Business and Management INK

‘Optopia’ and the Politics of Hope

July 7, 2023 787

Anette Mikes reflects on “How to Create an Optopia? – Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Ministry for the Future” and the Politics of Hope,” which was written with Steve New and recently published in the Journal of Management Inquiry.

What motivated you to pursue this research?

As a scholar, I have always been interested in man-made disasters, and apart from the recurring organizational crises in banks and supposedly safety-conscious institutions, I have been increasingly worried about climate change. Anthropogenic climate change is the largest disaster made by humans, a truly existential risk, that we face. While during much of my career we could consider climate risk as manageable, there are now loud and clear scientific warnings that we are probably on a trajectory towards catastrophe. It is possible that we shall break certain planetary boundaries, leading to devastating outcomes such as “hot-house Earth,” or an ice-free planet, putting our civilization and countless other species at risk. My key motivation for this work comes from the necessity to face up to this challenge. I agree with author Kim Stanley Robinson that however dreadful and bleak the future appears, we have a moral obligation not to give up. There are already people who are suffering from climate impacts and doing their best to cope; for those in more privileged positions, it becomes a duty to work towards a livable world and a more hopeful future.

Were there any specific external events—political, social, or economic—that influenced your decision to pursue this research?

Photo: melting glacier.
(Photo: NOAA/Unsplash)

The Paris Climate Agreement, in December 2017. I have been following climate diplomacy and climate action since my student years and have been increasingly concerned about the dissonance between rhetoric and reality. While in principle the world’s nations have agreed to rein in climate risk and to reduce carbon emissions, at a global level, emissions continue to rise. The 2020s are seen as a watershed decade – in this decade, and not later, we must make changes so that we don’t break certain important planetary boundaries. Yet emissions are continuing unabated. Unsustainable growth practices and resource exploitation remain as well, ushering in ecological disaster. Clearly, there is a need to understand and close the gap between rhetoric and reality. Either the mainstream science is wrong, or we must engineer a giant societal and economic transformation.

What has been the most challenging aspect of conducting your research?

In this article, our goals were to build a provocation and develop some propositions about the direction of capitalism and the purpose of management research in an age of climate crisis. If the foundations of our civilizationand even the survival of humanity—face such a serious threat, does the research being encouraged and conducted by business schools make sense? Do the ways we engage with corporations and institutions provide challenge or solace to those steering our liner towards the iceberg? And does the current compartmentalizing of academic work undermine our ability to engage with the oncoming challenges? Our initial answers to these questions were depressing; there is a lot of greenwashing, cynicism, nihilism; a collective loss of positive visions of the future. The most challenging aspect of our research is to see beyond dread and greed and plutocratic capitalism. Against this backdrop, we had to find a politics of hope.

Having read Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Ministry for the Future” and reflected on it in the context of the managerial literature around the climate crisis, we set out to imagine a middle ground between utopia and dystopia; an optimum scenario which can still leave us with a livable future.

Were there any surprising findings?

Yes. First, we conclude that climate response is too important to be left to corporations or the governments alone. Rather than falling back on government or the corporation as an “either/or” choice, we need a “both/and” approach. For business, the challenge is that capital (at least in our kind of capitalism) seeks investment opportunities that offer the highest expected rate of return. Many decarbonization projects do not offer the highest rate of return – we give the example of drawing down 500 gigatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (which some experts estimate we have to do by 2100). Achieving that would more likely be possible if the problem was viewed more like a community’s investing in sewage treatment and infrastructure – if and where it is done, government pays for this work, often by hiring private firms to do it, and often using taxes to pay the costs.  The same approach is probably going to have to be true of CO2. In that project too, there is not enough market demand to do the necessary. So, we need government.

Second, we go against the neoliberal belief that free markets can take care of the decarbonization problem. No, they can’t and won’t, at least not at the scale and speed that we need now. 

Third, we highlight the power of the active inclusion of communities and citizens in climate response through democratic, polycentric governance structures. Here we take a page from the Nobel-laureate economist Elinor Ostrom who depicted, against the once dominant theory of the “tragedy of commons,” a hopeful and varied world of polycentric systems capable of governing common-pool resources such as the global atmosphere. I believe that the crucial fault lines lie not between capitalism and the climate, but between capitalism—in its corporate plutocratic variant—and democracy. Ostrom’s polycentric systems of governing commons may well be our best hope.

Fourth, as the corporation is a legal fiction, its terms of engagement with society can be changed by society itself.  So, just as in Robinson’s optopia, governments could get their act together, close loopholes for tax havens, legally bind corporations to provide environmental stewardship, and—via a large-scale “carbon quantitative easing”—pay entrenched private corporations and sovereign states for leaving fossil fuels in the ground (and substantial profits on the table), while obliging them to invest their compensation funds in the green energy transition. Such expansionist economics had been labelled as wasteful and irresponsible during the free-market–oriented Reagan-Thatcher era; however, in our time, Keynesianism is back with a vengeance. This brings our key insight into focus: economics is essentially quantified ethics. There is nothing inevitable about the superiority of either neoliberal market economics or Keynesianism. The questions are: which is ideologically acceptable in a given context and which can, through its distributive practices, match the prevailing values and priorities?

In what ways is your research innovative, and how do you think it will impact the field?

Headshots of Anette Mikes and Steve New.
Anette Mikes, left, and Steve New

With respect to the management field, we advocate, and hopefully demonstrate, an approach to the crisis which embraces the need for holism. All the problems are interconnected, as are all the solutions. The climate crisis defies disciplinary boundaries. We need to consider accounting as much as geo-engineering: a system-level response. Yet we in the academic universe, faced with a problem demanding the combined efforts of both private enterprise and the state, carry on an intellectual life carved into artificially neat domains. At some point we quip that everyone believes in the importance of a multidisciplinary perspective, except at those moments that matter most in a practical academic career: earning one’s doctorate, receiving a promotion in rank, and the award of tenure. On a more hopeful note, recent developments in leading management journals are pointing to a broadening of research formats and perspectives, which we certainly support.

Second, our approach is humanistic, and focuses on an exemplar of what the economic historian Deidre McCloskey calls “humanomics”-  the economics in Robinson’s work is informed by a deep understanding of the power of the stories humans tell, and the emphasis is on the importance of meaning, persuasion, talk, and relationships in cooperation and economic life. The implication for an economic science – and we would go as far as claiming, for management science – is that it needs the humanities.  We posit that such a humanistic turn is essential for the Academy as Ministry. In the face of an existential threat, businesses and their leaders face existentialist choices, and the essence of leadership becomes the definition of the response strategies as meaning-giving projects, informed by universal values and a willed optimism in the face of the dread of disaster.  Management scholars, preparing and inspiring students for meaning-giving leadership that is capable of championing various decarbonization projects, must learn from literature and philosophy, as well as from the physical sciences.

Finally, we need to treat academic work as scholarship, driven more by lofty values and commitment, and less by the dogmatism of the prevailing journal architecture and third-party rankings. The question for the academy is, how do we keep an inter-generational and costly climate-action project going; how do we commit multiple generations to it? Along with Robinson, we advocate a pragmatic turn in which economics, finance and accounting take on the mantle of creating the requisite incentives that also reduce inequality and injustice; history, philosophy and legal scholarship engages further in matters of social and climate justice, with diplomacy and political science in tow, helping to create the frameworks for a grand historical transformation. What we envision is what my friend and educational scholar William D. Greenfield calls “the rebirth of the normative”; and we see an important role for academics in imagining a more hopeful future and creating a more narratively rooted management and organizing practice.

What advice would you give to new scholars and incoming researchers in this particular field of study?

Courage. You will be a historically critical generation of academics who can redefine the academy as Ministry – undertaking multidisciplinary work to further a more just and liveable planet, while representing future generations as well as the voiceless of today, as well.

Methodological pluralism. It allows managerial researchers to stay relevant and close to practice. Engage in case studies and field experiments to understand and evaluate emerging practices, and diverse policies and response strategies in the contexts in which they occur. Methodological pluralism is important if we are to humanize our subject – following McCloskey, treating our subject as humanomics – so the intelligent use of numbers, statistics and models ought to complement, rather than substitute for qualitative and field-based insights.

Interdisciplinarity. We’ll need management scholars to join forces with other disciplines: economics, accounting and finance, the humanities, and the natural and engineering sciences, if they are to be relevant in imagining an optopia.  We need multiple disciplines working together to determine the answer to questions such as:

  • Should people profit from exploiting the environment?
  • Or should they profit from not exploiting it further; that is, should we compensate fossil-fuel companies and petro-states for leaving fossil fuels in the ground?
  • Should we as society allow unimaginable plutocratic wealth as our only escape route? As we provocatively put it in the paper, should Elon Musk become rich enough to take a few remnant souls with him to Mars?

Willed optimism. Gramsci popularised a phrase, which describes this advice: deploy the pessimism of the intellect, and the optimism of the will. It’s the will that is very important in that phrase. Given our situation, along with Robinson, we would recommend being fuelled by dread, but also buoyed, and kept focused on the necessary work, by willed hope. At a fundamental level, our concern is that the – current doom-laden zeitgeist, with its heightened sense of dread, simply obliterates hope for a worthwhile future, and so the grubby ambitions dominate because the lofty ones are crushed under the prospect of societal doom. The metanarrative of inevitable doom crowds out those of building a sustainable and positive future.  So, along with Robinson, we offer cautious optimism, the optimism of the will.

Embrace the normative. In this paper, we invite proposals and solutions to cover the middle ground between managerial utopias, popular in conservative neoliberal circles, in which the corporation and the market act as our saviours, and critical scholars’ dystopias, in which the economic hegemony leads us to catastrophe. Show that organizing can be done in many different ways! We don’t need to believe that capitalism will save us, but we must start with the existing political and economic framework, challenging and pushing its boundaries as we proceed. In this way, we can help accelerate evolution and prevent creative destruction from turning into creative self-destruction.

Anette Mikes is an associate professor of accounting at Oxford Saïd and a fellow at Hertford College. Steve New is an associate professor in operations management at Oxford Saïd.

View all posts by Anette Mikes and Steve New

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