The Mountain Conundrum
I am the dreadful menace.
The one whose will is done.
The haunting chill upon your neck.
I am the conundrum.
I will summon armies.
Of wind and rain and snow.
I made the black cloud overhead.
The ice, like glass below.
Not you, nor any other.
Can fathom what is nigh.
I will tell you when to jump.
And I’ll dictate how high.
The ones that came before you.
Stood strong and tall and brave.
But I stole their dreams away.
Those dreams could not be saved.
But now you stand before me.
Devoid of all dismay.
Could it be? Just maybe.
I’ll let you have your day.
The recent promotional trailer for the BBC Sport coverage of the Sochi Winter Olympics follows a band of winter athletes struggling through harsh conditions until they come to face a threatening mountain. Gustavo Kopit and Barnaby Blackburn, the creative team behind the trailer, increase the sense of foreboding with imagery evocative of HBO’s Game of Thrones and the narration of the transcript above by Charles Dance, who seems to reprise his role as Tywin Lanister from that same series. “Gus and Barn” described nature as “the nemesis for winter athletes” and went on to release intro titles for the event broadcasts, “showing our heroic athletes kicking nature’s arse”. The short film ends with the words: “Nature. Who will conquer it?”
This mindset pervades much of the narrative of sustainability that is dominant today. The imaginary of the mountain continually reappears in the sustainability agendas set in boardrooms around the world. The late Ray C. Anderson, founder of Interface, had already laid out a path for them with the challenge to scale the faces of “Mount Sustainability”. Their combined actions in reducing impact on the environment would take them to the summit. Many global business leaders see themselves as heroes willing and able to tame nature and bring it back under control on behalf of the rest of the planet. It is little wonder then that there is a palpable anxiety among these ranks, as seen in the recent study conducted by Accenture and the UN Global Compact, that their collective march towards the peak of sustainability has stalled. These heroes are used to having their day and few will be able to fathom being told when to jump and how high.
Unless we reconsider our view of the mountain and how it relates to sustainability, this story of heroes could yet unfold as a Greek tragedy, in which hubris allows nemesis to steal dreams in a spectacle beyond anything witnessed in the Game of Thrones. In a short series of blog posts, I would like to explore the dangers of a mindset focused on “conquering” nature and then look towards new possibilities of approaching “Mount Sustainability” in different ways.
THE MOUNTAIN AND THE HEROES
We have always told stories to help us understand our relationship to the rest of the living world. They help us create meaning about who we are and who we might become. However, these stories share more elements than we are often aware of. Carl Jung described the archetypes, which everyone is born with, that are the primordial images of collective experience that inhabit our unconscious. The archetype of the mountaintop is sometimes thought to symbolise the point linking heaven and earth, the body and the soul. It rises up out of the valley of the shadow of death and is home to the gods. It stands to reason then that it has come to represent the destination that must be reached to save us all from environmental catastrophe. It is perhaps telling then that Ray C. Anderson envisioned that at the summit of “Mount Sustainability” we would find “The Prototypical Company of the 21st Century.” We would need heroes from the corporate world to step forward and take on this quest.
The Jungian psychoanalysts, Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette, suggest that our contemporary Western culture has come to rely on stories of heroism. In an age of apathy, the heroes are the ones that push against limitations in a hostile world and confront enormous odds to rise up and protect everyone else in need. However, Moore and Gillette define the hero as an immature masculine archetype that might be part of the problem rather than a solution to the crises we face today. As is the case with all immature archetypes, the hero harbours a negative shadow that can sabotage them.
The shadow heroes are unable to acknowledge their own limitations and demonstrate a willingness to push the limits of nature. They are ready to endanger the lives of others with unnecessary risk as they set out with maverick recklessness to prove their ability to defeat the undefeatable and deny their inevitable death. Their quest for status and legacy means that the shadow heroes run away from the more difficult task of carefully opening up relations to nurture the life surrounding them. Their eyes are set on the summit and the chance to stand on top of the world – to be able to look back down on the world and bask in the gaze of those grateful for being shown the way to the Promised Land. The price that our modern worldview could pay for an understanding of heroism in terms of the “conquest” of nature – its use and manipulation – could be catastrophe.
The real solution for Jung is to be found in the process of individuation that would bring the shadow of this immature archetype of the hero into consciousness. Moore and Gillette suggest that the transformation can only occur with the “death” of the hero. A failure to accept this could only lead heroes to develop dangerous tendencies of sadism and masochism that are found aplenty in the Game of Thrones. The heroes would need to encounter their limitations and understand that the enemies to be defeated are themselves. For a hero to become whole and ready to fight for a greater purpose requires a genuine humility, especially when stood before the conundrum of the mountain and contemplating the climb to the summit. The immediate challenge for business leaders is to understand their own mindset and consider what it might take for them to learn to see the world anew. To shift focus away from the final destination could open up the possibilities of telling stories about the journey that contain the lessons about who we are and who we might become.
In the next post, I will consider the significance of descending the mountain towards the valley of the shadow of death. This short series will then be concluded with an exploration of the plateaus and a call to think like a mountain.