The proceeds of a day at the National Sustainabiy Conference
Yesterday I attended the 13th National Sustainabiliby Conference in the Netherlands. Key-note address was given by sustainability guru John Elkington. This time I could not escape comparing two Johns.
This spring John Elkington already introduced his book zeronauts at a Deloitte meeting in Rotterdam as well as at the Global Compact meeting in Arnhem. He is spreading his zero gospel around the globe, with zero-emission as an attractive concept. As I had attended one of his speeches at earlier occasions I was not surprised by the shock doctrine he presented combining realism with optimism in a way that sounds very appealing.
Ode magazine for intelligent optimists
This optimism is also shared by a group of other young minds that had a display at the conference, presenting their 'Ode' magazine for intellligent optimists. And actually it should not have come as a surprise to me to find an article in their latest issue reviewing the novel "Atlas Shrugged" by Ayn Rand, published back in 1957, which I read some time ago when I dug it out of a second-hand shelf in a book store. In Europe this novel has remained largely unknown while in the United States it has been a bestseller after the Bible.
In this novel another John stands out as a welfare prophet, professing his faith in individual capacity and displaying his hatred for state-ism and related social protection mechanisms, discouraging individual entrepreneurship and in his view tearing the world apart. The book describes a period of economic decline, accelerated by a strike of the big industrial powers that were 'carrying the world' before, hence the title "Atlas Shrugged". During this period of decline only his name appears in conversations that end with the intriguing question: "Who is John Galt". When the world has almost entirely fallen apart John finally introduces himself through radio like this: "You are listening to John Galt. I am the men who loves his life. Who does not sacrifice his values. Who has released you from your victims hence destroyed your world (...). You have sacrificed righteousness to grace, independence to unity, reason to trust, richness to needs, self respect to self denial, happyness to duty. You destroyed everything you considered evil. (...) The world around you is not the product of your sins. It is the product of your image of your morale."
The underlying philosophy called 'objectivism' carries an absence of moral behaviour and follows a path of pure self-interest. Ayn Rand had many followers like Alan Greenspan (heading the Federal Reserve in the US prior to the financial crisis). Worth reading in this context is the criticism formulated by our own Hans Achterhuis, De Utopie van de Vrije Markt (en: The Utopia of the Free Market) discussing Rand's philosophy and showing its utopian characteristics.
What kind of John is John Elkington
I could not avoid making a comparison between John Galt and John Elkington while receiving his message with respect for his rhetoric skills. Future will show how many of our industrialists will buy into a message of creative self-destruction under the flag of sustainability. It is obvious that a number of unhealthy market mechanisms currently dictate the political leadership where to go next and a change in the system is required, which may be different from system change though. I just wonder whether industrialists engaged in corporate social responsibility embrace the same phylosophy as Ayn Rand and seek to extinguish the morale of sacrificial love and self-sacrifice-for-the-common-good. Personally I would prefer the latter to become a driver for corporate social responsibility rather than embracing the self-edifying philosophy of Rand. At least it did not bring her much satisfaction if we have to belief her biographers.
My name is Reinier van Hoffen.
Click here for a summary.
Also find the text of a lecture Dr. Achterhuis held at the 2012 Bilderberg conference.