What is the dark side of business ‘storytelling discourse’? Circular Economy, Triple Bottom Line…

Blog post by David M. Boje July 26 2019, revised July 30 2019, in preparation for keynote to the Dark Side of Communication conference, August in Denmark.

What is the dark side of business ‘storytelling discourse’? In this presentation I want to bring business storytelling and critical discourse analysis (Fairclough, 1992, 1995, 2005) together in order to understand why there are inadequate preparations in advance to avoid the 97% consensus among climate scientists about what will happen by 2100 if major reforms to capitalism are not enacted in the next decade. Storytelling (narrative and story) have been treated as a mode or element of discourse (Keenoy, Oswick & Grant, 1997; Oswick, Keenoy, Grant, & Marshak, 2000). I would like to suggest that storytelling is inseparable from discourse (Boje, 2014), so I will use the term ‘storytelling discourse’. My purpose is to get at what Grove-White (1993) calls ‘moral discourse’ of environmentalism in technological society, in particular the corporatized environmentalism discourse of the business college, I propose has colonized universities, and the entire ‘sustainability development’ movement with they mythic notion, making the economy circular, will avert global warming and as planet heats up, water heats up, and the ecological peak water event happens (which I will explain as I go).

We are in an existential crisis, but being colonized and co-opted to be bystander storytelling discourse instead of taking the necessary climate action. In 1962 Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, is a good example of the power of the dark side of storytelling discourse. She tells a story of the harmful effect of chemical, pesticides, including DDT polluting the land and water, resulting in contamination of the food chain, so there is a die-off.  The storytelling discourse brought about action, the Clean Water Act in 1972, the Clean Water Act in 1970, and the Resource Recovery and Conservation Act in 1976. But that was before the advent of corporatized environmentalism.

But something is wrong. We are not getting the climate action requisite to the climate science 97% agreement that global warming will be causing some major catastrophes if we stay on the business-as-usual course of inaction. We are colonized into inaction, distracted in 2019 by all the corporatized environmentalism, its storytelling discourse colonizes the ecological discourses, by quite shallow approaches to sustainability development, by conveying a growing number of climate myths that derail and deny the research results of climate science. Leading the way is the colonizing force of business storytelling discourses of the business schools I have work in 33 plus years, makes it seem as if continued economic growth is compatible with ‘sustainable development’ as if there is a planet B. I write about all this as Storytelling in the Global Age: There is No Planet B (Boje, 2019a, just published July 2019).

There is no planet B to bring freshwater to a dry planet. Business storytelling in the Global Age is how corporatized ‘fake storytelling’ of shallow sustainable development keeps the status quo fossil fuel industries, the plastic water bottle industry, and the water commodification and privatization industries from making the needed changes to avoid Sixth Extinction. Business schools’ ‘storytelling discourses’ have thoroughly colonized the university, resulting in rampant ‘academic capitalism’, displaced ‘real news coverage’ with ‘fake news’, turned public attention away from deep ecology, and co-opted the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), defanging them, so it is unlikely that CO2 emissions will be reduced in time to avoid Sixth Extinction, a prediction that most of humankind and most other species will die off from the global warming, its climate change, and of thirst in peak water crises (Boje, 2019c, in process).

With the predictable global warming, we are ill-equipped in business schools to prepare for when water is more valuable to business than oil. In other words, the neoliberal free market capitalism discourse and ideology of ‘business storytelling’ discourses (see https://davidboje.comfor Business Storytelling Encyclopediaproject), colonizes a Fake Storytelling (see https://truestorytelling.org) that has co-opted the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals  (SDGs) with Corporatized Narrative Promises of Triple Bottom Line, Tale tales of Circular Economy, Schemes of Cap-And-Trade in Carbon Emissions, Financed Myths of ‘Climate Denial’ to slow down ‘Climate Science’, all in-order-to keep ‘Fracking Oil’, and prepare for when Water is more valuable than Oil, by ‘commodifying and privatizing water as if there is a Planet B, and the Sixth Extinction is not already unfolding here and now. It’s not just peak oil, and fracking and climate denial to keep the fossil fuel industry from accepting its complicity and accountability.

There is another set of peaks happening besides being on the downslope of peak oil. We are not just in global warming, our business practices have created three peak water crises. Our renewal water is on the decline, so is our non-renewable water, and the ecological water in the water cycle itself, more evaporation occurs, but too much of it stays in the atmosphere in vapor, and less falls to earth to replenish our thirst and the thirst of all living species for water.

peak water apocalypse.png

Figure 1: 3 Peak Water Catastrophes that Circular Economy is Blind to – Adapted from Boje and Mølbjerg Jørgensen 2018

My Storytelling Awakening in the Belly of the Beast Long long ago in a 1970s university far far away, I was an ‘organization and environment‘ major. In all the Ph.D. course I took, the ‘environment’ meant ‘other organizations‘ and had nothing at all to do with climate change and peak water shortages in the biosphere, or Gaia the living planet. I was unaware of how the discourses of natural environment, ecology, and biosphere had been purged from the business schools. My ‘organization and environment’ became combined with an interest in ‘storytelling’, as I moved to my first job at UCLA in 1978. There too, environment meant other organizations and had nothing to do with the biosphere in the Anderson School of Management. Then, at Loyola Marymount where I earned tenure and environment became a bit more, still pretty shallow, something to do with recycling, reducing, and reusing, but nothing about the living planet or planetary carrying capacity for living species. Students were amazing. They actually volunteered to in the university recycling program, turning plastic bottles starting to proliferate in the 1980s into T-shirts. The Academy of Management was a great bystander instead of heeding the call to do something about the current and coming eco-crises. The bright exception was becoming a cosigner for the formation of the Organizations And Natural Environment (ONE) division of the Academy of Management (AOM). It was an anchor for me, and place of awakening from the stupefied Business School reductionism of ecology to just ‘other organizations.’ I was also a co-signer to initiate Critical Management Studies (CMS) division formation. It gave space to faculty and students studying ecological crises such as Bhopal (2–3 December 1984) a disaster at Union Carbide India Limited. Here is where critical discourse and critical storytelling came together for me, in a critical storytelling discourse paradigm. The Bhopal gas tragedy of December 2nd 1984, brought out the need to change the bystander AOM paradigms. Bhopal killed 3,787 people. Sessions I attended in ONE and CMS in the 1980s gave me hope.  Here is an excerpt from the ONE constitution.To much of the AOM, ‘environment’ still meant just other stakeholder organizations.  It’s exciting to see ONE turn from ‘environment’ as just other organizations, to the ‘natural environment’:

“The Organizations and the Natural Environment Division is dedicated to the advancement of research, teaching, and service in the area of relationships between organizations and the natural environment … The pollution of air, water, and land, and the depletion of both renewable and non-renewable resources as a result of actions of formal organizations are the most obvious manifestations of these interactions and relationships” (ONE Division’s Constitution, AOM).

 

1979-1996, some 15 years in Los Angeles and with all its earthquakes, mud slides, fires, and smog, It dated on me that something weird was happening, but did not tie it to the courses I taught. 1996 I moved to the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico, which, where I live only gets 10 inches of water a year, Rio Grande river that since the 1990s does not have water in our lower reach during the hottest months, yet climate denial is in the storytelling discourses of the business school and the university. I have learned to appreciate the survival skills of the rattlesnakes, tarantulas, horny toads, scorpions, and centipedes of the Chihuahuan Desert.  I became part of the sustainability movement on the New Mexico campus, putting forward the senatorial motion for an Office of Sustainability and a Sustainability Council, I chaired twice. Our vision included developing a School of Sustainability. We got a Bronze, then earned a Gold Star from STARS twice.  Yet, I kept noticing that beyond a deteriorating, out-of-date, and stalled recycling of plastic bottles, aluminum cans, and some cardboard and paper, the bystander storytelling discourse of business school had infected, colonized, and dominated the academic capitalism of the university. Yes, pockets of climate science, but not enough climate action to slow the global warming or prevent the death by thirst from the peak water crises.

The Dark Side of Academy of Management Storytelling Discourses

I took a look at recent and current Management (Mgt), Organizational Behavior (OB), Organizational Development (OD), and Critical Management (CM) texts. I did a pilot sample of texts I had in my personal library. Clearly a random sample is needed. Here are my preliminary findings. I found in the Index of each book, there is still not that much about climate change or global warming, and nothing about the impact of increasing global temperature on the water cycle (see Table 1). Most mainstream texts in these disciplines do not address ‘natural environment’ at all, and some have a single or a few references to sustainability, ecology is here and there, but no full coverage of climate change or global warming in any of the texts I sampled.

Table 1: Comparison of ‘Natural Environment’ Coverage in OB, OD, OT, and Mgt textbooks

TEXTS ‘Natural Environ-ment’ ‘Ecology’ ‘Environ-mental

issues’

‘Sustain-ability’ ‘Climate Change’ ‘Global Warming’ All terms/

total pages

%

Mgt: Exploring Mgt Schermerhorn & Backrach 5th ed. 2007 0 0 2 0 0 2/354

1.41%

OB: OB Robbins & Judge, 17th ed. 2017) 0 0 2 0 0 2/673

0.3%

OD1: Managing Change, Creativity & Innovation (Dawson & Andriopoulos 2011, 2nded.) 0 0 0 0 0 0/412

0.0%

OD2: Action Research Handbook (Reason & Bradbury 2008, 2nd ed.) 0 10 11 0 0 21/707

2.97%

OD3: Handbook of Organization Development, Cummings 2008) 0 3 2 0 0 5/676

0.74%

CM1:

Mgt & Org: A Critical Text Linstead, Fulop & Lilley, 2009, 2nded.)

0 11 65 0 0 76/830

9.16%

CM2:

Mging & Orgs, Clegg, Kornberger & Pitsis 2005)

0 0 3 0 0 3/540

0.56%

Key: Mgt= Management, OB= Organizational Behavior, OD = Organizational Development, CM = Critical Management

Looking at a count of the number of pages for all terms. One CM text (Linstead et al, 2009) had the most coverage in my non-random sample: 9.16% (76 out of 830 pages).

graph of books

Figure 2: Comparison of Coverage of ‘Natural Environment’ and related terms in OB, OD, and CM textbooks

My interpretation (an abductive hypothesis for others to check out in a complete random sample), there is in  the mainstream texts in mgt OB and OD have less coverage than the Critical Management (CM2) text by Linstead et al. This is a skewed distribution, since with the exception of the CM2 and OD2 texts, there is hardly any coverage (a page or two, or none at all for OD1). Mgt celebrates Patagonia and Unilever for its sustainability goals.” Not in the index, I searched and found single sentence about water, global warming and climate change. Using online searches of the sampled texts needs to be done.  For example in the 2 pages on ‘sustainability’ in the Schermerhorn and Bachrach Mgt text: (p. 76) The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is mentioned as a front-page issue, but Scherhorn and Bachrack explain” business practices pose risks, present and footer, to humankind and the natural environment. And it should prompt you to be concerned about the event to which we are abusing versus protecting, and consuming versus conserving, the world’s resources.”  On p 77 of the Mgt text, sustainability is presented “as a priority of the times, affecting all of us and all institutions of our society… the rights of both present and future generations as stakeholders of the world’s natural resources…”

“Water is becoming scarce and global warming and climate change are accelerating” (p. 77). While this is accurate, one sentence is not adequate to the challenges. The business Mgt and OB storytelling presents CEOs as the heroes, implementing sustainability goals.

It is presented is if it is possible to meet the “needs of customers and protect or advance the well-being of our natural environment” without any sense of contraction of how “harmony with nature” and “exploiting nature” can happen at the same time.

 

The OB text (Robbins & Judge) uses 3M corporation as a positive example of sustainability (1 of its 2 pages), but does not explain further. Nor is there any critique of 3M for its role in C8 (aka GenX) teflon pollution of the ground water near its plant, and the resultant medical health consequences of teflon chemical ingestion.

I will argue that Mgt and OB has much less coverage of global warming and the peak water crises unfolding, thereby preventing concerted climate action, and this is perpetrated by texts deploying the storytelling discourse of ‘corporatized environmentalism’ which puts students into a bystander role, rather than what Bakhtin (1993: 3) calls ‘moral answerability’ for being there in the once-occurrent eventness of Being with an ethical responsibility to intervene, to prevent tragedy (See Boje, 2008 for Bakhtin’s dialogism, and Boje 2008b for distinction between bystander [special] answerability and ‘moral answerability).

Has mainstream Mgt, OB, OD, and much of CM avoided its own moral answerability and complicity for climate change, global warming, and the hydrological cycle of planet Earth?  After all, none of the texts is tackling the topics of natural environment, climate change, or global warming, though there is critique of sustainability greenwashing in CM1.  Most (with the exception of CM1) are laudatory about corporate sustainability programs, or in Mgt text mention climate change and global warming as a sustainability goal of Unilever’s CEO.

CM1: Mgt & Org: A Critical Text Linstead, Fulop & Lilley, 2009, 2nded.) Linstead, Fulop and Lilley (2009) in chapter 5 by Linstead and Banerjee  ask, “How does the natural environment impact a company’s business?” (p. 239). Linstead and Banerjee do some storytelling discourse, in a case of a transnational mining corporation. Rana Base returns from a European Union conference about some new environmental legislation that his mining company had worked hard to delay as long as possible. He returns to headquarters to find to his horror, the largest customer has returned $1.4 million product order because of ‘excessive packaging’ too much styrofoam and plastic. The customer wants to know about how much carbon is in the plastic and paper, and what is the company policy and strategy for natural resources, including an account of just where the wood for the packing crates is sourced. The case tells of Australian Aboriginal communities intensifying their protests of the mining operations, the discharges of effluents aristo the Pibara River are causing destruction of the water and will cost millions to create the waste water management, the emissions controls, to get the effluents under control. More and more environmental groups around the world are targeting the mining company, claiming water pollution, and asking tough questions about environmental strategies and practices. The case brings to the foreground the natural environment in which the transnational mining company is operating. It can no long play the bystander role, and its strategy of denial rhetoric is failing to persuade anyone.

In the next post I will address what can be done about business storytelling discourses colonizing the sustainable development goals of the United Nation’s attempts to keep humanity form dying of thirst in the Sixth Extinction.

References

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Boje, D. M. (2014). Storytelling Organizational Practices: Managing in the quantum age. London: Routledge.

Boje, D. M. (2016). Critique of the Triple Bottom Line. Pp. 181-198 in Grace Ann Rosile (ed.) Tribal Wisdom for Business Ethics. Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing Limited.

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