By Oliver Laasch / Covid, climate change, Ukraine. There is a heightened sense of urgency in the air, and we have lived first tasters of how this age of grand crises may affect our lives. As a consequence, more radical and rebellious citizenship initiatives have become popular, and these initiatives’ actions are visible and impactful globally and locally. The Fridays for Future movement and Black Lives Matter are global examples that most of us are very aware of. Varieties of local initiatives have recently made headlines around the world. If it is true that the dominant business ‘regime’ needs to be overthrown to make it sustainable, then we seem in need of rebel managers up to that task. What can we learn for management education from these rebel movements?
Here in the United Kingdom, spring 2022 has been characterized by an upsurge of what has been labelled as ‘eco-extremist’ activist practices. Groups such as Extinction Rebellion, the Tyre Extinguishers, Just Stop Oil, and Insulate Britain have attracted public attention and notoriety by gluing themselves to roads and into courtrooms, blocking oil operations and bridges in the heart of London, or deflating the tyres of SUVs.
These actions have received both international solidarity from the sustainability activist community and local resistance from ‘normal people’. A recent poll suggests that a majority of British voters across political parties are against actions that ‘disrupt normal (unsustainable) life’, and with it justifying renewed moves for a law that allows police to more heavily crack down these and other forms of protest.
It is understandable how the disruptions caused by blocked roads and deflated tyres may be upsetting and inconvenient. However, these effects seem inconsequential in comparison to the life-threatening and planet-threatening consequences of the unsustainability of the system broached and attacked by these protest actions. The socio-technical sustainability transition of our production-consumption system cannot occur without ‘regime change’. It needs disruption. Rebelling against the taken-for-granted, but deadly norms that our current unsustainable system runs on is of the essence.
Interesting, isn’t it? Maybe it is even outrageous to some of us. But, wait, what does all of this have to do with management learning and education?
Every time we teach managers how to conform to the current unsustainable system, its logics and core practices, we ensure the persistence of an unsustainable present into an indeterminate future. So, conformity-based education for sustainability cannot be the answer.
Therefore, responsible management education needs rebels. We need managers who speak up, block, and sabotage unsustainable practices from their position inside of the business system. It is that embedded agency, which is so central for institutional change that we have to prepare management students for. This is for their own sake, for the sake of the organizations they will be working with, and for the sake of the bigger cause.
What can we learn from radical citizenship activism like that of the Tyre Extinguishers or Extinction Rebellion for management education?
1) Assuming Responsibility for a World on Fire
For a Tyre Extinguisher, every SUV spotted during an urban walk becomes unacceptable and constitutes a call for action. Essential to sustainability activism is a sense of urgency, and an emotionally loaded continuous awareness of our own and of our surrounding’s role in (re)producing planetary unsustainability. Nothing is trivial; every practice counts. How, where, and from whom do we purchase when and what? How do we produce and what? How do we make decisions? What practices do we engage in or abstain from, and why? It requires continuously counter-checking the practices we are part of right now for consistency with a regeneratively sustainable future that we want.
Fostering both anticipatory and systems-based thinking competences is crucial to this type of radical reflexivity. Only if a manager is able to understand what one’s current action does elsewhere and over time, can they notice what needs to change. However, this task does not need to be daunting, as it can happen one practice at a time. A great case I frequently use to train this competence, is the outdoor company Patagonia’s claim that repair is a radical act. It has been fascinating to observe how students bit by bit notice how non-mundane practices can be, as they explore the ripple effects of moving from practices of buying/producing new stuff, to repairing what can still be used. A pedagogy that has worked well in my courses is to accompany management students in learning projects in which they transform one of their personal practices towards sustainability. These projects tend to generate that very personal-emotional attachment to sustainable practices which is so essential for an activist.
2) Persistent Problematizing
The Tyre Extinguishers activists work on that premise. Every time an SUV tyre is deflated, it is meant to disrupt the normality of driving and reminds us ‘that it is not ok’. Changing deeply encultured and taken for granted unsustainable practices requires continuous reminders of their problematic nature. One of the most annoying, but crucial practices of activists is to continuously remind everyone around them that ‘it might be normal, but that doesn’t make it okay’. Persistent problematizing also means to keep saying ‘not good enough’ to laudable, but insufficient initiatives. Doing so maintains a generative tension that leaves no room for eco-complacency.
Mary Gentile’s giving voice to values arsenal of educational method and resources are geared towards helping students to speak up when they know something is not right. Or, if I may dare to self-promote for a moment, one could use an introductory management textbook that explicitly criticizes many taken for granted management practices and proposes alternatives.
3) Disobedience and Sabotage
When Tyre Extinguisher go about their business, they take to hands-on action of resistance that sabotages the normal working of an unsustainable use of personal cars. Our current ‘regime’ of social norms and our logic of the practices that make human life are still based on the unsustainable past. Civil disobedience, the refusal to obey the demands or commands of a government or occupying power, is a tried and tested practice that appears to apply well. Declaring not to take part or to actively sabotage unsustainable practices is the proverbial spanner thrown into the works of the practices that make our unsustainable society.
Encouraging management students to use that spanner and to help them know how to use it can come, for instance, from discussing historic and inspirational civil disobedience initiatives. One can find an inspiration case that speaks to varieties of students, from Mahatma Gandhi’s Salt Marches against British domination, to Claudette Colvin’s and Rosa Parks’s boycotts of structural racism in the US. Also, it could involve enabling students to use whistleblowing as a crucial practice of responsible management, possibly finding inspiration in high-profile cases like that of Edward Snowden.
4) Finding One’s Boundaries
Not everyone might want to go around deflating SUV tyres. For some, it might not be radical enough; for others yet a bit too much. Both personal values and pragmatic constraints are important boundary conditions for how extreme one’s rebellious practices can and should be. While one’s values might compel us to rebel, they might also limit the degree to which one accepts, for instance, violent or destructive practices. The bigger and the more radical is not necessarily the better here. Consistent minor rebellious acts like ‘spitting into the salad’ are important for transformation. One’s ability to walk away from or sabotage an unsustainable practice, of course, strongly depends on our economic stability and whether we are able and willing to bear the costs of rebellion. “Unless you have at least a year’s salary in the bank, don’t pretend that you are an ethical manager”, is the suggestion of Nancy Adler in her contribution to the Research Handbook of Responsible Management. Similarly, the prospect of potentially being arrested is likely to be a cost hard to bear for many.
Exploring one’s boundaries and finding one’s place on the ‘rebelliousness spectrum’ can be enabled through management education by exploring the extreme ends of that spectrum. We could, for instance, juxtapose Andreas Malm’s book how to blow up a pipeline which makes an argument for violent approaches to rebellion, with humoristic and non-violent sabotage acts like those with which the Yes Men Fix the World.
Raising rebels through responsible management education sure is controversial. It is likely to both cause and run into resistance from the more conformity-loving forces in society that keep the unsustainable business regime in place. It is our role as business school students, leaders, managers, academics, and every other member of the business school community to bring and keep the rebellion alive. Anything else leads to disaster.
Oliver Laasch is the founding director of the Center for Responsible Management Education and a senior lecturer at Alliance Manchester Business School.