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May, 26, 2022  |    |    |    |  

Social Purpose & Good Citizenship

A few years ago, I pulled into the local gas station to fill my car and was surprised by a decal on the pump: ‘Burning fossil fuels contributes to climate change.’ How bold for a gas company to encourage people to take responsibility for their carbon output!

Mike Rowlands
President & CEO of Junxion Strategy, Mike is an accomplished entrepreneur, consultant and advisor who has spent more than 20 years working to catalyze social responsibility and sustainability with organizations on four continents. Reach him via [email protected]

If each of us sacrifices a little, surely we can turn the rapidly rising tide of global heating! It’s a simple narrative that scales well: if every company sacrifices a little, if every city sacrifices a little, if every country sacrifices a little…. If only it were so easy….

A friend, a life-long climate activist, soon offered a counterpoint to my appreciation for that decal: “Oh great! Now we’re guilting people for system problems!”

Is it right to ask individual citizens to solve for the massive, complex, and flawed systems that have driven us into the anthropocene and the climate emergency? Do we really expect individual people to solve for a just transition to clean energy? To sustainable use of natural resources? To economic systems that deliver the social safety nets people need, while staying within the limits of our precious atmosphere?

Surely this is not the work of individual citizens. Or is it? We’re in a time of intersecting emergencies: climate heating, international conflicts and forced migration, an opioid crisis in many of our cities, and a mental health crisis that is the latest chapter in the still unfolding story of the COVID-19 pandemic. In an emergency, we don’t wait for ‘the other guy’ to help, right? We act. So while it isn’t fair to put the entire burden of solutions on the backs of individual citizens, perhaps each of us does have a role to play.

What’s your role in change?

Most thinking citizens feel a sense of moral obligation—to fellow citizens, to contribute to solutions, in short, to do their part. This sense of solidarity is an essential building block of all enduring communities. We come together in villages and towns, cities and nations, because we are better, safer, stronger together.

We also structure our societies around rules and norms that circumscribe ‘appropriate’ behaviours—actions and activities that collectively shape the tos and fros of ‘good citizens.’ We each are party to a ‘social contract,’ a commitment to give up a little of our individual freedom in order to draw the great benefits of life in community.

Far greater philosophers than I have studied what binds us in community. The ‘why’ is clear; we are social animals, after all. But the question of ‘what’ each of us is obliged to do is ours to answer for ourselves each and every day. And when the times get tough, it can be hard for many of us to ‘do our part.’

The question of ‘what’ each of us is obliged to do is ours to answer for ourselves each and every day.

Witness the past couple of years, when the COVID-19 pandemic shone a light on the inequities in our society. While the billionaires rode their rockets to space, it was the taxi driving immigrant who was forced to work to put food on his family’s table, the single mother of two who had to take extra shifts at the grocery store, and don’t get me started on the extraordinary overtime work and mental health burden on frontline health workers and emergency responders.

As Mark Carney said in his remarkable Value(s): Building a Better World for All, when times are tough, it’s hard to hear calls to align your actions to your values over the sound of your own screaming.

Six principles for social purpose and good citizenship

My colleague, Dace Veinberga, reminded me recently of this Hebrew wisdom: ‘Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.’ Words to live by?…

Do justly now. The rocket-riding billionaire has benefited from societally imbalanced privilege and has the resources and power to do more; the front-line worker has perhaps done enough, don’t you think? Consider with care how you might use your resources, capacity, privilege, and power to contribute.

Love mercy, now. You may see your peers and fellow citizens doing less than you expect they could, or believe they should. Avoid criticism or recriminations. Instead, assume each of us is doing the best we can with what we have. 

Walk humbly, now. Consider the words of the great Maya Angelou: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” We’re all learning as we go. Even the foremost climate experts continue to refine their models and learn more about solutions. Do your best. Keep learning. Keep doing better.

You are not obligated to complete the work. There’s a ceiling to your accountability. Don’t be too hard on yourself; don’t take on more than you can manage. We really are all in this together. Just keep doing your part, confident that the sum of all our parts will be enough.

Neither are you free to abandon it. There’s also a floor to your accountability. At the very least, strive to live by the wise physicians’ maxim, ‘do no harm.’ You’re not expected to do it all, but please do what you can, where you are, with what you have.

Many more of us, these days, are talking about aligning our work in the world with our sense of purpose in our lives. While the very opportunity to seek that alignment is a privilege in itself, it can be harder than it seems. Perhaps the solution lies in the wise words of philosopher, theologian, and civil rights leader Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

While discussions of social purpose are more and more frequently included on board room agendas, it can be helpful for each of us to start by reflecting on our personal sense of purpose. What does ‘purpose’ mean for you? What does ‘good citizenship’ mean for you? Does your purpose help you to live a fulfilling and meaningful life?

This is the first in a series of posts we’re putting together on social purpose. In the coming weeks, we’ll address the distinct roles of business leaders, boards of directors, civil society, policy makers and others.

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