By Frederik Rokamp Pedersen
A definition of ‘business as usual’ (BAU):
“A phrase, which refers to the normal conduct of business regardless of current circumstances, especially difficult events which pose a potential negative impact.”
I turned to Google and I found the above-stated definition of the notion ‘business as usual’. Upon reading the definition, a host of questions emerged in my mind. Is ‘business as usual’ an outright business strategy? Is it something you say, when you know you’re in trouble, and don’t know how to solve the issues you face? The phrase can be perceived and understood in various ways, but I think it would be more interesting to discuss what BAU actually could mean in a larger societal or economic context. If we, for instance, could perceive an economic system as a business, with advantages and disadvantages, we would from that perspective quickly be able to pinpoint the disadvantages and come up with solutions to the problems they impose. The economic system of the western world has shown itself to be successful. It is of capitalism I speak. There have been a lot of advantages to capitalism. Capitalism has brought unprecedented wealth to (at least half of) mankind, and has been able to lift the human species out of poverty into a cultivated existence of consumerism and healthy, self-expressing individualism. Unfortunately, we are starting to see the consequences of the downsides to our civilized and capitalistic societies. Capitalism now creates a set of problems we need to solve, and it seems clear to me that doing ‘business as usual’ would only make things worse.
The problems we face
Social and economic inequality is rising. Lifestyle diseases are plaguing us. The environment is threatened. Natural resources are declining rapidly. These are the problems which capitalism faces today. In light of the sheer magnitude of these overwhelming issues, one cannot avoid sounding naive when one emphasizes the need for change. However, it all comes down to the following: The world faces a large number of issues that needs to be taken care of. It is that simple. If we saw the world as a business, would it be reasonable to continue as usual? I don’t think so. The behavior that has resulted in our wealth, started to have negative impacts on our world many decades ago.
In a changing business environment, wouldn’t we want to adapt our ways to secure the future of our business? If the world were a business, it would need a reorganized business strategy right away. Before you stumble over your feet to make me aware that there already are millions of people, and hundreds of organizations committed to fighting the war against climate change, and the eradication of natural resources, I want to stop you. It is true that there has been done work in trying to minimize climate change. It is true that there has been made a lot to tries in order to secure the resources of the planet, but the truth is also that we are far from reaching any substantial goals. If we really want to make a change, we need to change the very core of a system that has governed our part of the world for the last three centuries.
The shortcomings of a civilization
Capitalism needs to change, or rather, it needs to adapt to the new circumstances we face. Capitalism was built on the idea that we can grow infinitely. What we realize now is that this is utterly wrong. The exponential economic growth we have witnessed over the course of the centuries is going to reach a point (if it hasn’t been reached already) where nature simply cannot keep up. Earth is essentially a closed system, and there is a limit to the resources we can consume. This is not even a controversial topic. It is a fact. We are running out of oil. We are burning our forests. We are working ourselves to death. We are loosing spirituality. We are living in the age of decadence. While thousands of people starve to death every single day, we just continue business as usual. And we have become so incapable of caring about our issues, that the problems we face, almost have turned into clichés. “Yeah, people in Africa are starving, what else is new?” “The forests are being cut down, why should we care?” And don’t even get me started on the failures of our arrogant attempts to force democracy and capitalism on countries in the Middle East, destabilizing the region, and thereby creating a huge refugee crisis. These are the problems of our own making, but this is not something that is universally accepted in our part of the world. So, we are in a position where we – on some level – won’t even acknowledge the bad consequences of our own behavior. That is what you call decadence. We are experiencing a disguised decline. I fear that we have become so paralyzed by the sheer insurmountable consequences of our own behavior that we won’t be able to act against it. What has always determined whether a civilization prevails, or crumbles to dust, is its ability to adapt to changing circumstances. The Roman Empire imploded in the fifth century due to it not being able to adapt to changing political, economic and social factors. Throw the great environmental issue of today into that apocalyptic cocktail, and you have yourself a deathly hangover. Capitalism has only one enemy, and that is capitalism itself. If capitalism is not adapting to a changing future, it will annihilate itself and with it the rest of the western civilization. A structure will never prevail, if the foundation is rotting, and there are no building materials left to maintain it. In our time, ‘business as usual’ is an extreme threat to our future. The notion originated from our desire to sustain growth, in order to keep evolving economically and socially, but the time has come where we can’t implement past experience in our future decisions. We simply can’t continue doing business as usual, because there won’t be any business to do, if we do not change.
Changing capitalism would be a political solution, as it should be, but part of the reason why we are so paralyzed in trying to deal with our issues, is the way we think of politics. We still think of politics as opposing ideologies, left or right, blue or red. One is only allowed to think either positively or negatively of capitalism. You’re either in or you’re out. That way of thinking is far too restricting. Frankly, it is old fashioned. The dominating political ideologies of our societies are rooted in an outdated mindset. I do not believe we need something else to substitute capitalism. The world has had its attempts to replace capitalism, and those never succeeded. What we need is an adaptive capitalism. We need a capitalistic system with a human dimension – one that takes care of the human soul. We need an economic system that cares of the planet we so disrespectfully inhabit. We need to prioritize sustainability over hardcore profit making. Capitalism is not only draining our resources and hurting the environment; it has also been participating in creating and sustaining economic inequality throughout the world. What we need is a less greedy version of capitalism – one that distributes wealth more evenly. However, it all comes down to changing our morals, which, to some extent, are rooted in human nature.
A generational task
The business that I call capitalism has entered a phase were it is not thriving. Pure business logic tells us, that if the business isn’t thriving, we need to do something. We could try turning the business upside down. That worked for Steve Jobs when he went back to Apple after being sacked. Jobs needed failure to see things more clearly. Maybe that is what we need. Maybe capitalism has to be on the verge of breakdown, before we acquire the motivation needed to implement change. Now, changing an economic system is very much easier said than done – which is why we still continue doing business as usual. We are a lazy species after all. But think of how quickly radical, institutional change can occur. I believe in the human ability to adapt when it is most needed, and maybe we haven’t reached that point yet. It will be exciting to see what the future brings. Right now, the future is more uncertain than ever. However, one thing is sure about the future, and that is that it won’t be business as usual. To be honest, I am frustrated that our parents, and our parent’s parents, have put this task on our shoulders. It is up to our generation, and coming generations, to secure circumstances in which an adaptive capitalism can thrive. Ours is a generation of rationality, and it is up to us, and our children, to change the way we live, in order to secure our own future.
In a recent article published in Politiken, Morten Albæk, philosopher and CEO of Voluntas, addressed the issues of which I have spoken of in this paper. The article with the title: “Now is the time for capitalism to save the world” (in Danish: “Nu må kapitalismen redde verden”) was published October 10, 2015, and I encourage you to read it. I will finish this paper in the words of Morten Albæk, who states: “I am convinced that the young people are in possession of a rational potential that is far greater than anything we have witnessed in modern times. I believe that they are going to make the necessary and sensible decisions to transform the systems of society, which my generation, and my parent’s generation, has avoided making. They have grown up without the belief that life is just a comfortable journey towards the graveyard, and they have the will to – and acknowledge the necessity to – change capitalism and thus the world.”