Can hierarchical thinking fix climate change?

A recent article about business responses to global warming highlights the extent to which hierarchical thinking can respond adequately to rapid changes in the climate. 

And it neatly illustrates the preoccupations of a hierarchical world-view, as understood by grid-group cultural theory.

The article, written by Leon Gettler, centres on the increasing role of ‘Chief Carbon Officer’ in businesses. 

‘The job of the future will be the chief carbon officer, or CCO. That’s because global warming is no longer an environmental issue.’

The author sees not only the CCO, but also new job titles like Director of Sustainability Strategy as ‘just the beginning’.

According to grid-group cultural theory, first established by anthropologist Mary Douglas, and expanded by numerous writers in several different disciplines, there are four fundamental world-views, related to social group strength and rule maintenance. The hierarchist position is ‘strong grid, strong group’. In other words it is both highly group-orientated and highly regulated. For this way of thinking, the crisis (any crisis) is less about external factors and more about who is in charge, and how the social structure is to be maintained.

When new data becomes available it needs to be assimilated into the existing structure in such a way as to answer the question, who is responsible for this, and what is their position in the pecking order?

In government we have seen in recent years the creation of new climate change portfolios at a ministerial level. Where exactly these portfolios sit is highly revealing. For instance a solution to climate change from a hierarchist point of view is to create a minister and a department for climate change. But tellingly  this will usually be a fairly junior position, and the department thus created will not typically be at the heart of government. One example would be a ‘Department of Environment and Climate Change’. From a hierarchist perspective, once this  is established the crisis is over. We now know everything that really matters: who is responsible and how senior they are.

This may seem an extreme characterisation, but this approach is evident in the article:

There are two major drivers of the change: legislation, and market forces coming from customers, investors and reputation.

Notice that climate change in and of itself is not here identified as a driver of change.

It’s very similar in business, as the article  demonstrates. The crisis of climate change is easily depicted primarily as a crisis of roles in the organisation. The proffered solution is a Chief Climate Officer. One can guess how senior such a role is likely to be, at least initially. When the job title is ‘Chief Finance and Carbon Officer’, there may be some leverage, but the hierarchical nature of the organisation will tend to minimise the possibility of this happening in order to maintain the existing hierarchy as far as possible.

Not the only game in town

But the article also shows that hierarchy isn’t the only prism through which to view climate change responses.  It cites a recent initiative of Wal-Mart to introduce an environmental ‘scorecard’ for its suppliers.

The scorecard has suppliers rating themselves on such areas as product/packaging ratio, greenhouse gas emissions, recycled content, transportation, renewable energy and innovation. From February, the world’s biggest retailer started using the scorecard to grade suppliers and make buying decisions.

This approach is not hierarchical, in grid-group terms, but Individualist. For individualists the key problem of climate change is that it’s not yet clear how to succeed. This being so, the solution is to make the field more competitive. For the individualist world-view the question of who’s in charge or what their job title is has secondary importance. What really matters is who is going to win. The scorecard approach makes this explicit by reframing climate change as a winner-takes-all race to gain the supply contract.

Grid-group theory is useful because it enables people to see a little bit further than their own world-view and recognise that there is more than one way of doing things. This can be uncomfortable since the four world-views described by the theory are mostly mutually exclusive; they tend to define themselves in terms of their antagonism to one another. But this discomfort may be considered worthwhile if it results in a broader vision and more wide-reaching action.


Company structures and career paths shift with global warming Leon Gettler

The Age August 20, 2008

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