UPfront Natural copies?

The best place to look for successful sustainable models for business is nature – in particular the mature eco-systems where diversity, cooperation and zero waste thrive.
That’s according to Elisabet Sahtouris, an evolutionary biologist and author who teaches in the Bainbridge Graduate Institute’s programme for Sustainable Business in the US and who talks to worldwide audiences about why we’re still in junior class at the school of evolutionary thinking.
Her mission, she told New Zealand audiences last month, is to “update Darwinism” and debunk its “survival-of-the-fittest” philosophy. Nature and evolution has proved whole lot more complex, says Sahtouris, and the Darwinian thinking that informs much of the developed world’s model for business and life needs serious make over.
“I spoke recently at spirit in business conference where the CEO of bank on the East Coast of the US actually referred to his company as sustainable because he was knocking out his competitors. There’s real misconception of sustainability, but this man thought he was standing on good science, on Darwinian evolution that requires struggle to survive,” added Sahtouris.
“My main role is to update that story and recognise from what we now know about natural systems that the early aggressive, competitive phase is really juvenile species phase it goes through before growing into mature cooperative phase. That’s where I see humanity now and business is focal point for that growth because it’s the only institution we’ve evolved that has the resources and ability to make those changes.”
Sahtouris believes the principle that business is accountable to people and planet as well as profits is catching on, along with the notion that companies are answerable not just to shareholders but broader range of stakeholders.
True sustainability is the awareness that business is embedded in complex interdependent system and its activities have to be seen in the light of that interdependency. Instead of “hierarchy”, Sahtouris talks about “holarchy.” The human consciousness is not, as we might like to think, the evolutionary high point – it’s just another aspect of an integrated and intelligent planetary eco-system.
“If you look at long-term survivors in terms of eco-systems – they are the ones that have discovered you don’t try to outdo or bump off your competitors, you feed them, bring them into cooperative system,” she argues.
There’s also heap to learn from nature about recycling and zero waste. Our bodies are good example. They comprise trillions of cells, each of which runs with 30,000 recycling centres dealing with the proteins that keep people healthy. Sahtouris thinks the biggest factor driving the shift to sustainability is growing recognition of what is unsustainable. “There is realisation that you can’t have exponential curves for air pollution, water pollution, resource depletion or global warming. If they keep heading up, we’d become extinct.”
That’s relatively recent understanding and while lot of progress is being made, we still have long way to go. She sees New Zealand as “well placed” to lead the way. “You have excellent resources for relatively small population where everyone can play proportionately bigger role than in big country like mine. And lot of things are already happening here.”
(See our cover story p26.)

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