The Power of Babel, the Power of Language

Jelleke Vanooteghem
Sustainable Finance

Do you know the story about the Tower of Babel? According to this legend, all humans used to speak the same language. They wanted to build a tower to reach heaven. God, however, had other plans: He confounded their language and speech, so that they were unable to finish the tower. For author and advisor John Elkington, language still plays an important role for social change.

Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian sociologist and media guru, changed my mind. The medium’s the message man. As I switched from economics to sociology in 1968, his vision of a “global village” was a North Star.

John ElkingtonAuthor

John Elkington

John Elkington is co-founder and executive chairman of Volans. He also co-founded SustainAbility and Environmental Data Services. He is a much sought-after advisor, speaker, and author and has taught at universities across the UK. In November, Elkington attended a BMW Foundation & Toniic Retreat about transforming the financial system. He is a member of the BMW Foundation Responsible Leaders Network.

I’m not sure I fully understand McLuhan, even now, but he shone light into dark corners of an increasingly tech-driven future.

“One of the effects of living with electric information,” he insisted, “is that we live habitually in a state of information overload.”

And that was decades before the Internet and social media.

Here’s another McLuhanism I liked: “I think of art, at its most significant, as a DEW Line, a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.”

I love art, but when it comes to social change I focus on language. And in a world once again plunged into uncertainty, one thing now seems slam-dunk certain. Tomorrow’s capitalists will think and communicate in very different terms about the future and their evolving place in it.

Meanwhile, in pursuit of multiple conceptions of a better future, we build multiple towers of Babel. As a result, we talk collaboration, yet compete. We talk unity, yet fragment. We try to inform, yet often bewilder.

"A person hears only what they understand."
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Too often, our beliefs impede collective progress.

McLuhan again: “I wouldn't have seen it if I hadn't believed it.” Or here’s how Johann Wolfgang von Goethe expressed a related idea: “A person hears only what they understand.”

I only know the Goethe quote because it popped up, in English, on a slip of paper circulated at a recent four-day event in Paretz near Berlin, Germany. The aim: to cross-pollinate between two key networks in the burgeoning world of impact.

These were at a retreat organized by the BMW Foundation and Toniic, the global action community for impact investors. The modest aim: to ensure the global financial system meets the long-term needs of people and planet.

Thirty or so of us came together from around the world, but initially struggled to find common wavelengths. I quipped that it was like the aliens and humans trying to align frequencies atop Devils Tower in Spielberg’s 1977 movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. 

Before long, we cracked the code in the extraordinary, once royal, village of Paretz. Occupied by the Soviets until 1989, the place is like a time machine. I imagined myself back in 1977—trying to sell East Germans on the idea that, just over a decade later, capitalism would upend their world.

How do you say, “Pull the other one” in German?

Now imagine trying the same thing today, though this time focusing on sustainability-directed system change.

Once again, the political and economic rules of the game must change. Speaker after speaker described this as “hard,” “tough,” “painful.” One described the challenge this way: “If you want to change the system, you have to fight with reality.”

Impact Investing
Participants discussed in small groups how the financial system can be transformed. Marc Beckmann
Impact Investing
Retreat participants met at a variety of locations to exchange ideas. Marc Beckmann

But the language of business shows that reality is already shifting. Think of the repurposing of words and phrases like ‘capital’ (with six or even eight forms now in play), ‘bottom line’ (think double, triple, quadruple), ‘materiality’ (the focus of a growing service industry), or ‘productivity’ (as in the carbon productivity agenda).

Still, I approach the further rebooting of business language with trepidation, given Anand Giridharadas’ head-on attack on the repurposing of business terms in his book, Winners Take All, subtitled  “The Elite Charade of Changing the World.”

As he says, in “an era where capitalism has no ideological opponent of similar stature and influence,” it is “hard to escape the market’s vocabulary, values, and assumptions, even when pondering a topic such as social change.” He energetically critiques a world where young people are “relentlessly” told that they can ”do well by doing good.”

He claims that one key reason why business language has been clicked-on-and-dragged into the world of social change is to help defend the yawning inequities that characterize modern—and increasingly digital—forms of capitalism.

Billionaires want change at scale, he says, just so long as it doesn’t impact their own wealth and status.

"We start out shaping words, then they shape us. For good and ill."
John Elkington

Language has always been a battlefield, casualties guaranteed. As with our tools and buildings, to channel Churchill and McLuhan, we start out shaping words, then they shape us. For good and ill.

As a result, we begin to hear things we hadn’t previously heard—or understood.

The case for “radical action,” a term attracting more support than any other during the Paretz event, is increasingly clear.

Paretz, GermanyImpact Investing

BMW Foundation & Toniic Retreat

From November 5-8, 2018, the BMW Foundation & Toniic Retreat took place in Paretz, Germany. Both the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt and Toniic consider responsible leadership and positive social change to be of central importance. And both organizations see the need to make the existing financial system fit for the global challenges of the future. The key question is: What helps people and our planet most? How could such a transformation succeed? This is what the BMW Foundation & Toniic Retreat in Paretz was about. John Elkington was one of the participants.

Indeed, the day I flew back to London I attended the WWF launch event of their latest Living Planet Index, alongside a preview of 2019’s Netflix series, Our Planet. The latest Index reveals that a subset of 16,704 populations of 4,005 species declined by 60% between 1970 and 2014. Beyond shocking.

Yes, Johan Rockström mixed in upbeat commentary on exponential solutions in his speech, but the Great Acceleration and Planetary Boundaries work he spotlighted shows our species moving ever-deeper into the Anthropocene—but as yet without the political and economic mindsets and institutions long-term success would require.

Developing the new economics, the new politics, is a multi-generational task. But progress is under way. Two weeks before Paretz, I was in Basel with Novartis, the Swiss healthcare giant. As chair of their Impact Valuation Advisory Council, I helped coax a high-energy group of internal and external experts towards consensus on how different forms of impact, negative and positive, are best tracked and valued.

The central question for Novartis, as CEO Vas Narasimhan explains, is: “How do we impact the world through innovation and medicines, and how do we find technology that you could then disseminate to large populations?”

Swap out the word ‘medicines’ for a relevant focal area and this could now apply to any suitably ambitious company or business organization.

As we push back the frontiers of impact assessment and valuation, with the pioneers increasingly sharing key lessons learned, a more universal language of impact is evolving. It will powerfully inform the evolution of tomorrow’s capitalism.

Indeed, I see today’s towers of Babel as necessary stepping-stones. But where sci-fi author Douglas Adams spoke of the “Babel Fish,” able to instantaneously translate human, animal, and alien languages, my bets are on machine learning and artificial intelligence to achieve the same ends.

Ultimately, though, we must change hearts and minds, including our own.

One impressive voice in Paretz was that of Christian Felber, founder of The Economy for the Common Good.

He gave a mind-boggling lecture on the common good while executing a highly gymnastic dance—and periodically standing on his head.

"Ultimately, though, we must change hearts and minds, including our own."
John Elkington

God, we are told, turned Babel on its head, whatever his reasons. In more recent times, popular frustration turned Soviet-style communism on its collective head.

Now, as Generation Investment Management concludes: “We are in the early stages of a global ‘Sustainability Revolution’ that has the magnitude of the Industrial Revolution and the speed of the Digital Revolution.”

Our global village is increasingly frustrated and fractious, as old macroeconomic and geopolitical orders dissolve.

But, at least to my optimistic eye, and on a good day, the DEW Line of mutating business language suggests exponential progress in the 2020s.

This article was originally published on GreenBiz on November 19, 2018.

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