Conservative-Regressive ELS

The above selective review of key foundational ELS works during the 1980s and early-90s has identified some of their strengths and weaknesses. What happens during the subsequent decades? To begin with, the 1990s witnessed strong growth in the discipline, with much/most research being conducted within the parameters of the Dominant Social Paradigm (DSP), which does not question the West’s prevailing anthropocentric-neoliberal attitudes-practices (e.g., Dechant and others 1994; Walley and Whitehead 1994; Boyd and others 2009; Adams and others 2011; Kane 2011; Mino and Hanaki 2013; Christensen, Mackey and Whetten 2014; Silvestri and Veltri 2019; etc.). In other words, this significant/dominant current of ELS claims that eco-leadership can transpire in the context of “business as usual”; there’s supposedly no fundamental conflict between the status quo and eco-leading. Now, rather than spending an excessive amount of time deconstructing all/many of these works, I focus here on three paradigmatic texts.

We begin with a 1994 paper by renowned management researcher Paul Shrivastava, whose title is deeply resonant for us: “Ecocentric Leadership in the 21st Century” (1994b). The article appeared in a special double-issue on environmental leadership in the prestigious Leadership Quarterly (other papers from the issue also feature in this mapping). We may straightaway point out that I have thus far been unable to locate any other English-language academic texts that use the phrase “ecocentric leadership” in their title, so I was delighted to discover it: unfortunately, for reasons outlined shortly, my anticipation was quickly followed by disappointment; the work does not live up to its promising title. But before commencing the analysis, I note that the article — like a number of the texts reviewed here - is extremely short (just over 1,000 words): as critics, we’re required to take into account its introductory and declaratory character.

We commence with some of the strengths of the paper. Shrivastava begins by recognizing the “mind-numbing” number of eco-crises and that a “new vision and new leadership” is required to meet these challenges in the twenty-first century (1994b: 224). He also confirms that such leading will involve some radical measures such as “controlling population explosion, ensuring worldwide food security, preserving ecosystem resources, and moderating the type and pace of economic development” (1994b: 224). One admires Shrivastava’s veracity, especially when phenomena like climate change (which he mentions at the very beginning of the article) were not as evident as they are becoming today. And given that Shrivastava focuses on both corporations and individuals within them - laudably, not only leaders but also followers (1994b: 225) - his work is inclusive of both organization-centered and agent-centered approaches.

There are, however, several problems with the article. First, it’s difficult to determine exactly what Shrivastava means by “ecocentric leadership.” He proceeds in quite an unsystematic way, simultaneously fusing and differentiating leading and managing, and automatically reducing the leadership concept to the level of the corporation (i.e., ecocentric corporate leadership) without showing, for example, whether/how he has derived this specific conception from a more general, fundamental one. When Shrivastava first addresses the definitional task, he refers to the “wholesale transformation of companies to ecologically sustainable management practices. In this brief essay, I frame these needs of corporate transformation in the concept of ecocentric management. I explain what this implies for corporate leadership” (1994b: 224). Shrivastava later specifies how “‘ecocentric’ management places ecology at the center of corporate and management concerns, rather than at their periphery” (1994b: 224). He goes on to ask - without really addressing - the following question: “What does leadership mean within this context of Ecocentric Management?” (1994b: 225). We straightaway ask how the meaning of leadership could be determined within the “context” of management? And what does Shrivastava mean by managerial “context”? According to my theorization in Following Reason, managing is “derived” from leading in the sense that it’s the maintenance of situations that aren’t contested (we recall that leadership involves the maintenance of situations in the presence of competing leadership seeking to alter them). Shrivastava reverses this logical-conceptual sequence - which might be valid - but he doesn’t explain how leadership can be understood from within a managerial “context.”

Next, Shrivastava is overly optimistic in placing faith in corporations that they will act eco-ethically - this optimism/nai'vete (or worse) is another deeply problematic characteristic of DSP scholarship in various disciplines, including ELS. He remarks: “As the main engines of economic growth, corporations bear special responsibility for these ecological problems, and hold special promise for their resolution” (1994b: 224). Thus far, this “special promise” remains largely unfulfilled - and likely necessarily so. Why? Any reforms remain ensconced within the same underlying, overarching structure of anthropocentrism-neoliberalism. McLaughlin’s incisive critique of Rolston can be applied to a number of the early (and contemporary) environmental leadership scholars: according to McLaughlin, Rolston basically offered “recommendations that he thinks businesses should follow, giving no attention to the economic systems within which they operate. In short, he never considers the structure of capitalistic economies that would make it difficult for any individual firm to adopt his moral maxims” (1993: 168). Shrivastava’s project remains trapped within the DSP and its various shaky assumptions (perpetual economic growth, sustainable development, etc.).

But Shrivastava and other DSP scholars don’t only err in terms of accepting questionable neoliberal assumptions but falter at a broader, deeper level, for neoliberalism is itself embedded within the broader, deeper context of human supremacism. Shrivastava remains constricted within human-centeredness, though it expresses itself in the paper in rather indirect ways; for instance, he remarks that eco-leadership “seeks to fulfill the needs of the present generation, without jeopardizing the ability of future generations to meet their needs” (1994b: 224), which is a reasonable statement, but I wonder whether Shrivas-tava’s “future generations” refers to just human ones.

I end my short review of Shrivastava’s flawed but important paper by noting that he also published other articles around environmental questions during this time (e.g., 1994a, 1995a, 1995b). I don’t critique them here not only because they share some of the problems of the “Ecocentric Leadership” paper but also because they more properly belong to the fields of organizational and management studies. However, I cite them to demonstrate how Shrivastava was deeply engaged with the related questions of environmentalism, leadership, and management from the near-beginning of their academic study. Despite the shortcomings of Shrivastava’s research, there’s no doubt that he’s a key figure in the emergence of ELS, indicated by the citation of his work by other scholars (e.g., Gladwin, Kennelly and Krause 1995; Hanna 1995).

Now, it might be considered strange that the other article we survey in this section is written by one of the founders of Greenpeace: Patrick Moore. However, “Hard Choices for the Environmental Movement,” which also appeared in the special 1994 double-issue in Leadership Quarterly, certainly belongs in the conservative-regressive category: this article perfectly embodies the transformation of the environmental movement from a counter-cultural force to its assimilation into the established (discursive) order. Moore enthusiastically endorses the collaborative stance of the mainstream movement with the powers-that-be: “A collaborative approach promises to give environmental issue [sir] their fair consideration in relation to the traditional economic and social priorities” (1994: 248). The realistic element of eco-leaderly dissent is completely lacking here (a point that’s elaborated as we proceed). We also note how Moore - like Shrivastava - employs the lexicon of promise, and thus far, this promise remains woefully unfulfilled - indeed, broken. Next, we observe how it’s very simple and easy to appear to consider environmental issues - haven’t conservative governments and corporations repeatedly gathered together to discuss challenges like climate change? - but the eco-crises continue to multiply and intensify. In the actual scheme of things, the “traditional” economic and social priorities - economic growth, profit maximization, longer working hours for stagnant wages - are the only ones. Of course, today we also have the benefit of hindsight, so one can’t be too critical of these individuals’ misplaced optimism/naivete.

Returning to Moore’s advancement of “collaboration,” it’s unsurprising-but still unsettling - that he portrays the uncompromising strand of the environmental movement in such a harsh and condescending way; we also note how he refers to it in the past tense, assuming somewhat correctly that it’s a thing of the past (1994: 248). In response, we posit the following set of questions: given the spiraling ecological crisis, should eco-leadership today be on the side of “the monkey-wrenchers, tree-spikers, and boat scuttiers” (Moore 1994: 248), or on the side of the professional collaborators? Furthermore, while radical environmentalism is uncompromising, is this not also the case with neoliberalism? Hasn’t neoliberalism advanced uncompromisingly - even if often by stealth (Brown 2015)? Might we not assert that the eco-crisis has intensified and diversified not only due to the forces of human supremacism, growing industrialization, population expansion, etc., but also because the environmental movement and its “leadership” have been too accommodative?

We also note Moore’s crude rendering of deep ecology: “In the name of ‘deep ecology,’ many environmentalists have taken a sharp turn to the ultraleft, ushering in a mood of extremism and intolerance” (1994: 248). But deep ecology and ultimately complementary worldviews (e.g., ecofeminism, social ecology, this work’s radical ecocentrism) are only considered “extreme” because they sharply contrast with the prevailing anthropocentric-neoliberal mindset. (Ecofeminism exposes the link between the domination of female humans and non-humans; refer to, e.g., Eaubonne 1974; Adams 1993; Salleh 1997; Warren 2000; Nhanenge 2011; social ecology exposes the link between the domination of humans and non-humans; refer to, e.g., Bookchin 1971, 1980, 1982, 1990).

Moore then explains/laments that his endorsement of collaboration has led to his banishment from Greenpeace and the more radical element of the environmental movement. One could perhaps question whether he has been treated too harshly - he recognizes eco-devastation and prophetically notes its impact on humanity “during the coming decades” (1994: 249), and he acknowledges factors like population growth (1994: 248, 251) - but then his increasingly vindictive discourse perhaps vindicates his expulsion. Obviously motivated by emotion rather than rationality, Moore describes the radical wing of the eco-movement as misanthropic, anti-science/technology, anti-organizations, antitrade, anti-business, and anti-civilization (with the assumption that civilization can only appear in Western-agricultural form); Moore reduces bioregionalism to “ultra-nationalism,” and he pro-anthropocentrically ridicules by way of scare quotes those who consider electoral democracy “too ‘human-centered’” (1994: 249-250). Vindictive, indeed.

A third work cited in this second part of the review is “The Action Logics of Environmental Leadership: A Developmental Perspective” (2009) by organizational management researchers Olivier Boiral, Mario Cayer, and Charles Baron. In a number of ways, this is a very good article: it therefore exemplifies the way in which both conservative and progressive elements often characterize ELS. This duality is aptly captured in the way the authors broach the question of ecocentrism. To begin with, the fact that they discuss it is a progressive move; however, they provide a distorted and diluted definition, formulating it as “openness to major environmental issues, the promotion of sustainable development, and a reconsideration of the dominant anthropocentric perspective”

(2009: 482). First of all, the word “openness” seems both “soft” and ambiguous: surely clearer and more dynamic terms such as “attentiveness” or “active pursuit” would have been more suitable. Likewise, the term “issues” seems to play down the reality of major environmental problems, crises, and catastrophes. Next, Boirai, Cayer, and Baron employ the problematic phrase “sustainable development”: ideally, one would differentiate between existing “sustainable development” as a cover/euphemism for neoliberal economic expansion and, on the other hand, true eco-sustainability. Lastly, the authors undertake more under-stating when they construe ecocentrism as a “reconsideration” of human chauvinism: Earth-centeredness seeks to expose, erase, and replace it.

The conservative dimension of the way the authors treat the question of ecocentrism is further evidenced by the following assessment, which could be construed as closing down discussion of it rather than opening it up: “Although this ecocentric perspective can shed some light on the general values that may be associated with an environmental ethic and its importance to management [and leadership!, remains too nonspecific to really elucidate the modes of thought and action of environmental leaders” (2009: 482). However, there’s some truth in the valuation: the “modes of thought and action” of Earth-centeredness remain generally unknown - and that’s precisely why the present work has sought to provide sufficient specification in terms of some of the measures that truly environmental leading would seek to implement.

The above critique of these three articles should not be construed as a wholesale dismissal of the conservative-regressive current of ELS: there is often good scholarship at work within these texts, in varying degrees; however, it is precisely what is often left unstated that constitutes their fundamental flaw: the scholars do not question the distorted assumptions that structure their ruminations. And this failure has thus far impacted ELS as a discipline, given that the DSP current has been a major one - even perhaps the dominant one, at least in terms of research output/publication.

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