The Pennsylvania State University. Director at the Sustainability Institute. Professor in Management and Organization, Smeal College of Business.
How do we create a more sustainable world? Why should we care? And what parts do management practices have to play, in helping us to create a more stable equilibrium between the human and the natural worlds?
These are some of the questions that Dr Paul Shrivastava, an academic entrepreneur and the Chief Sustainability Officer at Penn State University, is seeking to answer with his research.
Paul advocates for a transdisciplinary approach to the world’s problems, in which we don’t just take an in-depth view of one particular subject, but instead integrate and synthesise our collective understandings, and work holistically to create meaningful change.
Watch our interview to discover the ways in which a new style of management can help lead us closer to an open, creative, and imaginative new world.
Nerina: Hi Paul, nice to have you here. Would you please introduce yourself?
Paul: Hello, I am Paul Shrivastava. I am the Chief Sustainability Officer of Penn State University, before that I was the Executive Director of Future Earth.
Nerina: Why are you so passionate about sustainability?
Paul: So I’m passionate about sustainability for both some intellectual reasons and for some very personal, practical reasons. So let me talk about the practical reasons first. I have two children they are both grown-up, I have other friends and relatives and neighbors and communities that I am going to leave behind when I’m gone and I would like to be able to say that my life contributed in some positive way to longing the sustainability of the earth. I think a lot of the things that we’re doing in our lives are wrongheaded, they are going in the wrong direction. So I see the need for people who can make some corrective action and I see my work towards that.
On the intellectual side I think you have come to a point in human history where the relationship of humans to nature is in the process of reversal. So for a million years we lived with natural cycles of working in a natural way and defining the world and we humans were sort of part of those natural cycles. Whether it was the water cycle or the carbon cycle or the nitrogen cycle or phosphate cycle nature had its own logic and we were part of that logic.
Since the 1950s there have been such a great expansion of human population and of the social impacts on earth that we are now disturbing the natural cycle, we have become the dominant force of nature and nature is getting broken in a lot of its ecosystems. So it is our intellectual responsibility, as academics it’s our professional responsibility to understand this reversal and try to create a better balance between humans and nature. So I feel my work is trying to understand nature and human relationships in a broad canvas, in a global scale, on a planetary scale and try to develop solutions that will make us more sustainable.
Nerina: You have also worked a lot on management and leadership. What in your opinion is sustainable management?
Paul: So yes, I’ve been a Professor of management in business schools and in schools of arts and science and I see management as a generic function of society. You and I do a lot of management in our own lives: we manage our children, we manage our kitchen, we manage our transportation, we manage our social life etc.
In the world today corporations are the major engine for producing wealth but they are also a major engine for destroying the natural systems. So management is the function in my view it’s not about maximizing profits, it’s not only about creating wealth, it is about managing human-nature relationships in a balanced way so that we can create a system of producing well-being for all of humanity and be able to do it in the long time frame not just for our lifetime. Certainly, not only for this quarter or this year that many corporations focus on but for the next generation and multiple generations afterwards.
So this kind of a planetary management of all the resources of the planet to serve the interests of 10 billion people that will be on earth by 2050 that’s the management that I want to advocate, I want to study and I want to teach.
Nerina: What do we need to implement this?
Paul: So there are a number of things that managers need: they need certain competencies, they need a certain kind of awareness and they need a certain set of values. So in terms of competencies we in the last 50 years have found out a lot of things about how corporations and their activities impact everything around them from the physical landscape and nature to communities and social landscapes. So that’s one set of competencies that managers need to develop. They could be in the form of developing mechanical technological efficiencies, energy conservation and resource conservation, etc. or they could be in the form of ecological efficiencies so that they can do more things with natural products and conserve natural resources or they can be in the form of social efficiencies so that we create communities and society that are more ecologically sensible and economically viable. So that’s at the level of competencies.
Those competencies are based on awareness. So managers need to be aware of the basic principles of how ecosystems operate. They cannot just be economists, they cannot just be technologists, and they need to understand how economy and technology are embedded in the larger natural systems and what technology and economic systems do to the natural system. That relationship and the awareness of it require them to read more broadly, to be multidisciplinary not just economists. So that’s the level of awareness.
Then at the level of values managers need to understand that money is not the only measure of performance, that finances and dollars is not what their own organization performance will be measured by, that we need to value other things in life. We have a world in which that a lot of people living without adequate food. There are 2 billion people who are living under two dollars a day and we need a kind of system in which the whole world can live a meaningful life, and that requires us to valorize and put more value on society, on culture, on arts, on equality and things like that. So they need some kind of reframing of their own values and this is not something that they have to come to it by themselves voluntarily, they have to understand the need for this kind of a broad prosperity and well-being for all and by all I don’t mean just people who might be poor in poor countries. I also mean the natural ecosystems and animals and plants and creating a world in which there is a kind of balance between humans and nature.
Nerina: You often use the word passion when talking about management. How are they related?
Paul: Part about this field of management with relatively a young field of study it originated in the 1920s or so with the idea of technological efficiency and rationality at the heart of it. The factories were being built and they wanted to make it very productive. So the whole field of management studies has focused mostly on sort of scientific rationality, bringing scientific rationality to the industrial workplace to me.
To me life is much broader than just rationality. Being a full human also means being an artist, being a family person, being a father, being a citizen and that’s not all captured within this narrow view of technological rationality. So I wanted to see what was the other side and the other side is emotion and science and rational thinking sort of separates itself from emotional side of things.
So to me, bringing the emotional and the passion into management is a way of expanding the function of management and I think it creates a more holistic way of managing and to the extent that sustainability is about managing holistically across the planet, across all human beings and all other species. I think this kind of an expanded view of management which includes passion and emotion into it is a very helpful thing. So I see this as the next generation of management studies which will allow a deeper emotional engagement and understanding of the phenomenon that we are interested in and helping shape that.
Nerina: What does your job as a Chief Sustainability Officer entail?
Paul: So in my current position my mandate is to incorporate sustainability into all the research programs and educational teaching programs and student life programs and employee programs off the 23 campuses of the University. So it’s like using sustainability as a spice to sprinkle it all around everything that the University does because my University as part of its strategic plan has stewarding of our natural resources as one of the three key pillars. So they have created this new position and my job is to add sustainability across the board.
Nerina: You advocate a lot for a more interdisciplinary approach to reach a more sustainable world: science, humanities and art working together. Could you tell me more about this?
Paul: Yes. So interdisciplinarity is a view that has been around for the last 50 years in an emerging science domain that has broken itself into literally more than 8000 different disciplines. So we have created these bubbles, these isolated conversations that go deep but they’re very small and very narrow. In the world that we are living in we have to think broadly and at a planetary scale, we have to look at the big picture. It’s also important to look at the individual silos and look deep but if everybody just looks deep and nobody is integrating and synthesizing and taking the big picture view then that doesn’t help us. It gets us to optimize at a sub or even sub subcomponent level while ignoring what is going on at the systemic level.
So the idea of interdisciplinarity and I don’t like the term interdisciplinarity I will talk about more about trans disciplinary in a second because that captures more my feelings of how this integration should take place. So it’s not just that biochemistry has to talk to neurochemistry, has to talk to physical chemistry, that is sort of within disciplines but we need to step out of the disciplines altogether because the real problems of the world are cannot be discovered at the bottom of the silo of disciplines.
The real problems with the world are happening in the world. So, we have to take the problem from outside of the disciplines and then bring the disciplines whichever ones are needed to address to solve the problem; that to me the meaning of transdisciplinarity. Where you pick the problem not from a disciplinary gap in knowledge but from the real world, you bring the right disciplines to interact with that problem, you engage stakeholders, communities, people who are affected by the problem to co-design and co-create knowledge that will solve the problem.
The real measure of how good your research is is how well you solve the problem. It’s not about how many papers you write. All the papers are important and you can write papers and books you can stop over there that is not the need of the hour. The need of the hour is solving real problems in real time because we have 20 to 30 years after which there are going to be some really catastrophic changes that are going to kill a lot of people. So, on the one hand we predict that there might be 10 billion people on earth but there are also scenarios that claim that if we don’t change now we might end up with 2 billion people. There will actually be a drastic reduction in population and if we want to avoid that we have this 20 or 30 year period in which we have to act and we have to create solutions.
So I say that yes you can write and think about it in academic silos but you also need to be able to make changes to the real problems. So bring your research to policy makers, bring your research to activists and the public, to the society at large. We want to create these interfaces between science and society, between science and policymaking.
Nerina: What is to biggest problem or challenge we are facing?
Paul: So there are many big challenges. I think the biggest challenge is sort of a self-imposed constraint on imagination. We are because in some ways creatures of habit, we are accustomed to doing things a certain way and we feel that the artificial barriers that are imposed by institutions or by society or by culture that we have to live within them. We need to find internal personal courage to break out of those barriers and do things that we are passionate about that I think is going to lead to solutions that are different, than are more creative, more imaginative and will actually produce solutions.
So the word is structured in a certain way, but God or no other creature told us to do it this way. We collectively decided we are going to be in the University, we are going to teach courses, we are going to do it this way but that’s not the only way to do it. So we have to be really imaginative and creative and find our own pathway into solving the problems that we perceive in our communities, on the ground, in society broadly rather than limit ourselves to the definitions that are handed down to us either by bosses or rules or disciplines.
So I’m not advocating anarchy here. I’m advocating an open, creative, imaginative engagement with the world to solve problems that are very real now and these problems are going to affect… they are already affecting our lives, but they’re definitely going to completely change the lives of our children and our grandchildren.
Nerina: If you change one thing tomorrow and money would not play a role and time wouldn’t matter what would you like to change?
Paul: So I wouldn’t say money plays no role, of course money plays a role and time plays a role, but I have great faith in human ingenuity, I have great faith in the human spirit. I think people need to look at themselves and their mode of living and engaging life and they need to find ways of enlivening. Everything they do, every ordinary thing they do has to be enlivened and made more than it is and it is possible to do this, it is possible to do it in your dining room, it is possible for us to do it in this interview. We can animate ourselves, we can jump up and down, we can create more life right now and we can do it everywhere that we exist. So we need to rethink of how we are going to live so that life is expanded in relationship to others, in relationship to nature, in relationship to our family, to our neighbors, and to our community.
Nerina: Who are the people who influenced you the most?
Paul: Yeah. So we are all sort of an accumulation of our many, many years and I am on the wrong side of 60s now so I’ve had a long time to form myself, and sometimes I even forget what part of me was formed as a child. But I did grow up in household led by a woman, a very strong woman my mother and I think I grasped a lot of things out of the way she ran the family. She was a working person, she was a gynecologist, a doctor in a small town in India which didn’t have any other female doctors, so by the time she retired she was almost like an icon and a big influence on the values that I took away, on the practical need to care. Because she was a doctor and caring for patients this idea of care, the value of care was deeply ingrained. It also gave me the value for education and knowledge because she was trained in the sciences and for her it was very important that her children and anybody that she could influence in the family go to school and college and do all the things that science has to provide.
So I think that the fundamental shaping as a child had happened but I think I also learned equally after reaching my own age of reason and becoming a person on my own and again I have to say a big influence on this has been my wife of 37 years. We have kind of grown together with the mutual understanding and she has shaped a lot of things and I always rely on her. She’s like my “strategic advisor” on times when there are challenges and especially around question of values and meaning. What is that is meaningful to do in life you know.
So I take a lot of guidance from her and then the third big influence is actually my children. So I hear from them. They sometimes ridicule me, they sometimes flatter me, they sometimes make fun of me and sometimes they’re loving to me and I kind of see in them a life that I haven’t passed over, but I’m seeing them and it becomes a form of renewal for me. So I always look forward to meeting them and learning what’s going on in their life, what is important to them, what is not important to them and I’m always surprised that they are thinking so differently from when I was 25 or 28 years old what I was aspiring to. So they have kind of opened up the windows to the next generations for me. So those are the main influencers on my life and they all come from very close and within my family.
And of course then I learned from the books and I like to read a lot and try to gain information from conversations with people and the community around me.
Nerina: What keeps you going?
Paul: I think I’m an optimist at heart. I think that the place that we are now is a place of turmoil and change both at the global society and also in terms of local issues. I feel that there are better answers that can be found and I am eager to be part of that imaginative, creative space and with that we can find better answers.
I’m dissatisfied with the way things are in the world and the way things are in my own community and in my country, which currently is the United States. They are deep sources of dissatisfaction and I think that is a better place and I think that there are solutions. So I’m very eager to contribute those solutions and improve those things that keep me going.
Nerina: What kind of society do you dream of?
Paul: So what do I dream of? This is a really good question. I think we all live our dreams and we all knowingly or unknowingly interpret dreams on a day-to-day basis. The life that I dream off is one of balance; balance between competing forces. I have experienced life in the form of competition and conflicts and I have always strived for finding the common ground and finding the place where we can bring some equilibrium to the competing forces that evolve us into the next phase.
So my dream for life is that we as a whole global planetary society will be able to achieve balance. A balance amongst us as human beings so we don’t fight with each other, bring peace. A balance with nature with whom we are on a war and we are destroying nature and nature can come and destroy us. It does so regularly in the form of floods and storms and so on. So finding a way of balancing with nature and finding a way of balancing within our communities in our local spaces so that we can create well-being and prosperity in the long run.
Nerina: What makes you happy?
Paul: My wife and I have been dancing Argentine tango for last 15 years and we see that as an embodiment of the passion we have for each other, but the passion we have for the community in which we dance because Argentine tango is a social community dance. You dance with everybody in the community, you become part of the community and you learn together and you become friends and so it embodies many parts of this connectivity. Everything from the body – dancing in between two bodies, the human body and the floor and the environment, the music, the people and the whole sense of community. So to me it’s a very good physical manifestation of the passion that I have for life in general.
Nerina: Difficult question but what is life about?
Paul: What is life about? Yeah, that is sort of a deep question. So to me life is about… It’s a kind of relational thing. It is about everything and it is about the quality of the relationship to everything. So to me life is manifested in ordinary, everyday events and activities and we can make that life bigger by being mindful, by being meaningful, by adding ourselves our enthusiasm, our spirit and connecting it to others, connecting it to nature. So expanding that connectivity expands life.
So instead of thinking about what his life I think about what will enliven. So I try to make it into an activity that will actually expand life rather than thinking about it as a static thing. I like to think about it as a dynamic moving thing that I can engage with and increase so that I can have this conversation with you and if this can be an enlivened conversation it will leave us both at a higher level of understanding and also well-being and joy. So creating the joy and well-being and expansion of life I’m calling that enlivenment is what life is all about.
Nerina: Thank you Paul for this conversation.
Paul: Thank you very much.
Nerina: And thank you for watching, thank you for listening and feel free to reach out to me if you have any comments. Keep wondering and see you next time again. Bye and ciao.