Bringing the World Out of Denial

Sunday, 20 December 2009 08:45 By World Business Academy, t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed | name.

Bringing the World Out of Denial
(Photo: dev null)

"Santiago never realized that people are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of."
-Paulo Coelho  "The Alchemist"

Although most people are aware of the devastating consequences of critical global issues such as oil depletion, climate change, nuclear proliferation, and poverty, why are we are doing so little to address them as the clock ticks forward? Many of us are in disbelief or denial, perhaps hoping there will be no ill effects in our lifetime – if ever.

Why?   

I believe there are three reasons. Consider oil depletion and its impact on energy security and climate change, as viewed on the North American continent and in Europe. First, there is the financial motive - politicians don’t want to lose support from major corporate sponsors. For example, because of financial support from oil companies, some politicians are reluctant to champion non-fossil-fuel, carbon-free technologies, regardless of their potential to mitigate the challenges of energy security and climate change. Only recently - and only subsequent to immense shareholder pressure - did ExxonMobil change its negative posture on the science behind global warming and the realities of oil depletion.
   
Secondly, we don’t easily give up our creature comforts. Americans have received low-taxed, cheap oil for so long that they’re loath to sacrifice their gas-guzzling Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs). Although declining in numbers due to higher oil prices, in 2008 nearly 50 percent of the 250 million registered vehicles in the U.S. were SUVs. Fortunately, the consequences of increasing energy prices are diminishing auto companies’ status in the marketplace. Once powerful, global, enterprises such as Chrysler and GM are on their way to becoming distant memories.

But there is a third and more fundamental reason for global crisis denial. I call it the Law of Human Survival. This law asserts that human beings under the stress of rapid technological and social change tend to ignore immense global challenges if they are conveniently perceived to occur in the distant future, and particularly if there is even a shred of opposing evidence. This is our great escape clause. There is only so much stress-induced fear we can handle. Fear constricts the human psyche. It creates a vortex of emotional pain from which we must escape. Sure, fear has its place. In the battlefield, "keep your head down or it will be shot off" works quite well. But when it comes to developing creative solutions to challenging problems, fear becomes an impediment. There are few great innovations in this world that have been motivated by fear.

World-renowned Harvard biologist, E.O. Wilson thinks that human beings may be hardwired to avoid worrying about future generations. He points out that, "For hundreds of millennia, those who worked for the short-term gain within a small circle of relatives and friends lived longer and left more offspring—even when their collective striving caused their children and empires to crumble around them. The long view that might have saved their distant descendants required a vision and extended altruism instinctively difficult to marshal." There is only so much fear we can take, and currently there is more than enough to go around without having to overwhelm our spirit with a heavy dose of future fears. Yet in instances such as poverty, energy security, nuclear proliferation and global climate change, we must act now, if we are to have a positive outcome. How do we overcome our protracted paralysis?

The Solution

In my opinion, there is only one force that can erase this self-protecting, laissez faire attitude towards critical global challenges, or any critical change for that matter: the energy of unbridled passion. This creative force is so powerful that it evaporates fear from the deepest level of the human spirit and can literally change the world. It has done so many times before. Most often a passionate vision stems from a single person. Recall Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Marie Curie, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk, and thousands of lesser known change-makers who left their indelible imprint on our planet.

Passion is arguably the most significant competitive advantage an individual or a company can have. It has been estimated that most people work at less than 30 percent of their full efficiency. We tend to blame this phenomenon on a lack of motivation, but in fact, it is often due to the fear and anxiety that accompanies a lack of purpose. Although motivation is self generated, passion can be catalyzed by creating an environment that addresses a person’s need for greater purpose. Every one of us is born with this need. This can result in human efficiencies beyond 90 percent. Have you ever engaged in an activity so inspiring that you lost track of time and your desire for food, water or sleep?

Change The World

How do we instill such passion? I think there are three components that must be present. First, and foremost, the challenge must appeal to a person’s need to help the "greater good." This is the key ingredient of unbridled passion. Both Gandhi and Edison, two disparate innovators, thought that their pursuits would change the world for the better. They never had any doubt. Unless people see that mega-issues such as global warming and energy security are going to significantly affect them immediately - in which case they are likely to act out of fear and make ineffective decisions - they are unlikely to do much. Their perceptions must be altered to a passion for action. The Greek philosopher Epictetus once said, "Not by facts, but by perceptions is society governed."  This kind of change only occurs by stimulating and exciting the human spirit.

People must perceive and believe deep down that they are part of a team that will change the world for the better. That is the magic. It has been done before quite successfully. U.S. President John F. Kennedy galvanized Americans after the successful launch of the Soviet’s Sputnik satellite. He roused their passion with his personal commitment to what some saw as a daunting goal: "We must and we will put a man on the moon in less than one decade." And we did. NASA was formed, which not only achieved this goal, but also spawned numerous new technologies and companies, ultimately creating millions of jobs and stimulating the world economy with trillions of dollars of GDP.

Demonstrate A Viable Strategy

Second, even though the big picture might entail a long-term plan of magnificent magnitude, there must be a perceived high probability of a few near-term successes. To use an American baseball analogy, don’t try for all homeruns. Hit a few singles; they come sooner. People need positive feedback. This does a number of valuable things. With companies, it motivates employees, it demonstrates the validity of the corporate strategy, and it always increases the value of the company in the eyes of current and potential shareholders.

Some years ago when I was Chairman of Catalytica, Inc., we had a strategy that was targeted at hitting several "homeruns." For example, in cooperation with PetroCanada and Mitsubishi, we were developing a process that would in a single step inexpensively convert natural gas to a liquid fuel that could be easily shipped anywhere in the world. The new process would negate the need for expensive liquefied natural gas (LNG) transport, which requires special costly refrigerated tankers, and is considered a dangerous technology and security risk. We were also working on a way to combust fuels with no resulting pollution.

These were very challenging technologies - "homeruns" - and we spent millions of dollars in their development. Our stock price languished along the way as investors wondered whether we would ever solve these problems and commercialize the technologies. Finally, we decided to hit a few "singles." We identified the pharmaceutical industry as one where our knowledge in catalytic science could have a quick impact, enabling us to manufacture drugs in a more ecologically friendly manner and at lower cost. We quickly demonstrated our capabilities, which led to a $10 million investment by Pfizer and, ultimately, the growth of Catalytica Pharmaceuticals in less than 5 years from just a few people to a $500-million business with more than 2,000 people at three manufacturing facilities and a market value of more than $1 billion. Our stock price tripled. Ultimately, we hit a home run, but it was the singles along the way that helped us get there. 

Share The Wealth

Third, there should be a perceived and actual benefit for all involved, whether it is financial, ego related or both. You must share the wealth in any successes, whatever that wealth may be. If the populace supports a political agenda such as a strategy to address energy security or climate change, then any tangible successes should bring the people up-front, perceived benefits, such as tax rebates and incentives. When targeting the support of employees, they should be informed from the very start that they’ll be appropriately rewarded - verbally, financially, with promotions and possibly with stock options. The latter is particularly powerful as it provides employees with a sense of corporate ownership. When Catalytica was successful, even the janitors received a few shares of stock options.

Our Global Challenge

In seeking to motivate the citizens of the world, it is imperative to create, articulate and support a clear vision that stimulates in them a passion to participate. Show them how they can make a difference for the greater good. Present a long-term strategy with visible, achievable near-term successes. Let them play a role in developing the strategic plan. This creates ownership and commitment. And be sure there is something in success for everyone. The discovery of America, Marco Polo’s voyage to China and Thomas Edison's invention of the light bulb were based on passion, not fear. The latter rarely works to create something new and innovative.

This is particularly true at this point in our history. As a species, we have not only evolved physically, but also in the nebulous realm of consciousness. Creative and innovative people no longer work well under autocratic command and control. That world is gone forever. At this critical juncture, we desperately need a few courageous leaders stimulating people around the planet with the passion necessary to create a safer, more rewarding future for all.

About The Author:

James A. Cusumano is Chairman and owner of Chateau Mcely, chosen in 2007 by the European Union as the only "Green" 5-star luxury hotel in Central and Eastern Europe and in 2008 by the World Travel Awards as the Leading Green Hotel in the World. He is a former Research Director for Exxon, and subsequently founded two public companies in Silicon Valley, one in clean power generation, the other in pharmaceuticals manufacture via environmentally-benign, low-cost, catalytic technologies. While he was Chairman and CEO, the latter – Catalytica Pharmaceuticals, Inc. – grew in less than 5 years, to a $1 billion enterprise with 2,000 employees. He is co-author of "Freedom from Mid-East Oil," recently released by World Business Academy Press and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

World Business Academy

The World Business Academy is a nonprofit business think tank founded in 1987 based on the belief that business, as the most powerful institution in society, should assume responsibility for the whole of planetary society. Led by its founder and president, Rinaldo Brutoco, the Academy publishes extensively on renewable energy, sustainable business strategies, and the challenge of innovative and values-driven leadership. The Academy has a unique resource in its many Fellows, who comprise a veritable "Who's Who" of world-class thinkers.

Last modified on Sunday, 20 December 2009 09:38