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Making a 'Big Pivot' to Sustainability Will Require a Cultural Evolution

Last year, Andrew Winston stood on the main stage at SB ’14 San Diego and called for the business world to make a “Big Pivot” — away from ecologically harmful practices and toward a sustainable future.

Last year, Andrew Winston stood on the main stage at SB ’14 San Diego and called for the business world to make a “Big Pivot” — away from ecologically harmful practices and toward a sustainable future.

Like so many others, he realizes that business for good is the most powerful shift in culture we can make to address the converging threats of a warming atmosphere, depletion of natural resources such as fossil fuels and rare earth metals, thinning of top soils, and the myriad other environmental concerns that have been left out of the accounting books for business-as-usual. Corporations have become the Frankenstein monsters of the modern age, exceedingly powerful at organizing human activity for purposeful ends and yet devoid of the moral compass that flesh-and-blood human beings inherit as our evolutionary birthright.

Changing the cultural context for business is going to be essential for humanity to pass through what I call the “sustainability bottleneck,” transitioning from economic models divorced from the science of Earth Systems to those that embrace the biophysical foundations of real economies. We have to get beyond profit-at-all-costs and piecemeal thinking that treats the natural world, government, and financial system as if they operate on their own outside of “the economy” — failing to recognize that all are part of the same complex web of social patterns. To do so, we have to evolve our cultural contexts, which will require that we understand how social change really works.

Luckily, a mature science of social change has been coming of age for several decades now. It is the field of cultural evolution where scientists spanning many disciplines have been hard at work unpacking the inner workings of culture. They come from fields such as evolutionary biology, cultural psychology, cognitive anthropology and religious studies, education, marketing and communications, organizational behavior, and complexity science.

What has been missing is a unified effort to bring all the pieces together and apply them to the sustainability challenge. In my call for a science of intentional change, I said it this way:

Billions of dollars are spent each year by corporate marketing departments, public relations firms, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations in attempts to change social behavior and tackle complex cultural issues. All of these efforts are attempts at “culture design” — applying some kind of design thinking that culminates in changes to social norms and cultural practices. And yet these efforts are seldom integrated with the scientific study of cultural evolution, either conceptually or methodologically.

My colleagues at the Evolution Institute are setting out to remedy this situation. We have recently started recruiting members for the new Society for the Study of Cultural Evolution (SSCE). Our task will be to organize the academic research community and bring it together with the world of professional practitioners who work on real-world social change. Among our first tasks will be to determine what the “grand challenges” are for the field of cultural evolution. I have already put in my vote that one of them needs to be that we keep our global civilization within the planetary boundaries essential for our survival.

We are reaching out to the Sustainable Brands community to engage practitioners in this effort. You are invited to join us and get involved. Our next steps are to formalize the organizational structure of the SSCE and engage in open dialogue about what the grand challenges should be. Among our long-term goals is to bring together academic researchers, applied practitioners, and funding agencies to expand the scale of research and design that can be done to address these grand challenges in the months and years ahead.

This is an exciting journey that we are embarking on. Please join us and together we can make the big pivot for business and — more importantly — for the future of life on Earth.