“How We Can Balance Individual Freedom With ‘Ecology’ And Planetary Sustainability In Coaching” By Geoffrey Ahern (Guest)

Published in 'the good coach' (guest)

May 17, 2017 Geoffrey Ahern



We take it for granted that individual liberty will accompany the growing Zeitgeist of ‘ecology’ and planetary sustainability. Originally the science of the distribution and abundance of organisms and their interactions and transformations, by now ‘ecology’ has also become a worldwide movement and climate of thought.

But there’s a question mark over the liberty of the individual because ecology, the inspirer of environmentalism, has a whole population approach that includes humans, the opposite end of the spectrum from starting with the civil rights of each person. Ecology’s field-wide mentality fits well with the collective approach of Asian economies which have been rapidly ascending while becoming more environmentally attuned; but not with Western individualised freedoms.

My practice having coincided with coaching’s expansion, I believe that it is well-placed as a person-centred art to contribute to a forward-looking balance between individual freedoms and the whole population approach of ecology. Coaching’s process seems to me to be complementary because it raises the importance of individual life from within the whole.

Thus innovation is required to make individual liberty an indispensable complement to our global era of ‘ecology’. Though from about 1980 social justice for all has been grafted on to ‘ecology’ to form ‘sustainability’ and ‘sustainable development’, this development has tended to leave out freedom under the law.

I identify some innovatory developments which are related to business and so to the practices of ‘people developers’ like professional coaches:

  • Increasing transparency
  • Redefining individual rights
  • Promoting representative participation within multinational and other companies
  • Clarifying when we should and should not prioritise beyond our species

New social boundaries like these are increasingly required for trust, including the trust of clients in the processes professionals contract for with their employers.

This is within the overall context of envisaging the planet as a humanly influenced living whole: the signature of today’s geological era, the ‘Anthropocene’. The word means ‘qualitatively new and man-made’, and it is so-named because humans have a significant influence on the Earth.

In implementing sustainability its ‘people’ and ‘planet’ aspects tend to be divided into separate practitioner, NGO and academic silos. However this article/blog looks at how the people and planet aspects interact. It follows on from my introductory one (January 11) on having an Anthropocene mindset, and further one (March 20) on the planet, environmental science and ethical consequences for coaching.


‘Ecology’ prioritises whole populations, whether yours or mine or both, or human or not

‘Ecology’ as a social movement has at its core a whole population perspective.


 ‘Ecology’s whole population thinking has recently developed into social justice, more than individual liberty, for all humans.'

‘Ecology’ is a post-industrial social movement with mainly European and North American origins. Originating in the era of late Nineteenth Century imperialism, sadly it was associated with ethnically exclusive thinking. A glimpse at this serves as a warning which, as we shall see, we need to remember in the novel circumstances of today:

  • Its founder Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) formulated a kind of social Darwinism stating “usually it is the more perfect and ennobled human being who gains the victory over others”.[1]
  • ‘Ecology’ became associated with eugenics and the idea that capitalism and urbanisation weaken people
  • Up to the end of the Second World War it was linked, though not exclusively, with soft right wing politics, for example: rustic self-sufficiency in support of the Norwegian National Socialist Party; ‘Blood and Soil’ sensibility (though its organic farming was not endorsed by Hitler); British enthusiasts for healthy soil and food who tended to be pro-German at the time of National Socialism[2]

After the Second World War ‘ecology’ as a social movement developed a soft left global environmentalism which advocated social justice for all humans (i.e. ‘non-discriminatory universalism’).[3] The turning point was in 1980, when environmental issues were pulled together with people development through the paradoxical concept of ‘sustainable development’.[4] Change agents for this included Third World governments and NGO lobbies.

This recent emphasis has been more on equity and community than on individual liberty.

  • Oxfam, for example, focuses on resources, livelihood and social capital
  • The Paris Climate Agreement, ratified at the end of last year, refers to equity and reducing poverty; and similarly the UN’s influential 17 Sustainable Development Goals emphasise removing poverty and hunger and promotingequality and community
  • Non-discriminatory universalism more than individual liberty is the spirit of transnational sustainability movements like the African Ubuntu and Latin American Buen Vivir (also of the growing metropolitan managerial mindset?)

As in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, survival comes first. Compassion and self-interest rightly give prominence to the needs of the poverty struck and stuck global ‘bottom billion’, but an outcome is that championing individual freedoms tends to be postponed to later, to sustainability’s endgame.

Many of us, whether coaches or not, use phrases like ‘this day and age’ or ‘now we are in 2017’ because we assume there’s an inevitable global ‘progress’ towards egalité, gender-inclusive fraternité and liberté. But this is not somehow natural or historically inevitable: it’s a particular recent cultural context, that of the postwar peak of North Atlantic democracy, which has shaped the recent human rights version of ‘ecology’.


The danger that ‘ecology’ may discriminate in new ways by choosing one human population over another

The hard-won legitimacy of ‘ecology’s recent non-discriminatory universalism could come unstuck. There are signs, in the name of ‘ecology’, of possible new types of discrimination against geographical, ethnic, religious and national groups, for example through:

  • Unilateral geoengineering, as with polluters releasing sulphur into the atmosphere to cool it without reducing CO2 to help seaboard nations and others affected by continuing ocean acidification
  • Mass migrations though climate-change causing water shortages, for example in northern India
  • Climate wars, for example one of Gwynne Dyer’s military scenarios is of a ‘Lifeboat Britain’ and Ireland just about managing to feed their inhabitants through not letting too many people aboard[5]

The potential for geographical exclusivism could be legitimated through unscrupulous PR distorting visions like Thomas Berry’s proposed regionally-based biocracy and Chandran Nair’s much more pragmatic case that Asia should put an end to underpriced resources. On the fringe a few have even advocated reducing the human population through famine.[6]


Safeguarding individual liberty where ‘ecology’ prioritises non-human populations

In going on to embed individual liberty clarity is needed about circumstances in which all rights for humans come to be seen as merely a part of the biocentric whole. Environmentalists’ whole population perspective can prioritise animals, habitats and the biosphere above humans; and for many it is the benchmark of genuineness that it should happen at least occasionally.

Some deep greens have been accused of misanthropy because they prioritise other species, or the ecology of the whole, over humans. They range from sentiments like ‘naïve, non-contributing and non-consenting non-humans [are] caught up in massive change imposed on them by humans’, to ‘sooner shoot a man than a snake’.[7]  Deep greens may believe:

  • Human beings are moral agents but without ethical privilege
  • Arranging matters so that humans cannot lose is not ecocentric[8]

This ecocentricity contrasts with the Abrahamic Genesis tradition giving man dominion over nature. This traditional animal/man divide is no longer absolute: post-Darwinists today perceive animals as having culture, creativity and intelligence while human reason is not so independent as once thought.


‘Ecology’s whole population approach has more in common with neo-Confucianism than with Western individualism

As stated in the introduction, the emerging Asian century reinforces the challenge of ‘ecology’ to individual freedom.

The most powerful collective cultures today include Islam as well as neo-Confucianism. Islam’s community (umma) is in tune with the whole population approach of ‘ecology’, but there’s a big difference in the authority given to science. Ecology is science-based whereas, given its transcendental revelation fixing Sharia (God’s way), the struggle within Islam over the authority of science is thought to be more fundamental than its struggle against the West.[9]

China and its massive diaspora, as in Indonesia, have in neo-Confucianism a collective tradition which resonates more completely with ‘ecology’. It is compatible with science. Unlike Western thinking in terms of the rights of the individual, it emphasises virtues, such as benevolence (ren). Confucianism has a ground independent of humans for valuing the non-human world, and a role-based ethics in which humans are part of a larger community dependent on the non-living environment (though it would be a projection backwards in time to call traditional Confucianism ‘ecological’). [10]


The struggle for individual liberty in the sustainability endgame

The contrast between ‘ecology’ and individual liberty displays tensions within sustainability and suggests future struggles in an endgame. This needs to start now, assuming sustainability becomes orthodox, to prevent it setting in an unnecessarily authoritarian and manipulative form. Continuing to have an unchallenged safe space in which to work with clients is the nub of the matter for coaching and other people-development professionalism.

Some promising, business-related developments to uphold individual liberty:

Increasing transparency. Transparency to guard against the compromise of individual liberty by corruption is a liberal-democratic cultural export. Transparency International defines corruption, whether grand, petty or political, as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain https://www.transparency.org/what-is-corruption.

Transparency’s chipping away effect will need to be profound:

  • To replace the machismo and charisma of the systemic, embedded corruption of many cultures
  • To have the wisdom to discern where traditional systems of influence, notably Arab wastaand Chinese guanxi, are questionably being post-industrially redefined as ‘corrupt’
  • To create multi-cultural platforms so that transparency and anti-bribery legislation are not widely perceived as a new form of imperialism

Redefining individual rights. Preserving civil rights through redefining them may become necessary if surveillance becomes increasingly accepted. This could arise because technological developments (e.g. nanotechnology threatening the planet itself) exponentially increase the asymmetric power of those minded to use force to express political or other ends.[11] Redefining civil rights might include:

  • New institutions to counter erosion through redefining online privacy rights. Alongside this there may be a generational shift towards greater openness and tolerance in some areas of shame and guilt
  • Judicial safeguards accompanying increased state surveillance against terrorism

Companies could extend and strengthen their fiduciary legal duties.[12] Currently there are UN ‘Guiding Principles’, covering individual rights like freedom of association, which controversial companies like Nestlé can state they opt in to.  

Promoting representative participation within multinational and other companies. Representative participation in the supply chain is critical for sustainability. But business-as-usual culture is based on profits, not on being good:

  • For example in the garment industry in Tirapur, India, buyer-driven voluntary codes broke down; factories did anything to meet exacting delivery and quality targets and the tensions led to the production of false documents

Sustainability-as-usual is different:

  • In the same industry in Sri Lanka, suppliers to Marks and Spencer’s sustainability plan (‘Plan A’) treated low status female employees as ends in themselves giving them well designed working conditions and emancipating them to open bank accounts and have career prospects[13]

Identifying when we should and should not prioritise beyond our species. To which entities should rights be given? The question may seem silly: there should be non-discriminatory universalism for humans and that’s all. But the situation is dynamic not static. Even in the West women only got the vote quite recently, and eco-feminism since then, in combatting the essentialist view of women as mainly mothers and nurturers, has also eroded taken-for-granted humanism. For example Ecuador’s constitution recently granted rights to nature. Drawing an anthropocentric line in the sand is problematic in our increasingly socio-ecological age:

  • There’s discussion today over whether animals and indeed the planet itself should have rights. Business is closely affected because animals are in the supply chain, are directly sold in the food and clothing industries, are experimented on by big pharma and have their habitats destroyed by the extractive and construction industries
  • Technologies for merging human intelligence with technology are predicted. Blueprints for life itself can in effect be owned by large corporations through the law of intellectual property

Freedom as the absence of external obstacles. Business developments such as the above can help safeguard human freedoms from intrusions, like improper surveillance, because they emphasise the individual, not the ecological collective (negative not positive freedom).  However such individualism may well not be extendable to possibilities of action enabled by high-tech advances, for example a claimed ‘right’ to have designer children.


The liberty of the individual complements ecology

It has been held in this article/blog that individual liberty complementing ‘ecology’ is a hopeful possibility but should not be taken for granted. This is as, to survive, the need for ecological whole system thinking becomes increasingly recognised, especially given its affinity with the social solidarity of emerging and greening Asian economies.

Upholding individual liberty is not a process which is inherent in ‘ecology’ as a social movement, but it has the potential to be seen as a necessary component and meaning, and even as ‘ecology’s ultimate purpose. When combined with ecological thinking it forms a highly complicated and complex whole not a neat unity or monism. Its differentiation of individuals is in contrast with eco-mythologies like Ray Kurzweil’s ‘singularity’, which ends with the planet itself radiating intelligence.

Coaching, unlike ecology, is centred on consciousness; also having board members, CEOs and other employees as its clients puts it close to what is probably the most significant driving seat of planetary change. Thus it is well-placed to understand corporate aspects of the tensions between the liberty of the individual on the one hand and collective approaches to ecology on the other, and to raise awareness of the need for a new, creative balance.

A question for us all, given the pressures of the here-and-now, is how we raise this awareness.

Geoffrey Ahern


Geoffrey Ahern is experienced in executive coaching and sustainability. APECS accredited and working independently for the past decade, he has been a Fellow of the Centre for Leadership Studies, University of Exeter and before that was employed for five years as an executive coach by Coutts Consulting Group.

After 2008 he carried out multinational corporate consultation on sustainability in association with the World Wildlife Fund/IUCN and became an Honorary Lecturer in sustainability at the University of Liverpool’s Management School. He has published widely including a second edition of the book of his PhD (LSE 1981) on an ecologically-oriented global movement.

Email: geoffrey@geoffreyahernconsulting.com.
Website: geoffreyahernconsulting.com

References & Footnotes:
[1] Quoted in Kleeberg, B. (2007), ‘God-nature progressing: Natural theology in German monism’, Science in Context 20(3): 547.
[2] For this paragraph see Bramwell, A. (1989), Ecology in the 20th Century. A History. New Haven, Yale: 115-122, 150-151, 173, 207.
[3]  Banerjee, S. (2007), Corporate Social responsibility. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Elgar Press, Cheltenham.
[4] Mebratu, D. (1998), ‘Sustainability and sustainable development: historical and conceptual review’, Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 18(6): 493-520.
[5] Dyer, G. (2010), Climate wars. The fight for survival as the world overheats, Oneworld, Oxford: 183.
[6] See Berry, T. (1988), The Dream of the Earth, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, CA and Nair, C. (2011), Consumptionics. Asia’s Role in Reshaping Capitalism and Saving the Planet, Infinite Ideas, Oxford. For a discussion of famine see Smith, K. (2008), ‘How immigration may affect environmental stability’, Scientific American, 26, September.
[7] For the first quote see Albrecht, G et al (2013), ‘The ethics of assisted colonization in the age of anthropogenic climate change’, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 26: 831. The second quote is by a follower (J. Baird Callicot) of Leopold Aldi’s Land Ethic, cited in Lo, Y. (2001), ‘The land ethic and Callicot’s ethical system (1980-2001: An overview and critique’, Inquiry 44(3): 334.
[8] See Sylvan, R. and Bennett, D. (1994), The greening of ethics. From human chauvinism to deep-green theory, Cambridge: White Horse Press: 91,137; and Curry, P. (2011), Ecological Ethics. An introduction, Cambridge: Polity Press: 59.
[9] Drees, W. (2013), ‘Islam and Biomedical Ethics’, Zygon, 48(3): 733-744; Davary, B. (2012), ‘Islam and ecology: SouthEast Asia, Adat and the essence of Keramat’, ASIA Network Exchange, 20(1): 12-22: Haq, S. (2001), ‘Islam and ecology: Toward retrieval and reconstruction’, Daedalus, 130(4): 141-177.
[10] Chan, G. (2008), ‘The relevance and values of Confucianism in contemporary business ethics’, Journal of Business Ethics, 77:347-360;  Wong, P. (2015), ‘Confucian environmental ethics, climate engineering, and the “playing God” argument’, Zygon 50(1): 28-41; Nuyen, A. (2008), ‘Ecological education: what resources are there in Confucian ethics?’, Environmental Education Research, 14(2): 187-197;  Jung, H. (2013), ‘A prolegomenon to transversal geophilosophy’, Environmental Philosophy, 10(1): 83-112; Chan, B. (2015), ‘Animal ethics, international animal protection and Confucianism’, Global Policy 692): 172-175; Pfister, L. (2007), ‘Environmental ethics and some probing questions for traditional Chinese philosophy’, Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 34 (101-123).
[11] See Rees, M. (2003), Our Final Century. Will Civilisation Survive the Twenty-First century?, London: Random House.
[12] Banerjee, S (see 4 above), p.144.
[13] Soundararajan, V. and Brown, J (2016),’Voluntary governance mechanisms in global supply chains: Beyond CSR to a stakeholder utility perspective’, Journal of Business Ethics 134: 95-96; and Lowcarbonworks, Bath (2009): Centre for Action Research in Professional Practice (CARRP), Insider Voices, Human Dimensions of Low Carbon Technology. University of Bath conference 14/7/09.


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