Knew It, Start Again

I am tempted to say that “I knew it.”

After college, I chose the safe and rational path of going into the business world -- corporate environmental sustainability consulting, to be precise. It offered a “real job” (comprehensible and acceptable by family acquaintances back home in China), steady income, health insurance, work visa, a deck of hip business cards printed on 100% recycled paper, and a platform to “change the world for the better.”

However, deep down, my gut knew that this is not it. If you ask me since when have I known that I would leave this work, I would say, “before I started.”

But, I still chose to give it a go. I had to “get it out of my system.” It was curiosity; it was “giving it a fair trial”; it was a necessary growth stage. I had to enter the belly of the beast to see it for myself -- and to live and breath it.

Now, after two years of exploration and trying, I am ready to move on, and to follow the voice in my heart that has been there all along. Granted, as a 24-year-old, my dip into the business world is very short and shallow. But, you don’t need to finish the whole egg to know it is rotten.

(By “business world,” I refer narrowly to the political-economic system that is geared toward one goal only: the perpetual growth of private financial capital. I do not mean “entrepreneurship”, “groups of human being in an enterprise”, etc. The confusion of words such as “business”, “capitalism”, “market”, etc, has been a main roadblock in having societal conversation about the state of affairs. For example, “capitalism” have hijacked “entrepreneurship” -- an essential and inherent human spirit.)

Intellectually, I understood very well that corporate sustainability and social responsibility is putting bandages on a fundamentally flawed system. That was the conclusion of my college years of reading of Marx and Darwin: the Logic of Capital (as laid out in Das Kapital) and the Logic of Nature (as described in Origin of Species) is fundamentally incompatible.

I knew that the incremental energy savings per square foot of retail floor space will be more than outdone by the exponential growth of new big box stores. I knew that the water and chemical reduction in making a product will be canceled out by the imperative to double sales in 5 years. I knew that what we do as sustainability consultants is no different (although more profitable) than the protesters in front of Walmart or at a mountain top removal site -- we are merely slowing down the destruction, without addressing the root cause. (In the theory of the Great Turning, this line of work is called “holding action”. The other two lines are “creating alternative structures,” and “shifting consciousness.”)

But, to know is not enough. The visceral experience in the business setting is absolutely crucial, to internalize the theories, and to have compassion for those in the system. Now, I have seen how “institutionalized greed, fear and delusion” turns people into corporate warriors and cubicle slaves. I have witnessed an employee -- a young mother of three -- sending me panicked emails in the middle of the night, because her boss (the CEO of a Fortune 50 company) might not be able to land his private jet in the desired airport in China in about a month. I have witnessed how the world's premier sustainability summit flew in expensive chefs from around the country to bring their “local wine, organic beef, and signature dishes” to the fancy sea-side resort filled with impressive-looking do-gooders.

I have also put a human face to the people who work at the companies we demonize. They have told me stories of their youth, and of dreams not yet extinguished. I have gotten to know their innocence, as well as their unconscious complicity. I don’t at all doubt the sincerity of their eagerness to do good through their work, any more than I have faith in my own underlying intentions. I have learned that I have no rights to point finger at anyone. With some different alignment of stars, I could be in their shoes, doing a much worse job. As a Thich Nhat Hanh poem tells,
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my legs as thin as bamboo sticks, and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda. 
I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands, and I am the man who has to pay his "debt of blood" to my people, dying slowly in a forced labor camp.
I have come across some of the most powerful CEOs in corporate America, with genuine intention to leverage their mighty empire for good. I have also seen the illusion of individual choice -- even if you are the sole dictator of one of the world’s largest companies with millions of employees -- in a system that offers you a narrow option set: grow or die. There’s only that much corporate philanthropy can do, while their main businesses continue to operate under the tight charter from the market, on a path for assured mutual destruction.

I have learned that there is no grand conspiracy theory, no plotting to destroy the world. (Small scale scheming for private gains is, of course, prevalent.) I have learned that our myriad of crises is a reflection of our collective inner state, and is an emergent property of a system whose designers have -- perhaps unbeknownst to themselves -- written faulty source codes: rational agent, perfect equilibrium, self-correction for externalities, perpetual growth, technological solvability of all problems, etc.

I think I have learned enough from within the system, so that from now on, I won’t second-guess myself, wondering: what if I have gone inside the system? Maybe I can change it from within?

For me, the jury is still out on whether we can change the industrial growth system from within -- we certainly need people inside the system to join efforts in reinventing civilization. But I know that for a system to change, each of us have to change from within.

I have great respect for colleagues who are trying to change corporations from the inside out. They are CEO-whisperers who keep the fire of possibility alive in the hearts of some very capable people. They devise corporate strategy to lessen the material impact on people and planet. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just not my cup of tea -- not any more.

It’s no longer my cup of tea because addressing a systemic problem at such a surface level is demoralizing, unsatisfying, and only bearable with a certain degree of self-deception and willful ignorance.

It’s no longer my cup of tea because I am tired of “making the business case” for life on earth, tired of “serving client interests.” Too often, one can not serve God and serve client at the same time. I don't want my service to be dictated by whoever can pay; it should be rendered to wherever it is needed the most. Instead of serving the money that never sleeps, how about Gandhi’s talisman:

“Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest human whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him or her. Will she gain anything by it? Will it restore his to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj [freedom] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away.”
It’s no longer my cup of tea because there are SO many other options that’s more wholesome, promising, and after all, perhaps more suitable for me. I have been lucky enough to be exposed to many inspiring people and practices which my gut has recognized as Good. I’m only 24 years old, and it’s about time to study a fuller spectrum of options, before the doors of possibility shut. 

Instead of trying to win the hearts and minds of the “captains of industry,” why not serve the people whose hearts are more open, and whose minds are less busy with important meetings and solvable problems? Did Jesus not tell us that “many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first”?

I must say that I knew it.

The heart has always known. It’s time to do something else, something that makes me come alive. As Howard Thurman said,

Don't ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
Once this has become clear, there’s no way of turning back. As the Gospel of Thomas warned,
If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.
And I rest assured in making the leap into unknown. As The Alchemist plainly told us, “When a person really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person to realize his dream.”

Now, the question is: what do I want?

1 comment:

Guri Mehta said...

Dear Zilong,

Thanks for writing this deeply insightful article. There is a strong conviction in what you share.

And my heart is cheering you on, with every step you take.