On Being Certain About Change

by Per Grankvist
Author, CSR Though leader and Vice Chairman, Fair-trade, Sweden

As I visited Tsinghua University in Beijing two year ago, I had the opportunity to have lunch with some of the students to discuss their views on sustainability and how it would impact China going forward. Asked to share my own view, I essentially said that in the next 10 years sustainability is going to change the way we do business much like the way the Internet changed it in the last 10 years. One of the students asked me if I felt sure of this. I went one step ahead and predicted that I was a hundred percent sure this scenario would play out.

In his book On Being Certain – Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not, Robert Burton systematically and convincingly shows that the feeling that we know something is a mental sensation, rather than a mere evidence of fact. It’s a feeling of knowing that stems from our subconscious and from primitive areas from our brain and does so independent of active, conscious reflection and reasoning. Just because something feels right, doesn’t necessary mean it is so.

This insight put my impression of climate change deniers, clean coal enthusiasts or plain old sustainability adversaries into new perspective. Some of their arguments have struck me as so silly that it’s impossible to believe that someone with a rational mind could subscribe to such ideas. But understanding that the feeling of being certain is a overwhelming feeling, disconnected from rational facts but colored by our opinions, experiences and habits, makes me feel I understand them better.  Because, as Goethe once put it, we see only what we know.

Even those blinkering moments Malcolm Gladwell writes about in his bestseller is filtered by what we know. In fact, there is no such thing as a rational mind, let alone a rational area of the mind able to make decisions unbiased by the opinions, experiences and habits that shape our way of thinking from a very early age. And as Burton points out in his book, even Gladwell’s desire to believe in the idea of a rational mind is to strong that it overpowers his knowledge of all the rational scientific evidence of the contrary that he cites as true early in his book!

If you “know” that climate change is a conspiracy thought up by Al Gore, then you don’t see the scientific consensus on the fact that it’s been caused by human activities over the past 100 years. If you “know” carbon capture and underground storage is safe and will be inexpensive some day, then you don’t see the evaluations of all those carbon capture pilot projects that so far points at the opposite being true. If you “know” that incorporating sustainability into your business drives cost, you don’t see the logic in that using less resources or using resources in a more thoughtful way always, by the evidence of common sense, always lowers cost.

It’s in fact this very logic, along with having studied hundreds of cases all over the world where this thinking has made businesses more profitable, that made me draw the conclusion that sustainability will change business at its core in the coming decade. Once more people start to make their companies more resourceful.

Thanks to Burton’s book, I can no longer claim I’m certain.

Now I believe this will be the case, based on experience. Substituting “I know” with “I believe” also serves as a constant reminder of the limits of objectivity and knowledge. And it does so still opening the possibility that there are other opinions.

About Per Gankivist

Author, CSR Though leader and Vice Chairman, Fair-trade, Sweden

A thought leader in Scandinavia on how the increased interest in sustainability is changing the way the world works, Per Grankvist writes and speaks about how innovative companies around the globe operate and collaborate to find new solutions to old problems. Per frequently appears in media to comment on sustainability and business ethics, speaks on current trends at conferences and writes columns that has been published in a number of media outlets.

He has become known for his way of frequently using insights gained from art, culture and history to add new perspectives and new layers to current topics and trends. Among the universities that has welcomed Per to lecture are the Aalto University in Helsinki, ITAM in Mexico City, Stockholm University, Tsinghua University in Bejing, Umeå University of Design in Umeå and the Warsaw School of University. – See more at: http://www.iirme.com/csrsaudi/speakers#sthash.PVoaTO8O.dpuf