Sustainability as Civil Religion? (Part Two)

In the first part of this blog I wanted to explore Bellah’s idea of a Civil Religion; a set of shared beliefs, rituals and symbols that unites diverse groups (such as might be found in contemporary multi-cultural nation-states) around common understandings of what it is they hold ‘sacred’.  These ‘civil relics’ become key points of reference when nations are faced with making ethical or strategic decisions about what they should, or should not do, in the future.  By ‘sacred’ I don’t mean those things which are somehow annointed by a transcendent deity.  I prefer William James’ perspective on the sacred; the ‘sacred’ is something which individuals hold important and are ultimately serious about.  We become clear about what we hold sacred/serious (and why) when we see it belittled or mocked.  It doesn’t matter who you are or what you believe in; we all believe that some things are not suitable material for ridicule, even in a specifically comedic setting (like this current example). 

During the Irish economic boom ‘competitiveness’ was sacred.  Proposed policy decisions were pored over and analysed to see if they would impact on our ‘competitive’ position.  Ireland was doing well, but the big fear was that the fruits of our success would become heavier and heavier, dragging us further down the competitiveness rankings, making other locations more attractive locations for fresh foreign direct investment, which was one of the key contributing factors to the genesis of the Celtic Tiger. There is strong evidence that this has changed since the crisis. National competitiveness isn’t really discussed any more, and if it is, it certainly isn’t to extent that sustainability is mentioned.  This was particularly noticeable in the lead up to the last general election where parties promised policies promoting a return to sustainable economic growth more than anything else.  This move to the sustainable, however, was not just limited to Ireland or the development sector.

Up to 1990 the inclusion of courses on social issues or business ethics was found to be low on the curricula of business schools in the US (Bassiry, 1990).  Since then, the importof ethics in business school curricula has exploded with the result that top 50
global MBA programmes now include at least one courses on ethics, CSR or
sustainability; with the greatest emphasis placed on sustainability (Christensen
et al. 2007). 

Sustainability in a management context has come to encapsulate ‘green’
or ‘environmental’ leadership as part of its concern, but does not represent its
totality.  The sustainability discourse sees environmental issues as a pressing concern, but only as part of a broader range of interlinked socio-political and economic concerns which can threaten business in a much broader, global sense.

‘It is easy to state the case in the negative: faced with impoverished customers, degraded environments, failing political systems, and unraveling society, it will be increasingly difficult for corporations to do business.  But the positive case is even more powerful.  The more we learn about the challenges of sustainability, the clearer it is that we are poised at the threshold of a historic moment in which many of the world’s industries may be transformed’ (Hart, 1997).


Werbach (2009) develops how the concept of business sustainability is
expanding: ‘Sustainability is much bigger [than
‘green’ issues and strategies] because it takes into account every dimension of
the business environment: social, economic, and cultural, as well as natural’.

Such broad definitions of sustainability are seen as being generally unworkable (Marshall & Toffel, 2005) or unsuitable to organizational contexts (Ferdig, 2007).  Faber et al. (2005) point out that the vast range of definitions of the concept of
sustainability have led it becoming confused and over-complicated: a condition
which has been described as ‘definitional chaos’ (Marshall & Toffel, 2005
p. 673).  A number of recent attempts have been made in an attempt to organize how sustainability has been variously understood (Faber et al., 2005; Marshall & Toffel, 2005; Ferdig, 2005). 

Some of the key concerns which we can unpack from the literature on corporate
, however, are as follows. 

  1. It is concerned with long-term futures, rather than shorter-term objectives.  Thus it
    has a different trajectory to other concepts of ethical leadership.  For example, concepts such as ‘7th generation thinking’ are applied to leadership decisions which aim to transcend more immediate goals.
  2. It is not entirely ‘about’ ecological or environmental concerns.  Indeed, policies
    and strategies which focus on green issues may impact negatively on the
    sustainability of local communities (Banrgee, 2003).  Sustainable leadership is concerned with a range of aesthetic, cultural, social, and ethical issues. 
  3. It demands that leaders re-examine their personal ethics in order to transcend self-interest.  It requires leaders to develop a focus which is not solely concerned with their organizations or their stakeholders but on the communities their decisions impact, non-human actors in their environments, and indeed on the welfare of generations who have not yet been born (or may not be born). 
  4. It is not a goal to which individuals can aspire, but a process with which leaders engage.  Organizations exist in dynamic environments and the impact of one decision may often lead to unintended consequences which can impact on the sustainability of another area of concern.  Although there are several sustainability
    metrics available which are used by organizations, these do not represent the
    essence of sustainable leadership which involves ongoing engagement with
    creating sustainable futures for their organizations, by contributing to the
    sustainability of environments beyond their organizations. 
  5. Sustainable leadership can only be achievable as part of a larger social process, and cannot be solely driven by the leader themselves. 


A frequent concern in the sustainability literature is that the concept is applied to many abstract and concrete artifacts which result in its meaning becoming diluted or confused with other understandings.  Weber (1930/1992) famously demonstrated how
certain religious sects who emphasized economic activity as an ethical concern
resulted in greater levels of industrious and productivity which was not shared
by other confessions who insisted that followers focus on attaining salvation
in the next world.  Heelas and Woodhead (2000) have pointed out that this examination of the work ethic has not been sufficiently updated since Weber first introduced the concept.  Weber described the protestant work ethic as one where prosperity and productivity was directly connected with personal salvation.  ‘Instead of focusing on
economic factors and their effect on ideas, Weber devoted much of his attention
to ideas and their effect on the economy’ (Ritzer, 1996 p.26).  Considered from these terms a sustainable work ethic would involve attaining wealth or being productive whilst
simultaneously addressing environmental problems or social cohesion, and the impetus for salvation would be replaced (or at least coexist alongside) the principle of sustainability. 

The role of ethical and religious beliefs in underpinning human agency
has been stressed in relation to the role of mainstream religions in fostering
a sustainable ethic by environmental campaigner Al Gore  who
actively engaged with teaching religious leaders on the ethical responsibility
of their congregations to address climate change
.  However, as individuals in Western
industrialized nations increasingly turn away from outwardly directed religious
structures to more inward engagements with personal understandings of the
sacred (Heelas and Woodhead, 2005), a question remains as to how well a
sustainability ethic has been internalized by larger proportions of the
population.  The need for a sustainability ethic appears to be expressed with greater
regularity (mainstream Hollywood movies, for example appear to increasingly
forewarn us of the after-effects of climate change) a question remains as to
the extent to which a sustainable ethic is manifesting in workplace or
management practices. More on this in my next blogpost.


Christensen,L.J.; Peirce, E.; Hartman, L.P ; Hoffman, W.M; Carrier, J. (2007) ‘Ethics,
CSR, and Sustainability Education in the Financial Times Top 50 Global Business
Schools: Baseline Data and Future Research Directions’ Journal of Business
73 (4): 347-368.


Gore, A. (2009) Our Choice: A Plan to Solvethe Climate Crisis London: Bloomsbury.

Heelas, P. (1996) The New Age Movement: The Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity Oxford: Blackwell

Heelas, P. (2007) Spiritualities of Life: New Age Romanticism and Consumptive Capitalism Oxford: Blackwell

Heelas, P. & Woodhead, L. (2000) Religion in Modern Times Oxford:

Heelas, P. & Woodhead, L. (2005) The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion is
Giving Way to Spirituality
Oxford: Blackwell

Ritzer, G. (1996) Modern Sociological Thought, 4th Ed.  London:
McGraw Hill. 

Weber, M. (1930/1992) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism London: Routledge.