprised of failed and destitute nations such as Angola, Haiti, Ivory Coast and Somalia. When he visited a growing shantytown he walked into a basement and saw:
“…about 100 babies and very young children all lying on their stomachs unattended, desperate to hug an adult” (p90).
Perhaps we should in future refer to such locations as the Basement-of-the-Pyramid to distinguish them from what the “Bottom of the Pyramid” or BoP which has become a familiar term in deceptive corporate-communications (e.g. Prahalad & Hammond 2002). The BoP refers to the less developed countries (LDC’s) such as Chile, Brazil Malaysia, Thailand and parts of China & India which have reasonable potential and hope. Whereas the BoP has emerged as a target market with investment potential, the basement is “not on the corporate map of the world”. It is not on any police or government maps, either. The billion or so people who reside there absolutely lack the ability to pay, or to qualify as beneficiaries from CSR projects, or to function as test markets. The problem for all of “us” is that their population is increasing very rapidly. Indeed, according to Martin, most of the 2-3 billion momentum-increase in human population will be in the basement. As a matter of fact, if we continue business-as-usual there will be severe death rates in the 4th world during the canyon years.
It is not credible to pretend that this is none of “our” business (the 4th world is barely mentioned, in Business Ethics textbooks). For a start, Martin points out that
“the water needed for the poor to survive will be made scarcer by the rest of the world having enormous quantities of pointless consumer goods sold in air conditioned glass shopping malls (p398)”.
Meanwhile, at the 1st world upper echelons of the “divide”, where vast increases in total wealth are bound to be appropriated, things will look very different indeed. In the 21st century, every for-profit industry will be rebuilt using technologies that are already in play, or imminent. Cars, energy, architecture, urban transit, preventative regenerative and genetic medicine, extreme bandwidth internet, computerized education, food and agriculture will all be re-designed to greatly reduce natural resource usage, overcome constraints and in some cases even to contribute to the stock of natural capital. In short there will be great eco-affluence alongside global co-operation in profitable intelligence and security activities. At the same time, we will see the co-creation (or evolution) of trans-human entities. The brains of some individuals will become directly linked, via nano-transponders, to post-singularity non-human like intelligences (NHLI’s) as well as to other human and trans-human minds. This will create a new type of mind (or organism) that will be “infinite in all directions”. We will see a new breed of trans-human masters-of-the-universe, who (or that) will “make vast amounts of money”. In short, the 21st century will be an age of ultra-creativity and a new civilization. This is where the main action is. Indeed, James Martin wrote that if he himself were able to choose any time to be alive, he would “want to be a teenager now…in a country where great education is available (p403)!”
The dynamics of destitution and natural resource depletion reinforce one another, yet “it is entirely possible for the wealthy countries to stop this vicious cycle” (p88). This is because
(i) “Increase in wealth will be much greater than increase in population” (p12) and
(ii) There are several leverage factors whereby “minor changes… can have powerful results”
However, the most likely thing to happen is that a series of deadly mega- catastrophes will transform public apathy into panic and “wakes up governments that are (currently) snarled in bureaucracy and (corporate-sponsored) falsification of science.” Indeed, it is increasingly apparent that the latter has become, as Gelbspan (1997) put it “a clear crime against humanity”. The way to avoid the mega-cats (with mega-deaths) is to achieve adequate education, aid, trade and good governance in all the “Worlds”. It can be done. The levers and enabling conditions involve population control, ubiquitous sensors, planetary-correct subsidies and entrepreneurship.
Ladies of the Canyon
The “worst thing we can do is to allow the Earth’s population to grow unnecessarily.” Thus, if a majority of voters, consumers and the new elite collectively decide to do the right thing, or simply to act in a more prudent and informed manner (i.e. conservatively in the proper sense) they would make “a concerted effort to reverse the decline of 4th world and to lift it to the level of the 3rd world”. The main focus should be on ladders (not walls) whose lowest rungs start right down on the floor of the basement. We have to co-create universal conditions for enterprise and realistic hope justified by a sense of improving circumstances, not by mystical and volatile beliefs. This also happens to be by far the most effective way to reduce mass migration and terrorism in the future.
The first such lever (or rung) is the one that enables women in the 4th world to learn to read. The second provides women with affordable access to birth control services. Martin points to ample scientific evidence that basic education can change peoples’ preferences in this context. Simply put, “when women in poor countries are taught to read they tend to have fewer children” (p10).
Meanwhile, it is ludicrous that well paid accountants in the 1st and 2nd worlds still refer to “relevant costs” and “information for decision making” that ignores natural capital depletion and health2 and that as a result:
(i) fishing companies paid nothing at all for the 90% depletion of oceanic fish stocks (p44), whilst
(ii) U.S. tax payers had to pay heavily to clean up private abandoned mining sites that threatened public health.
As Martin put it “it is outrageous to allow such (serious) damage to health and the environment because companies can make a profit from it and make political contributions.” Accordingly, the next lever to pull is the one that deploys hi-tech sensors everywhere on the planet, so that the actual situation or state of the planet (not just scalar bank accounts) can be measured, scrutinized and corrected. Sensors reveal the truth and they do not distract. They could enable online accounting for natural capital, or reveal the actual state of aquifers. They would quickly put an end to the “criminal falsification of science” and will facilitate powerful forms of human-computer interaction. They should be accompanied by the widespread deployment of distributed initiative management systems (and wisdom systems). In sum, sensors can help us to navigate the canyon and avert collapse.
The third (related) lever would immediately shut down all perverse subsidies. Some subsidies are win-win investments, but many leave the environment and the economy worse off. In 2001 Myers & Kent reported over $2trillion p.a. of perverse subsidies that exist only because “there is government commitment to, and aggressive lobbying for, the wrong solutions (p129)”. The solution to this is full transparency and marketing for the public-good, because “if a list of subsidies and the net harms they caused were thoroughly publicized, taxpayers would revolt”.
Table 2. Martin’s prescriptions and the know limitations of markets
One might add that if the whole list of the known limitations of market based systems (KLMBS) were thoroughly marketed (not just propensity for corruption and negative externalities, but the whole list) electorates everywhere would surely be inclined to vote for policies aimed at overcoming all of those limitations. This is exactly what James Martin has in fact prescribed (but without referring to the right column of Table 2). He singled out anti-trust as one area of particularly effective knowledge-based legislation. Other examples of Martin’s prescriptions that correspond to the KLMBS are duly listed in Table 2.
There are some others “levers” that beef up the positive momentum trends, or increase the good that is likely to result from those trends. For example, Martin has prescribed that we should “automate routine work” and “educate for leisure” in order to prepare for a “magnificent ultra-creative” future enabled by technology and NHLI. In other words, we should put an end to alienation at work (in the Marxist sense). More generally, the “skeleton” of the future should be thought of as a complex macro-environment within which vast numbers of opportunities or niches for entrepreneurship will continually emerge. Martin looks forward to the prospect (p365) of igniting “economic chain reactions”. Citing Kuala Lumpur and Mumbai, he envisions the building of “Singularity Cities” where young people (some of whom might acquire trans-human powers) enthusiastically learn bio-technology, nano-technology, web-design, hydroponics, regenerative medicine and various new methods of resource productivity such as pebble-bed nuclear power technology, along with management methods for an associated era of ultra-creativity and eco-affluence.