Magazine article The Futurist

Dominant Institutions and Their Responsibilities

Magazine article The Futurist

Dominant Institutions and Their Responsibilities

Article excerpt

The buildings that have dominated society's skylines belonged first to religion, then to government, and now to corporations.

Until about 400 years ago, before the days of Galileo, Copernicus, and Newton, the church was the dominant institution in society, and it took responsibility for all aspects of human experience within its sphere of influence. In its heyday, the Holy Roman Empire ruled most of what we now know as Europe, and the Pope was more or less responsible for everything within the realm.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell told us that the dominant institution in a society tends to build the tallest buildings; and the church's cathedral spires towered over the landscape in those days. After the "Copernican Revolution," however, the national governments rapidly became the dominant institutions in the West, and government buildings defined the peaks in the urban skyline. Government leaders, first genealogically determined and then elected, took responsibility for all aspects of the human experience.

Today it's obvious when approaching any city who has the tallest buildings. The financial system now defines the urban skyline worldwide, and the practice of business has become the dominant activity everywhere. To date, however, business takes responsibility first for its own short-term profitability (shareholder interest!), and only a little energy overall is invested in the larger concerns of the community. The current practice of business, with its focus on short-cycle profitability, calls into question whether or not it is even possible for business to assume this wider responsibility.

Business still expects government to be responsible for all human activities and experiences that don't flow to their bottom lines. Business also expects government to keep up the infrastructure and make sure that all supportive nonbusiness systems are functioning well. Governments maintain military forces in large part to protect the economic activities of business. But when the government tries to protect the environment, sometimes causing businesses increased costs, many business leaders look for loopholes or attempt to have the laws changed in ways that will be more favorable to corporate net profits.

To be fair, most larger businesses around the world recognize the need for environmental restraint and so maintain compliance with regulations intended to protect the environment. This, however, does not go far enough, because the regulations themselves are rooted in some unsustainable and, as yet, largely untested assumptions--that we can somehow find a way to go on growing indefinitely and that doing a little better than we have in the past will be sufficient. Most businesses won't or can't go beyond compliance unless there is a "business case" for doing so--i. …

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