Donations will be used to provide scholarships for people to attend Joanna's workshops.

Search Site
English Arabic French Hindi Italian Japanese Korean Portuguese Romanian Russian Spanish Latvian Ukrainian Turkish

Teaching Business Sustinability

The Work That Reconnects, including its "spiral" pattern, is presented here in systems theoretical terms for a business readership.

Teaching Sustainability: Whole Systems Learning

Chapter by Molly Brown, M.A. and Joanna Macy, Ph.D. in Teaching Business Sustainability, Greenleaf (2004)

Teaching sustainability to business people, or anyone else for that matter, requires more than additional data, more than a list of rules. It requires a fundamental shift in attitude, in the way people think and feel. We must address the root causes of our unsustainable practices, which lie deeply in our assumptions about the relationship of humans to the natural world, and in our relative ignorance of the functioning of living systems, including human systems.

Many business people are coming to recognize the obvious: the goal of maximizing profit must necessarily come second to the welfare of the living world, its human and non-human beings, and its cycles of air, water, and carbon that support life on earth. They are coming to recognize that we must include all the costs of production--including the ecological and human costs--in our business accounting and responsibility. Externalizing these costs, as we have been doing, wreaks havoc on our economy, our social fabric, and our life support system. (See Paul Hawken's The Ecology of Commerce, 1995, for a fuller explanation of "externalizing costs.")

Sustainability requires whole systems learning, in order to see the wider context in which we function, and the web of relationships upon which all life depends.

The Work That Reconnects

This chapter presents an approach to whole systems learning that is helping citizens around the world find clarity, purpose, and creativity in meeting the challenges of our time. More fully explicated in our book Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World (Macy & Brown, New Society, 1998), it is called the "Work That Reconnects," and is entirely appropriate to business settings. Grounded in general systems theory, the Work That Reconnects helps people experience their innate connections with the self-correcting, self-organizing powers of all living systems. This empowers people to seek out, create, and apply sustainable business practices within the work place and the larger world. The methods used are highly interactive, experiential, and enjoyable; we describe a few examples at the end of this chapter.

The following goals serve the central purpose of the Work That Reconnects:

  1. To help people explore the effects of externalizing ecological and human costs of production, so they personal register these effects as real, immediate, and directly affecting their own lives.

  2. To provide people the opportunity to share with others their inner responses to present conditions as experienced in their own lives and work.

  3. To reframe their distress about their lives and the world as evidence of their interconnectedness in the web of life, and hence of their power to take an active part in its healthy functioning.

  4. To provide people with concepts from systems science that illumine this power, along with exercises which reveal its play in their own lives.

  5. To provide methods by which people can experience their responsibility to past and future human generations and other life-forms, as well as the inspiration they can draw from those sources.

  6. To enable people to support each other in clarifying their intentions, and affirming their commitment to the health of the world.

Understanding Systems

Most of the socially and environmentally unsustainable business practices of today come out of ignorance of the way living systems function. In fact, from the perspective of many systems thinkers, they seem based on the premise that human beings can exist apart from nature itself. The notion of unlimited economic growth is one example of this premise. H. Thomas Johnson and Anders Bröms in their fine book, Profit Beyond Measure (2000), note that nothing in the universe grows endlessly without limits. "The issue we face in the business world is to transform our obsession with quantitative growth in size into a delight with qualitative growth in diversity, until that delight becomes the energizing force in our lives" (p. 200).

In our experience, general systems theory (GST), or systems thinking (Bateson, 1972; Berman, 1984;.Buckley, 1968; Capra, 1996; Laszlo, 1972, 1972; Macy, 1991; Olds, 1992; Sahtouris, 1989; von Bertalanffy, 1968; Wheatley, 1992), seems basic to understanding sustainability and implementing sustainable policies and practices. It reveals the general principles at work in all open systems, be they biological, ecological, or organizational. Instead of examining phenomena by breaking things down into component parts, GST views them as self-organizing patterns woven and sustained by flows of matter, energy, and information. Focus shifts from separate and static entities to the dynamic relationships from which they arise.

These life-sustaining flows are multidirectional. There is no single power source; no single authority rules from above; instead, the collective membership of a system governs the whole through an intricate web of interrelationships and information exchange: self-organization.

Open systems are self-correcting, self-governing. Thanks to flow-through of matter, energy, and information, they can both self-stabilize and evolve in response to changing conditions. As they weave larger patterns of collaborative behavior creating larger systems, new capacities emerge. In adaptive systems, these emergent properties are synergistic, allowing greater flexibility and variety of form.

The relationships forming an open system are both external and internal. By virtue of the dynamic interdependence of its parts, a system is a self-organizing whole in its own right. By virtue of its dependence on energy and information from its surrounding world, it is also a subsystem of larger systems, be they social, economic or ecological. In other words, each system is a "holon," meaning it is both a whole and a part of a larger whole.

The essential feature, which permits open systems to both maintain their form over time (homeostasis), and adapt to challenges by changing (evolution), is feedback. Alert to signals both from within and without, open systems monitor their own performance by matching it to their existing goals or values (acquired through previous learning). When a mismatch persists, the healthy systems adapts by reorganizing its internal structure and goals.

Information flow is of paramount importance, therefore, to the health of any living system--or enterprise. Feedback from its component parts, and from the larger systems in which it operates, is essential to its long-term survival. When feedback is blocked or discounted, the system cannot meet its own changing needs or respond to a changing environment. One of the problems with top-down decision making, for example, is that valuable information from "lower down" in the organization is often suppressed or ignored.

Feedback from the biosphere--climatic disruptions and loss of forests, fisheries, and topsoil--is revealing that our present economy is unsustainable. It indicates an urgent need to change the goals our system pursues and the values by which it measures its success. Many systems thinkers and ecologists perceive that the maximization of corporate profits as our economy's highest priority is progressively destroying the interwoven fabric on which all life depends. When we block this feedback, our corporate economy, being geared to a dysfunctional goal, spins out of control. In systems terms, it is on "runaway." Lacking vital information about the effects of its behavior, it is caught in a vicious self-amplifying cycle, causing "overshoot" in one area after another.

Because it runs counter to basic assumptions of the industrial growth society--especially assumptions about endless economic growth, and inexhaustible resources and sinks for our waste--this feedback is hard to countenance. In business settings, our awareness of this feedback can be hard to express, but it lurks in the soul, surfaces in dreams, feeds into free-floating anxieties. Yet, to acknowledge it together opens the way to great adventure: the use of our business experience and skills in creating a new, sustainable economy. This is both possible and necessary--and it is happening.

Unblocking Feedback

Today we are assaulted with information from all sides about what is happening to people and other living beings around the planet, but we often block it because it is anomalous to our prevailing ways of thinking, to the assumptions that support our accustomed modes of functioning in the world. Moreover, this information may arouse feelings of fear, anger, grief, and a sense of helplessness. These emotions are actually healthy: they inform us that something is amiss and changes are needed. Denial of anomalous information and uncomfortable feelings blocks our ability to think clearly and responsibly. Instead of responding to issues and dangers in a timely fashion, we seek reassurance that everything is really okay and we can continue with business as usual. We fall into apathy.

To understand apathy, it is helpful to recall that the word derives from the Greek apatheia, meaning non-suffering. Given its etymology, apathy is the inability or refusal to acknowledge suffering. It is widespread today, because to acknowledge the suffering we experience--or cause--could mean re-evaluating some of our most basic assumptions and goals; it could mean changing the way we do things and reducing our profit margin. Yet the very feedback that is blocked by apathy provides information essential to the sustainability of our enterprises and our economy.

The Work That Reconnects is designed precisely to overcome these blocks, so that we and our enterprises, as open systems, can self-correct. It provides structures for spontaneous expression, which help us tell the truth about what we know, see, and feel is happening to our lives and our world. It helps us realize that our felt responses arise not from some personal pathology, but from our essential interconnectedness as living systems.

Workshop participants report a profound shift occuring in both perspective and attitude: they see themselves as interlinked and mutually supported within the web of life; their energies are freed up for creative and collaborative action.. The mind retrieves its natural clarity. Concepts, which bring relatedness into focus, become vivid. Significant learning occurs, for the individual system (be it an individual person or an organization) is reorganizing and reorienting, grounding itself in wider reaches of "enlightened self-interest." Because the approach is participative, people arrive at new perspectives out of their own experience.

To achieve this, the work proceeds sequentially in four stages, each unfolding from the previous, corresponding to the way healthy systems function: 1) recognizing our mutuality; 2) integrating painful information (feedback); 3) expanding our perceptual horizons; 4) finding creative responses.

First Stage: Recognizing Our Mutuality

As we have said, whole systems operate through mutual give and take, in reciprocal relationships. Their viability depends on their capacity to provide and receive support, even more than on their ability to "compete" (in the old, narrow sense of the word). Whole systems learning involves our perceiving this fundamental mutuality in our own lives and organizations, so the essential relationships of part to whole are more clearly seen and understood. We see that because no system can operate in isolation, neither can a business operate in isolation from the community and the natural world. Its adaptive self-organization requires an appreciative awareness of its dependence on these larger systems, as well as on the unconstricted, mutually supportive interplay of its component parts (employees, customers, etc.).

Gratitude plays a key role in heightening our awareness of systemic mutuality. It helps ground people in an appreciative, felt sense of how they are embraced and sustained by the larger natural and social systems in which they live. Gratitude also builds a sense of confidence and expanded capacity in preparation for the next stage. We begin the work, therefore, with exercises designed to evoke the expression of the gratitude that we all carry, often just below the surface of our immediate awareness. A sample "gratitude exercise" is described in the appendix.

Second Stage: Integrating Painful Information

All living systems adapt and evolve in response to feedback. However, in human systems at least, the very feedback the system most needs to receive may be filtered or screened out altogether because it conflicts with habitual assumptions. These include assumptions about the goals and values of an enterprise, as well as about the difficulty of changing them--i.e. what a lone individual or small group can do. Such feedback may be experienced as pain, and suppressed for that reason. Pain is a essential form of feedback, designed to warn us, as living systems, of impending or immediate threats to survival and well-being, of the limits we may be up against. Ignoring it is folly.

Because we are used to censoring certain feedback, the Work That Reconnects does not deliver information about world or business conditions so much as it encourages people to articulate it themselves, out of their own experience. As they speak about their experience, they find that the knowing and the feelings they were holding close to their chests are actually widely shared. Released from the illusion of separation, and the unconscious need to repress this vital information, people can receive and utilize more feedback. Their energy is freed up, and they find a strong sense of connection with others, and with the larger world.

See the sample exercise for this stage, "Open Sentences," in the appendix.

Third Stage: Expanding Our Perceptual Horizons

To incorporate feedback, systems must adapt their "codes"--their values and goals--to include heretofore anomalous information. Their perceptual horizons expand. The industrial society habitually ignores our embeddedness in the economy of the natural world, within which all enterprises function and upon which they rely. Ingrained cultural assumptions of "us versus them," based on exaggerated individualism, have contracted our perceptual horizons. In order to maximize monetary profits and market share, we externalize environmental and social costs of production, blinding ourselves to the deleterious effects of our enterprises on other stakeholders in the larger household. Our measurements of performance (such as quarterly reports and stock value) have too short a time frame for much relevant feedback to occur, hindering the self-correcting capacities of the system. We cannot perceive or respond to the unfolding consequences of our actions.

This stage of the Work That Reconnects gives us fresh conceptual and attitudinal tools for achieving sustainability, helping us understand the systemic, interactive, reciprocal nature of power, helping us to see our lives and work within larger contexts of space and time.

Three sample exercises for this stage of the work are described in the appendix. "Widening Circles" helps people consider important issues from perspectives other than their own. The "Systems Game" demonstrates systems principles through a lively physical game. "Seventh Generation" facilitates the apprehension of our current situation and actions through the eyes of future beings.

Fourth Stage: Creative Responses

In the last stage, we explore the synergistic power available to us as open systems (individuals and organizations) as we move toward sustainability in our lives and enterprises. The experiences of the preceding stages--the recognition of our mutuality; the freeing up of energy as we integrate previously repressed feedback; the widening of our perceptual horizons--now provide a strong basis for our undertakings. In this final stage, we harness our understanding and imagination to envision a viable future; we assess our inner and outer resources; we practice planning appropriate actions in collaboration with others.

As we bring our hearts and minds together in this way-- forming new systems--new possibilities and properties emerge. Hope arises as we develop visions and plans that will help each participant take concrete steps appropriate to his or her situation.

Two exercises in the appendix provide a taste for this stage: "Goals and Resources," and "Planning Actions."


Countless groups of people all over the world--business people, professionals, artists, workers, college students, young and old--have engaged in the Work That Reconnects over the last 25 years and have been inspired to work together for a more sustainable world. Many report experiencing a visceral understanding of the interrelatedness of all life as a result of a workshop, an understanding that informs choices they make as individuals and within their various enterprises. We hope that sharing this work with business educators will enrich their efforts to teach sustainability. We hope that, whatever educational methods are employed, more attention is paid to the mental barriers we have erected to avoid painful feedback from the larger world, and to the very real emotions that arise in response to our global crises. We want to honor the deep caring and the desire to serve that lie within every human heart. For this, whole systems learning is needed. The heart and mind together hold the key to a more sustainable way of life for us all.

Appendix: Sample Exercises

A few of the exercises from Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World (Macy & Brown, 1998), are briefly described here to give a taste of the work. Business educators interested in incorporating such exercises into their programs are urged to acquire the book. It offers a thorough explication of the theory, guidelines for facilitation, and step-by-step instructions for forty-six exercises, most of which can easily be adapted to business setting.

I. Gratitude exercise (first stage)

In pairs, small groups, or moving around the circle of the whole group, people are invited to describe four specific things in turn: 1)something they love about their work; 2) a place they remember as magical to them as children; 3) someone who helped them believe in themselves; 4) some things they appreciate about themselves. People are urged to avoid generalizations and speak of particulars, because there is more vitality when they do. Participants often discover a great commonality in what they appreciate in their lives and work, evidence of our essential interconnectedness. They perceive how deeply they are supported and nourished by the larger social and natural world around them.

II. Open Sentences (second stage)

This exercise invites people to voice their responses to the condition of our world, as experienced in their own lives and work. Its structure helps people both to listen with total receptivity and to express thoughts and feelings that are usually censored for fear of comment or adverse reaction.

People sit face to face in pairs, close enough to focus on one another. Each partner in turn responds to an "open sentence" spoken by the guide, completing the sentence and continuing on spontaneously for the time allotted. The sentences address what inspires people in their work, what they find difficult, their concerns about the larger world today, and the thoughts and feelings that arise from all this. After both partners have responded to all the sentences, the whole group can explore common themes that emerged, and how they may relate to more global concerns. Difficulties at work that people often mention include: time pressures (deadlines increasingly short), problems from the chain of command (inadequate information given to perform their jobs), and competitiveness. These pressures can be seen as the result of dysfunction in the larger system; individual inadequacy is seldom to blame. Systems thinking tells us that workers at all levels of unsustainable organizations suffer at the hands of the same assumptions and practices that are tearing apart the social fabric and destroying the environment. Recognizing this relationship removes the self-blame that many people feel, freeing them to look more closely at the dysfunctionality of the whole system to discover how it can be changed.

III. Widening Circles (third stage)

Widening Circles helps people to consider an issue or situation of great concern to them from four different perspectives. Thus they widen the circle of their perception and understanding, bringing wisdom, compassion, flexibility, and perseverance. The name of the exercise is taken from a poem by Rainer Marie Rilke, "I live my life in widening circles/ that reach out across the world" (Macy & Barrows, p. 48).

Participants sit in groups of four. Each person chooses a particular issue or situation of concern, at work or in the larger world. Then in turn, each person describes the issue from four perspectives, using first person (I think, I feel, etc) in each case: (1) his or her own experience and point of view; (2) a person whose views are very different and even adversarial on the issue; 3) a nonhuman being (animal, plant, river, mountain, etc.) that is involved in or affected by situation; and (4) a future human whose life is affected by choices being made now on this issue.

To speak on behalf of another, and identify even briefly with that being's experience and perspective, is an act of moral imagination. It is not difficult to do: as children we knew how to "play-act." People are not asked to "channel" or be omniscient, but simply to imagine another point of view. They are asked to treat each perspective with respect, avoiding caricatures or satire. This process can truly expand one's perceptual horizons, even beyond the specific issue addressed.

IV. The Systems Game (third stage)

This lively, engrossing process provides a direct experience of the dynamic nature of open systems, especially: 1) that life is composed not of separate entities so much as of the relations between them, and 2) that these relations are continually self-organizing.

People begin in a large circle. Each participant mentally selects two other people in the group (without indicating whom is chosen) and then moves so as to keep an equal distance between him or her and each of these two people. People begin to circulate to achieve this objective, each movement triggering many others in an active, interdependent fashion. Participants find they are, by necessity, maintaining wide-angle vision and constant alacrity of response. The process is purposeful, suspenseful, laced with laughter. It speeds up for a while, then may abate, accelerate, and again slow down toward equilibrium, but it rarely comes to stasis. It continues for four or five minutes; then, as activity lessens, the guide invites people to pause where they are and reflect.

Participants' reflections usually bring out some key features of self-regulating systems, such as the interdependence of all parts, and their continual activity in seeking and maintaining balance. Feedback is noted as necessary to fulfill the task, especially visual perceptions. It also becomes obvious that no one from above or from outside could direct the complexity of movements necessary to keep this system in balance.

People also often articulate perceptual and psychological shifts they experienced, including a radically widened sense of context. A temporary eclipse of self-consciousness may be noted, as one's perceptions focus not on one's own actions so much as on others'--that is, not on separate entities so much as on relations among them.

V. The Seventh Generation (third stage)

This process expands people's sense of time, bringing them into imagined contact with human beings of the seventh generation from now. This helps them see and respect their current efforts from that future perspective.

Sitting in two concentric circles, people face each other in pairs, close enough to listen to each other without distraction. Those in the outer circle (facing in) speak for themselves, out of their own experience in the present time; they stay seated in the same place. Those in the inner circle (facing out) are people of the seventh generation (roughly two hundred years from now). After each encounter, they move one place to the right, so that the inner circle moves slowly clockwise while the outer circle is stationary.

For each of the three encounters, the guide speaks for the future ones , asking a question of the people of the present. Each present-day person responds by speaking to the future one directly in front of him/her. The three questions, which the guide speaks on behalf of the future ones, inquire of the present day people: 1) Was it really true what we hear about the wars and hunger and poverty at the beginning of the 21st century--and if so, what was that like for you? 2) What first steps did you and your colleagues take to transform the society to a life sustaining one? 3) Where did you find the strength to continue your efforts, despite all the obstacles and discouragement? As the present day people respond, they may describe feelings they didn't know they felt, or contributions they didn't realize they were making towards a sustainable world. They see more clearly the effects of their actions beyond their own time.

After the three questions, the people of the future have a chance to speak, expressing their thoughts and feelings about what they have just heard. The responses of the future ones are powerful in helping people to see their present lives and work from the standpoint of the future. Respect and appreciation arise. In addition to expanding their time frame, the exercise helps people imagine how they can make a difference, how they may already be contributing to a "great turning" toward a more sustainable world.

VI. Goals and Resources (fourth stage)

This practice helps people to clarify their vision of their part in creating sustainable businesses, and to bring into focus a specific path or project to pursue (or continue pursuing). It helps them recognize the many, and often unsuspected, resources available to them, and identify immediate steps to take.

People work in pairs. Each partner responds to all the questions put by the guide, while the other records the responses on paper. Then the speaker and scribe switch roles. People are asked to think about a change they want to help bring about in their organization, work place, or community, and what they might accomplish towards that vision in the coming year. They are asked to consider the inner and outer resources they now have that will help, and those they need to acquire. They are asked how they might stop themselves, and how they can overcome these blocks. And finally, they choose a first step to take in the next few days.

When both partners have scribed the other's responses, the two take turns reporting back to each other from the notes they have taken, using the second-person pronoun: "you want to..., you have..., one way you might stop yourself..." The other listens as if hearing, at long last, his or her orders from the universe.

VII. Planning Actions (fourth stage)

This exercise reveals how a group can work together, and empower its members, as it moves from a general or abstract goal to steps for immediate and concrete actions. The process unfolds in two stages: progressive brainstorming and role-playing.

A group chooses a sustainability goal it wishes to focus on, which is posted at the top of a large sheet of newsprint. For five minutes or so, the group brainstorms on what conditions this goal would necessitate. Then the group chooses one of the ideas which has arisen, and brainstorms the conditions this more specific goal would necessitate. This process continues in five minute rounds until the goals are quite specific, so that each person could conceivably do something about one of them in the next 24 hours. From the distant goal, the group has moved to specific and immediate steps.

Now that the group has an immediate (though still hypothetical) action to undertake, people role-play the encounters this action might require, e.g. requests that might be made, permissions that might be sought, support that might be elicited. Role-playing such encounters helps move people beyond the blocks they often feel at this juncture, which keep some of the finest ideas trapped in the world of dreams. As the role-play proceeds, participants are asked to switch roles and continue the conversation, so they experience the encounter from both points of view.

The exercise is as instructive as it is entertaining. It forces people to discover how well they can think on their feet, what they need to know and say in order to be convincing. Moreover, reversing roles in mid-conversation gives insight into the thoughts and feelings of the people one is trying to enlist. It breaks participants out of polarized "we-they" thinking, helps them to identify with others, and enhances their confidence and effectiveness.

References and Bibliography

Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind. (New York: Ballentine).

Berman, M.. (1984). The Reenchantment of the World. (New York: Bantam).

Buckley, W. (1968). Modern Systems Research for the Behavioral Scientist. (New York: Aldine).

Capra, F. (1996). The Web of Life. (New York: Anchor).

Hawken, P. (1995). The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability. (New York: Harper/Collins).

Johnson, H. T. and A. Bröms (2000). Profit Beyond Measure. (New York: Simon & Schuster).

Laszlo, E. (1972). Introduction to Systems Philosophy. Toward a New Paradigm of Contemporary Thought. (NJ: Gordon & Breach).

Laszlo, E. (1972). The Systems View of the World . (New York: George Braziller).

Macy, J. R. (1991). Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory: The Dharma of Living Systems. (Albany NY: SUNY).

Macy, J. R. and M. Y. Brown. (1998). Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World. (Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society).

Olds, L. (1992). Metaphors of Interrelatedness. (Albany NY: SUNY)

Sahtouris, E. (1989). Gaia: The Human Journey from Chaos to Cosmos. New York: Simon & Schuster).

von Bertalanffy, L. (1968). General System Theory. (New York: George Braziller).

Wheatley, M. J. (1992). Leadership and the New Science: Learning about Organizations from an Orderly Universe, (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler).