Empathy Driving Engaged Sustainability in Enterprises

Rooting Human Actions in Systems Thinking
  • Ritamoni Boro
  • K. SankaranEmail author
Living reference work entry


This chapter suggests a vision for human activities in enterprises through the lens of engaged sustainability. We put together some important bits and pieces of insights and wisdoms that some seers among us have been able to envision. In the process we discuss empathy, emotional intelligence, social intelligence, and ecological intelligence and apply these ideas to learning organizations.

If human needs and wants were to be expressed and fulfilled only in material terms, humanity will not be able to recover the beleaguered Earth these have inflicted. If it is going to be business as usual, the unintended consequences which human actions have caused would destroy everyone. Here we attempt to understand the underlying empathetic nature of human beings that seem to “naturally” point towards giving rise to saner voices and enduring solutions.

We take the view that recovering from the impediments we face in shaping a sustainable future will not be possible if we continue to ignore the “softer” aspects of personal nature and superior interpersonal interaction humans are privy to. This chapter aims to understand whether achieving such feat can be made possible by grooming our empathetic skills in a more mindful and conscious manner. To that end, the concept of learning organizations has been applied to enhance the developmental skills across enterprises. We suggest that all enterprises, institutions, and organizations, irrespective of whether governmental, corporate, or voluntary, could embrace systemic changes to pay respect to the biospheric systems in a manner that would reverse the damage done while ensuring that the needs of future generations are respected and upheld.


Empathy Engaged sustainability Learning organizations Ecological intelligence Social intelligence Emotional intelligence 


It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society. – Jiddu Krishnamurti

Engaged sustainability is a choice. This adage is hard to believe in these modern times, as there is too much noise out there menacingly pointing to the view that human beings are totally helpless in the face of the destruction done to the planet. Perhaps one wouldn’t even be aware about the destruction of the Earth if cities weren’t filled with 24-hour smog screen making breathing difficult. Or, one wouldn’t even start being concerned if one didn’t have to rush for medical help because one drank water contaminated by the waste dumped in the water bodies by giant factories that claim benefits to denizens on the “other” half of the planet.

Herein lies the problem. It is a disease called “lack of sensitivity.” It is lack of sensitivity to one’s fellow humans and other living beings. It is lack of sensitivity to the environment that supports one’s livelihood. It is lack of sensitivity to even one’s own needs. It is lack of sensitivity to anything that hasn’t been seen, touched, tasted, smelt, or felt through one’s own senses. It would seem that “out of sight, out of mind” is the primary modus operandi, and the bigger problem is that this disease isn’t being suffered by only one person or a few individuals. This is being suffered by almost all of humanity as a whole. It wouldn’t be wrong to call it the invisible plague, a disease so rooted in the deepest of our psyche that we simply can’t become aware of it through ordinary means (Tucker and Williams 2007; Gore 2006).

However, all isn’t lost. There is in fact a very easy way to bring sustainability into one’s life. In fact, this way will pave the way for making sustainability the very basis of what helps one thrive, and not just survive. Engaged sustainability can very well become one of the best-kept open secret in achieving higher qualities of fulfillment in all spheres while addressing one’s wants and needs – physical, social, emotional, aspirational, experiential, spiritual, etc. For this there is just one shift in focus that we have to make. If “out of sight, out of mind” is what the root of all sustainability issues is, then, we just need to “bring everything into sight, to engage the mind with sensitivity.” We need to seek radical transparency and become conscious of how we conduct our lives and activities in the process of living it (Bonnett 2017).

It might seem like a gigantic undertaking. How much effort would it take to dig through all the hundreds of years of collective outcomes of destruction that humanity has instigated? But imagine for once, what would it feel like to know that when one wakes up in the morning, the free air that sustains life in our bodies is of the purest quality? One doesn’t need to be afraid that the water being fed to our children is not going to result in malfunctioning kidneys or deformed bones. What would it feel like to be completely confident that the buildings in which we spend a significant part of our waking time, our workplaces, are not contributing to the depletion of the very resources that sustains our living environment? Or for that matter, the various facilities that we use to make our work easier or prepare the packaged food that we eat aren’t turning these very life-giving resources into life-threatening nightmares we can’t escape (Nadeau 2006).

Yes, there is a way to overcome this helplessness. In fact, it is a gift of nature, which most probably we haven’t used to the fullest extent possible. It is a qualitative inherent trait that all human beings have called “empathy.” Empathy isn’t a solution. It is a psychological process which contributes to the growth of a human being (Wispe 1991). When used appropriately, empathy works at the very source of all the sustainability-related problems preventing the need for even questioning whether engaged sustainability as a way of living is possible or not.

This chapter is an undertaking to encourage readers to use their inborn skill of empathy to curve out a more conscious way of living and turn that very way of empathetic living into an endeavor that rehabilitates Earth into a safe and joyful place to live in.

Section “Introduction” would look at empathy and focus on understanding how empathy is the most natural skill one is born with as a human being and how exercising the skill of empathy drives the natural learning and growth of a human being (Lipton 2005). This part will also look at how empathy and its relationship with emotional intelligence help one become connected to other people and gain better understanding about the cultural environments that sustain us. And most important of all, how can empathy enhance awareness regarding the different human creations that we deem necessary for survival? It is also important to inquire as to how it can help us make more informed and conscious decisions? Are what we deem as necessary in our lives beneficial in reality, or do they contain hidden threats?

In section “What is Empathy?,” following Goleman and Ekman (2007), we define empathy and describe its three variants: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate. We suggest that when these three variants come together what emerge are endurable thoughts and actions that are truly empathetic. This is followed by connecting empathy with emotional intelligence in section “The Connection Between Empathy and Ecological Intelligence.” Here we describe emotional intelligence in terms of self-awareness and self-management (Goleman 1995). Emotional intelligence is then connected with social intelligence and finally to ecological intelligence. A certain holistic substantive awareness of how the Earth actually supports life is required as part of ecological intelligence. Therefore we describe what the Earth’s biosphere supports as pointed out by Rockström et al. (2009): nine life-support systems that comprehensively view the dynamic nature of life on Earth.

In section “Operationalizing Collective Ecological Well-Being,” we examine ways and means to operationalize ecological well-being as members of organizations. It is a task of mammoth proportions to bring every human being together as one enterprise to achieve one common goal of designing an environment conducive of sustaining human survival. To address the issue of whether enforcing sustainability can be made operational on a systemic basis, we’ll take the model of learning organizations (Senge 1990) and analyze its five disciplines – systems thinking, mental models, shared vision, team learning, and personal mastery – as applied towards building a sustainability-oriented enterprise. Finally section “Conclusion” provides a conclusion.

What Is Empathy?

According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, empathy is “The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”

Let us seek an example. Many of us have faced situations where, when we meet a friend or colleague of ours, we are immediately able to guess their emotional condition without the person having uttered a single word (Lakin 2006). Most of the time, we would be correct. It might be discomfort due to an illness, or sadness at having faced some unfortunate happenings in their lives, or even excitement from having encountered some fortunate ones. And then there’s the other example of a mother and her baby. A baby doesn’t know how to speak, but somehow a mother is able to guess the different moods of the child from its activities and address situations appropriately. Maybe the baby is hungry. Or, maybe it needs a change of diapers. Perhaps it just needs to “hear” the voice of its mother because it is feeling lonely. The mother is able to sense the needs of the baby instinctively. This trait of being able to sense the feelings from another person without that person having to mention anything is empathy.

When a baby first learns to speak or identify objects, it does so by imitating its mother, which is, indeed, not a simple process (Pinker 2002). It tries to imitate the speech patterns and recognizes the significance of the objects it comes in contact with regularly – for example, a milk bottle will mean that its hunger will be appeased. Even as adults, if someone smiles at us, generally there is an automatic response on our side to return that smile. In both these cases, it is observed that there isn’t always a need to consciously execute an action physically from our side. It is our motor nerves which automatically get activated and start the process of executing the act on an unconscious level.

The two-way process undertaken by the individuals concerned described above (whether the baby and the mother on the one hand or the two adult on the other) enables them to function optimally in specific situations. Of course, as human beings there isn’t always a necessity to respond to a stimulus in predetermined fashion. Individuals have the option to consciously choose which actions to respond to/imitate and which not to. Goleman and Ekman (2007), the world-renowned experts on emotions and individuals’ ability to respond to them in others, classify empathy as three types – cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, and compassionate empathy.

“Cognitive empathy” is the one that directly arises out of one’s observational inputs. This empathy is also sometimes called perspective-taking in more professional situations. Through inferences derived based on one’s observations, the individual is able to know how the other person might be feeling and what he or she might be thinking at that particular point in time and place. A person with sharpened cognitive empathic skills might be highly proficient in negotiation or motivating others. A study conducted at the University of Birmingham reports that managers with highly developed perspective were able to motivate their team members in giving their best efforts (Goleman 2006).

However, there is a dark side to cognitive empathy. Ultimately, cognitive empathy is an inherent skill. It is a tool to be precise. How it is used depends on the user. Social workers or caregivers may use this skill to motivate patients and the needy to alleviate their pain of suffering. At the same time, an unscrupulous conman might use this very ability to rob the vulnerable of their belongings. Nefarious politicians would use this same skill to garner votes from misled citizens without fulfilling any of the promises made.

While cognitive empathy is about simply “knowing,” the next type of empathy, also called “emotional empathy,” is about “feeling.” This type of empathy entails someone being well-attuned to another person’s inner emotional world. In this case, one can physically feel what the other person is feeling as though they have been infected by the other’s emotion. This empathy may be the one most related to our learning and development. Goleman (2004) states that “Most of us have assumed that the kind of academic learning that goes on in school has little or nothing to do with one’s emotions or social environment. Now neuroscience is telling us exactly the opposite. The emotional centers of the brain are intricately interwoven with the neurocortical areas involved in cognitive learning. When a child trying to learn is caught up in a distressing emotion, the centers for learning are temporarily hampered. The child’s attention becomes preoccupied with whatever may be the source of the trouble. Because attention is itself a limited capacity, the child has that much less ability to hear, understand, or remember what a teacher or a book is saying. In short, there is a direct link between emotions and learning” (p: vii).

Learning doesn’t stop with childhood. Even when people have moved on to their workplaces, one can see the presence of emotional empathy in all spheres of interactions. In an ideal working environment, employees are focused, fully attentive, motivated, and engaged and enjoy their work.

However, the biggest downside of emotional empathy surfaces when one is not capable of managing one’s own distressing emotions. This can give rise to psychological exhaustion that leads to burnout and depression. Those in the fields of medicine have a way to cultivate purposeful detachment as prevention against such burnout. However, there is a risk of that very detachment to turn into indifference and apathy, instead of well-calibrated caregiving.

The two types of empathy we discussed above may be seen as “knowing” empathy and ‘feeling” empathy, respectively. If a person wants to employ these skills as tools for progressive development, he or she needs to be highly aware of the repercussions of these two empathetic skills and make appropriate decisions. Herein comes the third form of empathy, known as “compassionate empathy.” This form of empathy involves not just being able to know and feel what another feels but also taking action so as to alleviate their concerns if required. Also, compassionate empathy involves knowing when not to get overwhelmed by the emotional contagion and back off if the situation demands it. The basis of this empathy is in being conscious or aware of not just others’ thoughts and feelings but also of own thoughts and feelings and how the self and the other interact emotionally with each other. So we see that in order to effectively exercise one’s freedom of choice and action in life, one needs to have a highly developed awareness of one’s ability to manage one’s own thoughts and emotions. However, how does one distinguish between observations made consciously and the ones made unconsciously? This is where the field of emotional intelligence comes in, which is discussed in the next section.

The Connection Between Empathy and Ecological Intelligence

Albert Einstein famously stated that “Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.” Empathy is the beginning of ecological intelligence as pointed in Fig. 1. Let us look at each of the connections one by one.
Fig. 1

Sequence of intelligences on application

Empathy and Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is the process of understanding one’s own emotions and handling them in a healthy manner. There are primarily two parts to emotional intelligence – self-awareness and self-management (Goleman 1995). These are discussed below.


Self-awareness is about being able to recognize feelings as they happen. It is the foundation of developing emotional intelligence. As one monitors the arising and passing flow of feelings, one can gain self-understanding as well as insights into the current situations. This solidifies confidence in one’s own feelings and enables one to make better choices in life. Aware of one’s own moods and emotions, the person gains much clarity as to his/her own personality traits and what drives oneself. The person is better able to perceive his/her strengths and limitations, thereby enabling him or her to always have a positive outlook of life, which in turn maintains one’s psychological health.

Correspondingly, the more open one is to own emotions, the more skilled the individual becomes in reading others’ feelings. People with high self-awareness are able to be mindfully manage not just their own emotions but also appropriately address others’ emotions.

On the other hand, an inability on our part to mindfully notice our true feelings will lead us to be overwhelmed by them. It would start feeling like nothing goes right in life. Psychological health will deteriorate leading to anxiety, melancholy, depression, and other such mental malaise.

Not just will such people be confused about their own emotions; they will also not be able to know what others around them are feeling. They won’t be able to recognize the nonverbal, or even verbal, cues when someone is feeling sad or angry and may appear insensitive or cruel to others around them.


Self-management is about handling feelings and emotions appropriately as the situation necessitates. This is the second building block of emotional intelligence. Self-management required one to be aware of one’s emotions first. Emotions have a strange tendency to form self-reinforcing loops (Checkland 1981). A positive emotion like joy would in turn bring in more feelings of joy, whereas a negative emotion like anger will keep flaming the fire higher and higher. In case of positive emotions, one might be willing to let the loop continue forever. After all, why should one change something that’s already going the good way? However, too much of a good thing is also dangerous. When one is in a good mood, there is no desire to change the status quo, which may cause the individual to become unable to adapt to changes in life circumstances. As for the negative emotional loop, it is quite apparent that things aren’t going to end well anyway – neither for the individual nor for the people around them.

Self-management helps one to break these loops of emotions and gain control over one’s lives. It also helps people to adapt easily to life changes and recover from life’s setbacks and upsets. This also means that they are able to adjust and build rapport with the people around with more ease and compassion. Between the divide of this self and the other lies empathy. Empathy is what enables us to extend the awareness of our own emotions to the awareness of others’ emotions. It is what enables us in extending the self-management of our emotions to the management of emotions in others. This brings us to the field of social intelligence, which is an application of emotional intelligence with respect to other people.

Social Intelligence

There is a saying handed down by some wise man “Walk a little in my shoes. See what I see, hear what I hear, feel what I feel. Then maybe you’ll understand why I am the way I am.” Previously, it has already been mentioned how human beings learn and grow by imitating the people around them (Pinker 2002). The more number of times the imitation is repeated, the more number of times the synaptic impulses are fired in the brain for the same trait. Consequently, the stronger the emotional imprint becomes, the more strongly one mimics another person and the more accurate their senses regarding what the other person is feeling will become (Goleman 2006).

When a person empathizes or attunes himself or herself to someone, it is very natural to feel along with that person. That means, for example, even if one is in a good mood, the former is likely to be infected by the latter’s bad mood too. This in turn will create the loop of bad mood between the two people concerned. Further this will give rise to all sorts of psychological malaise. This in itself is a very good reason to understand how to manage others’ emotions in relationships.

There’s also the responsibility of not transferring one’s own negative emotions to the other person – who may or may not be well versed in the skill of self-management. Thus, how people connect with others has unimaginable and significantly huge consequences. Hence, people who are around us play a big role in changing the inner chemistry of our entire being – physiological and emotional. The natural question that arises in the context of our inquiry here is “What about the rest of the environment? How do they impact a human being’s growth?” This brings us to the field of ecological intelligence which is the application of emotional intelligence and social intelligence with respect to how we relate to the environment which nurtures us.

Empathy and Ecological Intelligence

Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Environment Institute in Sweden, along with Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen and NASA climate scientist James Hansen and others identified nine life-support systems essential for human survival (Rockström et al. 2009). These systems include biochemical cycles such as carbon and water and physical circulation systems such as the climate and the oceans.

The caveat is that as long as these nine support systems are in balance, human development can be considered to be securely operating in the safe zone. However, if these systems cross the limits, then only catastrophic consequences await humanity. As of now, seven out of these nine support systems are operating at the border or are already in the danger zone. The good news is that as long as immediate measures are being taken to reverse the situation, all will be well. So, how does empathy help in generating ecological intelligence?

Earlier we had, quoting Merriam-Webster dictionary, suggested that empathy has to do with feelings towards fellow human beings. A second definition of it by the same source expands the idea as the “the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it.” Earlier we had discussed empathy in terms of understanding the emotions of other people. Now we extend it to the Earth which will enable us to comprehend Earth’s natural state of being and variations we engineer on it. No one person can make an impact on the global crises. However, the entire human community, one person at a time, can. We can extend the idea of social intelligence and ecological intelligence to heal the Earth and create sustainability for all of Earth’s creations.

Before proceeding towards addressing the endeavor of redesigning organizations to be sustainability oriented, there is a need for being conscious of the nine major life-support systems present in the biosphere of the Earth’s ecosystem as identified by Johan Rockström et al. (2009). A short introduction to the same is provided in Table 1.
Table 1

Nine life-support systems of Earth

Sl. No.

Life-support systems



Climate change

The increase in concentration of atmospheric CO2 has led to an imbalance in the energy systems in the biosphere. This has caused disruptions in the regional climate patterns, giving rise to phenomena like loss of polar ice caps, loss of glacial freshwater supplies, weakening of carbon sinks, etc.


Ocean acidification

Increase in carbonate ion concentration has led to the conversion of coral reefs to algal-dominated systems. This has induced the extinction of marine life and dissolution of coral reefs which provide support to the ocean beds


Stratospheric ozone depletion

The thinning of the ozone layers in the stratosphere is no longer able to stop incoming UVB radiation from outer space, thus leading to severe and irreversible effects on human health and ecosystems


Interference with the global phosphorus and nitrogen cycles

Increase in inflow of phosphorus to the oceans has led to depletion of dissolved oxygen impacting survival of marine life. Removal of nitrogen from the atmosphere has affected the “overall resilience of ecosystems via acidification of terrestrial ecosystems and eutrophication of coastal and freshwater systems”


Rate of biodiversity loss

Sometimes, due to one of the factors mentioned above or several of the factors combined together, there is an impact on the functioning of the continental and ocean basin scales resulting in a massive loss of biodiversity. This in turn impacts on several other biospheric systems like “C storage, freshwater, N and P cycles, land systems”


Global freshwater use

Consumption of freshwater may effect regional climate patterns (e.g., monsoon behavior). Originally, the natural cycles of the atmosphere would be enough to replenish the water consumed. However, due to the increase in usage of freshwater at a faster rate and higher volumes, the amount replenished naturally can no longer meet the required criteria for systemic balance. This has affected “moisture feedback, biomass production, carbon uptake by terrestrial systems and reducing biodiversity”


Land system change

The conversion of massive patches of land across the globe for crop cultivation purposes has triggered irreversible changes in the regional biodiversity and thereby indirectly affected the carbon storage and ecosystem resilience in those particular regions


Aerosol loading

Natural aerosol concentration occurring as a result of the cyclical processes of nature acts as a regulator for Earth’s radiation by scattering incoming radiation back to space. It indirectly influences cloud reflectivity and persistence by acting as regulator for temperature fluctuations. However, human-induced aerosol loading has short-circuited this regulatory phenomenon leading to erratic climatic changes like disruption of monsoon systems and production of hazardous phenomenon such as smog, etc. which affects human health


Chemical pollution

Chemical pollutions here include common examples like carbon emissions, uncontrolled plastic disposal, heavy metal usage, nuclear wastes, etc. Unregulated usage of chemicals may lead to dire results pertaining to human health, as well as impact the overall functioning of the ecosystem

In his book on ecological intelligence, Goleman (2010) reiterates the need for developing a systems thinking if we want to address the burning issue of how human communities can be made more sensitive to the biosphere that nurtures them and thereby find solutions which are more sustainable for human survival on Earth. Only when there is a better understanding of the subsystems of the Earth’s ecosystem, the human communities, and the nature of relationship as dependent and nurturer between the two is established, will there be a breakthrough to finding solutions which are truly sustainable for generations to come.

Enterprise as a Nucleus for Collective Ecological Well-Being

In various kinds of organizations, whether governmental, corporate, voluntary, etc. there are already training programs in place to impart leadership skills and instill the employees with the capacities of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. Thus, the workplaces are already well-equipped to dive right into this project. They can start with wherever they are, whichever stage of maturity there are. For example, they may start with identification of the different types of resources used for the functioning of the entire work building. Then perhaps measure their contribution in impacting the environment, following which look for more environment-friendly options, thus developing a more sustainable game plan.

The next section will look at the one such method of developing a game plan and how empathy can be a key driver in helping enterprises become more systems oriented and resource-friendly by following such a blueprint.

Operationalizing Collective Ecological Well-Being

Change is hard to adopt for humans. A fluid and more systemic transitioning endeavor will need to be implemented to reinforce change conducive to the enterprise. One such concept is promoted by Peter Senge (1990) in his book The Fifth Discipline. He calls it “the learning organization” – a highly dynamic system that incorporates sensitivity to change and at the same time enables the organization to flourish while addressing those changes.

There are many models for management of organizations. Learning organization is a good means to ensure systems thinking and collective learning. We use this as a metaphor to illustrate that workplace achievement (both at the individual and organizational levels) can be attained while maintaining ecological sustainability as the key purpose.

The concept of a learning organization is essentially a route map of managing the learning needs of an organization, thereby making the members of the organization more sensitive towards change as well as be agile while addressing them. This concept comprises of the following five disciplines – systems thinking, mental models, shared vision, team learning, and personal mastery. This concept is now established in various fields as obvious from the collection of case studies in the book The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook (Senge et al. 1994). These cases provide ample evidence that the framework of learning organizations can be applied as a basis for developing and adopting engaged sustainability practices instead of rediscovering the wheel.

Systems Thinking: Thinking Beyond Boundaries

If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions. – Albert Einstein

Peter Senge (1990) ends his book Fifth Discipline with the profound notion of wholeness. The roots of this idea can also be traced back to the century-old scriptures or indigenous cultural philosophies – wise words handed down by the ancestors on how to live a harmonious life. The core idea behind this concept is that the universe is not made up of separate parts stacked together. Instead, it is a group of small individual subsystems which flow into each other to form bigger self-sufficient systems. These systems are efficient loops of self-correcting processes that balance and adjust themselves to accommodate any change being triggered due to factors occurring either internally or externally. This ensures that even a tiny change in one part of a subsystem immediately gets reflected in the other subsystems as well as the greater system of which they are a part.

Systems thinking is the overall discipline of looking at organizations as a system in order to be able to understand the connections between causes and effects, the patterns of recurring results, and see the bigger picture that emerges. This makes the organization agile and quick in adapting to changes as the situation demands. This way of observation also brings into view the hidden undercurrents that might be hampering an organization in moving towards its goal.

In the current times, as people are becoming more conscious of their environment, several policies are being enforced to ensure eco-friendly measures be taken by the organizations. Where earlier enterprises were only concerned about profit-making, now there are new sustainability concepts like “triple bottom line” (people, planet, and profits) being enacted throughout the organization. This is a change which has opened the doors to a lot of contemplations and discussions on how to make our enterprises more eco-friendly. However, the realization that emerges is that addressing the direct impacts of the concerned enterprise on the surrounding environment turns to be only a stopgap measure. The repercussions of the choices made and the resources consumed are more far-flung than originally thought to be.

Hence, it becomes necessary that the entire living environment be mindfully observed in order to examine how an individual interacts with it to the minutest detail possible. Let’s take, for example, one day in the life of an employee. The workday for the person begins the moment the person enters the premises of the workplace. Most probably, the first interaction of the employee will be with the elevator pressing the button to take him or her to the relevant floor of the building. An elevator is that magical artifact that transports one from one floor to another without having to expend muscular energy and be tired from it. Are we aware how much electricity is being exhausted in keeping such a magical instrument operating 24 hours a day? Then we reach our desks. In the middle of the desks, there will be most probably a computer. On one side, there might be an intercom and on the other might be a printer. A common man would definitely not inquire about the raw materials going into the making of a computer or a printer or an intercom, not to mention the electricity required to run the same. What about the milky white A4 papers that need to be printed on? And then there’s the pen with which notes are taken and signatures given. Also, there’s the large quantity of refills to ensure that the pen keeps on writing. How many trees might have been felled to produce the tables that hold our work paraphernalia? Not to mention whatever chemicals the carpenters use, like colors, turpentine, etc., to achieve the highly polished look. Sometimes the material might not be wood but metal or plastic and tons of associated chemicals. The ergonomically designed chairs too are definitely to be included in our zone of awareness.

And then, we move on to the cafeteria. Most organization will have a food-serving area and several coffee and tea vending machines every floor. Where did the food ingredients come from? Are they locally made or have they traveled across seven continents in aluminum-foiled packets, on specially consigned vehicles to reach the building? And then there’s the building itself. Has any measure been taken to offset the harm caused to the soil while erecting this building? What about the air-conditioning systems that ensure an easy working environment in extreme temperatures?

No, it is definitely tough to survive without these modern facilities with today’s lifestyle. And no, no one is being demanded to give up this lifestyle either. But what is asked for here is a bit more awareness: consciousness of things that people use up and then discard into the surroundings. One person might exhale only a few grams of carbon dioxide per day. But when tens of trillions of organisms do so, the grams add up to tens and thousands of tons. Remember, carbon dioxide does not recognize geopolitical boundaries. With the decrease of tree cover, the carbon dioxide has nowhere to go but dissolve into the ocean water. Which in turn raises the acidity level of the oceans and triggers reduction of marine life forms. And when one form of life goes extinct in a particular ecosphere, the balance of the system disrupts giving rise to a host of other issues, like increase in bacteria that may be harmful to human life. And so, the circle of biological cohabitation continues in never-ending loop of cause and effect.

We may not be able to give up modern amenities, but by being a little bit more aware, we definitely can plant a tree. Tens of millions of people, belonging to different generations across long spans, each planting one tree, will start playing their role of being a net carbon dioxide sink, thus reducing ocean water acidification and stopping the rest of the trigger reactions in the biospheric chain.

This is just one of the many examples of the need to become aware of the nonliving entities which make life on Earth possible. Earth isn’t the one which is in danger of survival. It is us human who are going to become extinct should the life-support systems of Earth go out of human tolerance levels.

As can be seen from the above, it can be a very scary notion to behold that from the very food that we eat, to the products that we use, and every item (cars, mobiles, computers, air-conditioners, water heaters, etc.) in between that have been deemed as necessities for modern life – personal or professional – adds another death knell to continued survival for future generations. It can be very overwhelming to question everything about our current lifestyles in order to restore even a part of the biosphere.

However, change need not be so painful. Change on a global scale can definitely not be done alone. However, as a community, working one step at a time towards the goal of making our enterprises resource-friendly is achievable. Here, the other four learning disciplines that characterize a learning organization come into play – mental models, shared vision, team learning, and personal mastery.

A systems effort propagates the necessity for reexamination of the thoughts and assumptions underlying the practices undertaken by organizations. The emphasis would be on identifying and differentiating between the assumptions which would work and which no longer serve the organization’s purpose. This brings us to the second learning disciple mental models.

Mental Models: Five Practices of Ecologically Engaged Literacy

The ability to perceive or think differently is more important than the knowledge gained. – David Bohm

According to Senge et al. (1994), “the assumptions held by individuals and organizations are called mental models,” and they represent the ability to be “reflecting upon, continually clarifying, and improving our internal pictures of the world, and seeing how they shape our actions and decisions” (p:6). As the wise would say, the ideas that gave rise to the problems of today won’t be able to provide the solutions that in the first place created them. To gain fresh ideas, a shift in thinking is necessary.

According to the theory behind learning organizations, once the current mental models have been revisited, it becomes immensely easier for the members to embrace change. A change in mental models allows people to anticipate change and respond to them faster. Thereby they are poised to adapt to changes seamlessly without any major hiccups to the system. “Change and learning may not exactly be synonymous, but they are inextricably linked” (Senge et al. 1994, p:6).

History stands witness to rising civilizations and changing vistas. From nomadism to building prosperous civilizations, from stone tools to artificial intelligence, from agriculture-based societies to intelligence-oriented societies, every change is driven by some sort of idea figured out by humans. These ideas in turn gave rise to changing demands in the way an individual conducts his or her life – be it farming, hunting, socializing, etc.

Consumerism today may have its roots in Industrial Revolution, and even further back in the dynastic revolutions, no one can say for sure. But one reality we all agree to is that human beings reaching out to their needs and novelty is the biggest causes of change, so much so that humans have even started changing the very contours of the biosphere that supports their lives. To regulate human choices so as to not cross the limits of these boundaries has become the urgent need. It is time to reexamine our needs and demands from the very core.

As argued earlier in the chapter, human beings learn and grow by imitating other humans in their immediate living environment. This is one of the reasons why people of a particular cultural origin behave in one particular way, and the members of another community behave in another way. It is the assumptions handed down through culture that give rise to the particular manner in which one conducts one’s life. One the way, the underlying assumptions may get modified due to cataclysmic factors such as natural disasters, foreign invasions, and so forth. The issue arises when these very same assumptions are maintained unconsciously for generations on end without reviewing the consequences periodically. Industrial Revolution was considered an unqualified boon for humans until recently. Even the common man could now live at a higher standard of living with the help of machines. But today, this very demand for better and better machines and scientific revolutions is creating havoc to the environment.

Hence, it is very important that the goals for change be set at a community level – be it a commercial company, a politically recognized country, or even an association of several countries. This is because, as it has been established before, the biosphere does not recognize any geopolitical boundaries. It just follows its own system of physical laws giving rise to certain natural interactions, which may or may not be conducive to the survival of living organisms (humans being one of these).

Goleman et al. (2012) mention five practices that can allow people to strengthen their capacity to live sustainably. His work is aimed at grooming students to become future leaders who are armed with enough knowledge and skills to become well balanced in their emotional, social, and ecological dealings with the living environment. And what works for future generations of leaders definitely works for the current generations of leaders as well. The only way to inspire action is by living it ourselves. These five practices integrate emotional, social, and ecological intelligence. These are:
  1. 1.

    Developing Empathy for All Forms of Life: The first idea encourages one to develop a sense of compassion for other forms of life. “By shifting from our society’s dominant mindset (which considers humans to be separate from and superior to the rest of life on Earth) to a view that recognizes humans as being members of the web of life,” it becomes easier to “broaden their care and concern to include a more inclusive network of relationships” (Goleman et al. 2012, p:12).

  2. 2.

    Embracing Sustainability as a Community Practice: This idea emerges from “knowing that organisms do not exist in isolation” (Goleman et al. 2012, p:12). The collective ability to survive and thrive is determined by the quality of the network of relationships within any living community – irrespective of whether that relationship is between humans or between humans and other living organisms. This inspires one to “consider the role of interconnectedness within their communities and see the value in strengthening those relationships by thinking and acting cooperatively” (Goleman et al. 2012, p:12).

  3. 3.

    Making the Invisible Visible: The third idea enables one in “recognizing the myriad effects of human behavior on other people and the environment” (Goleman et al. 2012, p:12). Making the invisible visible through observation and awareness will make us understand “the far-reaching implications of human behavior and enables us to act in more life-affirming ways” (Goleman et al. 2012, p:12).

  4. 4.

    Anticipating Unintended Consequences: This is a two-pronged method to address the dual necessities of “cultivating a way of living that defends rather than destroys the web of life,” and at the same time “build resiliency by supporting the capacity of natural and social communities to rebound from unintended consequences” (Goleman et al. 2012, p:12).

  5. 5.

    Understanding How Nature Sustains Life: Earth has been in existence for billions of years. It has stood testimony to countless species of living organisms that had once existed and then gone extinct. Hence, to learn how to thrive in the Earth’s environment, it is urgently necessary to examine “the Earth’s processes, and learn strategies that are applicable to designing human endeavors” (Goleman et al. 2012, p:12).


Continuously reviewing the mental models that drive the needs and demands of our society will ensure that we never get lulled into false sense of security that everything is okay. As we become more aware of systemic structures, like the ones that exist in the biosphere (the nine life-support systems discussed earlier), and feel compelled to modify them, having a set goal towards formulating an actionable plan calls for brainstorming and execution at a collective level. This is where the next discipline “shared vision” comes in.

Shared Vision: Bringing the Ecosphere Down to Earth

The way to get things done is not to mind who gets the credit for doing them. – Benjamin Jowett

According to Senge et al. (1994), shared vision is “a sense of commitment in a group, by developing shared images of the future we seek to create, and the principles and guiding practices by which we hope to get there” (p:6). The premise of shared vision is not just about working towards a set goal with the help of a team. It is more about building a dynamic process, a way of following the philosophies and practices revised during the mental modeling phase. It is not just about a single or a short-term achievement. It is about moving beyond the premise of “achieving” itself and establishing a way of working which encourages and embraces all types of changes and learning requirements.

The most successful visions of any organization are those that are usually built on the basis of the individual visions of employees at all levels of the organization. This gives a sense of identity to the entire group and provides a point of focus for everyone. Can we envisage organizations where the energy to deliver gets concentrated on the “one goal” of sustainability.

The current times spectate a huge number of cutting-edge technological changes in every sphere of life. Earlier, when technology had just debuted into human society, only the wealthy elites had access to enjoy the latest gadgets and the life of ease it provided. However, times are changing. With increased disposable income and better standards of living, everyone starting from a teenager to multimillionaire tycoons have access to the latest communication gadgets and lifestyle facilities. Technology is shaping the way people engage in their day-to-day lives. Where earlier change could be anticipated at the turn of every two to three decades, now last year’s technology has already become obsolete. It is now important to proactively create rather than merely react to change. It calls a tremendous amount of concentrated effort for a big organization to remain nimble and dance with the changes.

So, the question arises, is it possible to create an organizational culture whose every strategy and plan is focused on rehabilitating the Earth’s ecology first and then fulfilling the rest of the organizational aspirations? There is no single answer yet. Everybody, who has taken it upon themselves to be a contributor to this Earth-friendly movement, is trying. And perhaps to a certain extent, it can be said that they have been successful.

Awareness regarding eco-friendliness and engaged sustainability is slowly trickling down into the minds of everyone. Policies are being proposed at the government level to ensure consumption is being handled in a responsible way. Nonprofit organizations have dedicated their lives to spread the message of green living. Individuals are becoming more mindful about their lifestyles and considering one-person activities like indoor gardening, minimization of personal assets, recycling, planting of trees, and so on.

Such activities not only encourage us but also give us hope that people might be more agreeable to take to a shared vision of aligning our needs to the planet. The best thing is that it would be the ideal kind of shared vision, where everyone contributes, out of their own volition, and not as a one-upmanship game.

It is okay to start small. The only requirement is that the appropriate questions need to be asked. Goleman et al. (2012) urges us to answer author and farmer Berry (2009) who argues that in order to be more empathetic towards nature, instead of thinking about the ecosphere, an individual must start by looking at their own community first. He urges us to “think local.” The following eight questions are a part of the curriculum Berry proposes in order to challenge young leaders to strengthen empathy towards their own communities. The community here could also mean organizational communities:
  1. 1.

    What has happened here?

  2. 2.

    What should have happened here?

  3. 3.

    What is here now? What is left of the original natural endowment of this place? What has been lost? What has been added?

  4. 4.

    What is the nature or genius of this place?

  5. 5.

    What will nature permit us to do here without permanent damage or loss?

  6. 6.

    What will nature help us to do here?

  7. 7.

    What can we do to mend the damage that we have done?

  8. 8.

    What are the limits: Of the nature of this place? Of our own intelligence and ability?


Questioning what has never been questioned before is bound to raise a lot of confusion and uncertainty about what action to take next. And being humans, the first tendency would be to snap back from our familiar comfort zones. To address this, having members come together in small groups and start a conversation about the unknown will direct the process in a positive direction. Thus, we come to the next discipline Senge (1990), “team learning.”

Team Learning: Cultivating Ecoliterate Learning Communities

If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. – Old African proverb

The discipline of team learning of Senge et al. (1994) consists of developing “transforming conversational and collective thinking skills, so that groups of people can reliably develop intelligence and ability greater than the sum of individual members’ talents” (p:4). This is where empathy plays its role as a key driver of civilizational transformations. A single person would not be able to carry a stone hundred times their size. But a committed and energized workforce of a thousand can build the mighty pyramid. One lone individual will find it hard to build a rocket. But a dedicated group of scientists can even place a human on the moon. One alone can’t go against the forces of nature. But the citizens of an entire country can at least take precaution against the hurricane Katrina and ensure some measure of safety. Having the skills and attitude to successfully undertake stupendous collective human endeavor is what team learning is all about. Proactive and conscious collective learning ensures that no blind spot has been left untouched. A dialogue that begins with a sense of camaraderie and shared visionary energy is bound to be carried forward into the future.

With respect to shifting to living in a sustainable manner, perhaps the biggest obstacle is our identity as a part of some community – a religious identity, a cultural identity, a national identity, identity with some lifestyle belief, etc. These are very sensitive issues, and dealing with them calls for a high level of maturity. Most often sensitive topics are generally not logically dealt with. It’s almost like one is being questioned about one’s way of life itself. No one likes to be told that the way he or she is living previously is incorrect or unjustified. As Brown (2012) suggests, this becomes an affront to the person’s past self which is the basis of who he or she now is. It altogether feels like a rejection of the very self. While sensitive conversations such as these require tremendous self-awareness as well as social awareness, being empathetic would open up hearts and minds to tough conversations and, finally, to changes.

The following are the five practices that Goleman et al. (2012) suggest to focus on while connecting with people:
  1. 1.

    Don’t communicate from a place of anger

  2. 2.

    Reach people on the human level through stories

  3. 3.

    Foster dialogue instead of debate

  4. 4.

    Speak from the heart

  5. 5.

    Make ecological connections clear to others


Every one of us is a significant part of the systems we work within, and the most significant leverage may come from changing our own orientation and self-image. This requires work in developing our own personal vision and learning to see the world from not just a reactive point of view but also a creative and interdependent perspective. Thus, we come to the final discipline of learning organizations, personal mastery.

Personal Mastery: Giving Voice to a Way of Life

To practice a discipline is to be a lifelong learner. You ‘never arrive.’ The more you learn, the more acutely aware you become of your ignorance. – Peter Senge

In the context of learning organizations, personal mastery is all about “learning to expand our personal capacity to create the results we most desire, and creating an organizational environment which encourages all its members to develop themselves toward the goals and purposes they choose” (Senge et al. 1994, p:6).

Team learning definitely zooms in the microscope to all our individual personality quirks that make us ready, or not ready, for change. Even with such doubts if we agree to go ahead with changes, what could be the further steps? How can we ensure a little bit of a less painful process of growth? Maybe it is by changing habits to be more eco-friendly. Or may be, even by overhauling our entire life to accommodate the change.

This is where personal mastery comes in. The premise behind this idea is that only when we take responsibility and ownership of change at the personal level can change be permanent. This requires us to become more self-aware about our own thoughts and ideas, the habits that groom us into behaving the way that we do, or lead the lives that we live. And becoming self-aware makes it easier to exercise self-management skills. And we come back a full circle to emotional intelligence. With further help from empathy, we also become better at managing relationships with other individuals as well as the living environment, i.e., our social intelligence and ecological intelligence also grow.

Just imagine, when tens of billions of people become highly empathetic towards one another and the other organisms in our ecosystem, doesn’t the task of ensuring engaged sustainability become much simpler? It wouldn’t be a big stretch to say that by choosing better options for our own selves, we make the world a better place. And all this can be done simply by strengthening our natural skill of empathy.


By using the framework of learning organizations as a method for helping organizations become more sustainability oriented, there is one single lesson that prominently stands out. Small changes can accumulate and make the big overwhelming goals easier to achieve.

Three insights emerge from this chapter:
  1. 1.

    The Earth’s biospherical systems and the human social systems are inherently interconnected. The changes made in the human systems can trigger unimaginable consequences in the biospheric system disrupting the entire existential balance of the other living organisms. This in turn comes back a full circle hindering the survival of humanity itself. The implication here is that, if humanity wants to ensure its survival, they have no other choice but to adopt ways and means of interacting with the planet in a manner that keeps the greater life-support systems of the planet in balance.

  2. 2.

    The endeavor to survive, and also to thrive under new ways of conducting human affairs, calls for awakening the different talents inherent in the human psyche. First, improve the faculty of consciousness by becoming more self-aware and be adept at self-management by training the capacity for emotional intelligence. Second, extend this to social intelligence that enhances this awareness to the other members of the human society in order to understand what causes this system to work for or against the bigger life-nurturing biosphere. Third, include the other living members of the biosphere in order to recognize mindful practices of conducting life which does not deprive any living organism (including humans) of its right to life on Earth.

  3. 3.

    To develop consciousness (or awareness or mindfulness), there is just one prerequisite; switch on the innate ability to empathize. Strengthen the empathetic muscle in order to strengthen an individual’s capacity to handle his or her own as well as others’ emotions and manage them towards a positive direction. This will ensure that one’s own growth as well as humanity’s collective growth is conducted in a manner that balances Earth’s life-support systems.


Thus, it can be seen that engaged sustainability is a choice. And this choice is the natural choice if the innate ability of humans towards empathy is strengthened. Empathy is what makes human beings the most powerful living being on this Earth, the only beings who have the power to make a choice to include all life and nonlife forms on Earth to coexist in a sustainable manner.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Justice K. S. Hegde Institute of ManagementNitte UniversityNitteIndia

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