Business schools must teach the value of disobedience over climate

Tackling global warming needs a radical shift in business management. Graduates must force it on their employers, says Oliver Laasch

January 28, 2023
A climate protester sits in the road with  "no planet B" sign
Source: iStock

The activist group Just Stop Oil has regularly cropped up in UK news headlines recently after staging a slew of disruptive and controversial protests, such as blocking traffic, spraying government buildings with orange paint and gluing themselves to famous artworks – or daubing them with soup.

The aim is to force the government to end all new licences and consents for the exploration, development and production of fossil fuels in the UK, in light of the International Panel on Climate Change’s view that if we want to remain within a largely safe and survivable climate scenario, we will need to almost halve global emissions by 2030.

Naturally, the group’s approach has drawn widespread criticism and has even prompted the government to announce controversial new powers for the police to shut down protests before disruption begins. Yet whatever your view of Just Stop Oil’s methods is, it is hard to deny that they have been effective in transforming climate change from an abstract societal problem into one that is actually felt, prompting debate and demands for solutions.

This is all the more necessary because progress towards meeting the IPCC’s target has been critically slow so far. This is especially true in the business world. Firms of all sizes have publicised their pledges to become “climate neutral”, “net zero” or even “carbon restorative”. However, very few corporate climate pledges are undergirded by feasible plans for achieving them.

Business education must urgently explore how students can learn from such radical climate movements, enabling them to challenge problematic mainstream management practices. Apart from working with students through the classic cases of peaceful civil disobedience, from Gandhi to Rosa Parks, we examine the more recent cases in the business context. An obvious example is Amazon’s global employee walkout in 2019, which forced the company to end climate inaction.

Another promising educational approach would engage with whistleblowing as an essential practice for responsible management. An impressively powerful example is the case of Desiree Wixtler, who was sacked from her job as group sustainability officer at asset management company DWS after privately and then publicly challenging what she saw as the firm’s greenwashing practices.

Naturally, our duty of care for students would require active engagement with the potential consequences of rebellion in the managerial workplace. Educators can encourage students to reflexively explore their boundaries by examining the whole range of the rebellious spectrum, from Mary Gentile’s 2017 article “Giving Voice to Values”, which empowers students to speak up, all the way to Phillip Malm’s 2021 book How To Blow Up A Pipeline, which explores the role sabotage plays in protest movements.

By incorporating this radical element into the syllabus, we can begin to encourage students to question the system and structures – including educational structures – that have got us into the current environmental predicament. Business education is built on a plethora of taken-for-granted assumptions that have contributed towards a business culture that fuels the continued worsening of climate change. One such assumption is that growth is at once limitless, imperative and a remedy for social problems. Consistent economic growth is pursued by businesses and governments alike – yet in a world of finite resources, this is simply not a sustainable practice. Educators could deconstruct the historical context that has led to this fixation with growth and then explore alternatives, such as “responsible stagnation”, which involves uncoupling innovation from the drive for economic growth.

We must also make sure to question not just assumptions around management practices but about the very role of managers themselves. Critics of such an approach might argue that it is the role of a responsible manager to listen to the concerns of those below them and act on them, rather than instigate rebellious behaviour. However, in an age of grand crises, even managers need to be focused on business management’s role in responding to those crises. And even business schools need to push this agenda.

This position may cause backlash among sections of the academic community – indeed, such “radical” teachings are often branded controversial. But we can only achieve the quality and scale of the change needed if we enable students to pursue radical alternatives whenever necessary.

Oliver Laasch is senior lecturer in entrepreneurship at Alliance Manchester Business School and founder of the independent Center for Responsible Management Education.

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