What do you do when a neighbour you don’t know that well and don’t feel especially well disposed towards, spots you watering your next door neighbour’s garden while they’re on holiday, and then proceeds to ask you to do the same for her? To colour your perception further, what do you do when she asks you to do this at 9pm on a Saturday night after a loud and prolonged press of your doorbell, waking up the toddler that you have finally just wrangled to sleep, already ‘over-tired’? The temptation is to show that neighbour the door. Like many people, we of course said yes, and not just because on the spot we couldn’t think of a good excuse not to.
Neighbourliness is one of those things that we’d all love to have, except without any real effort. In many ways it’s like putting the recycling out. We do it because it’s easy, and it’s right there on our doorstep, but if we had to put ourselves out there, emotionally or otherwise, and say, cart our used yoghurt tubs to the depot, we’d probably find a plausible excuse, most likely around lack of time.
Having grown up in a village of 25 households, I was forced into neighbourliness and collective living from a young age. When the village suffered a power cut, as many rural communities regularly did in the 80s, our neighbours would bundle round to our house (the only one in the village with a coal-fired Rayburn stove), plonk their dinners on the hotplate and settle in for the duration, expecting bottomless refills of tea from my frazzled mother. As a child I thought it was magical however.
In a small community, there was no question that you helped each other out because the bonds of ‘rubbing along well together’ were so much more important, and so delicately held, that no-one dare challenge them, and certainly not over who had eaten more than their fair share of fig rolls, or overstayed their welcome at a new year’s eve party.
But collective living has its downsides. It can feel claustrophobic and like your every move is under scrutiny. I escaped the village for the small university town of York, which turned out to be annoyingly similar, with neighbours that wanted to chat and who would comment on what time you came home. Enough! I thought and moved to London for my first job, in a huge organisation to boot. Ah the peace of anonymity! The thrill of being curt with someone on the tube. The lack of commentary on my choice of chocolate bar in the corner shop... But it didn’t take long for me to feel isolated and for life to feel oddly meaningless amid the weekly whirl of bars and restaurants, all of which paled into one ‘hand-reared’ pizzetta'd mass. Social media was only just gearing up then, but I can’t help thinking that we jumped on that as quickly as we did simply because we all find it easier to retreat behind the laptop screen, the modern day equivalent of the net curtain.
What’s this got to do with climate change? Maybe nothing, but potential everything. This month I have been meeting colleagues in the business school in which I do a little bit of teaching, to find out more about the courses I could teach on next academic year. Over a quiet coffee a few weeks ago to talk about Oxford Brookes' Ethics in Business course, the wonderfully grounded Jill Millar blew my mind by casually saying simply that businesses determine their behaviour in line with how they define their stakeholders.
Nothing crazy there eh? But then let’s think about it.
If you say that your business is there to serve your customers, your staff, your suppliers and government (in that you don’t want to break any laws), then those parameters define what contribution and action means to your business. Those are quite simply the only people that you feel any responsibility towards. If however a business defines its stakeholders more broadly, to include the communities around its supply chains, or the families of its workers, then suddenly its whole frame of responsibility changes. Maybe in the wider frame they would act in a way that has a more positive wider environmental impact and design more proactive parental and compassionate leave policies for staff.
I have a real live model of this in my experience of building a business in Sierra Leone, where even if I’d wanted to be responsible only to my own team, the culture of the country wouldn’t have tolerated it for very long. We were inextricably woven into each other’s lives because the society operated along collectivist lines and because we were each others’ safety net. My staff knew they could rely on me to dig them out of financial difficulty, but I also knew that they would be there to rescue me on a Sunday if the car broke down outside the city.
Many expats in Africa will bemoan collectivism for all of its undeniable downsides. “Look how no-one ever has any money right after pay day!” they will say, commenting on how people divide their salaries too thinly among enormous extended families. “And what about how serious (often sexual) crime is often talked away without punishment in service of village harmony?” These are obvious problems, but they speak to the system more than the culture. Were there not sky high unemployment, one salary would not be required to stretch so far, and were the rule of law stronger, communities wouldn’t be forced to adjudicate for themselves, often so poorly. What those expats often miss is the opportunity to compare and contrast and scrutinise their own behaviour. We could gain a lot from letting down our draw bridges as organisations and as people.
None of what I’m saying is new, and neither is it intended as business bashing. That’s both because I think combative talk leads only to things getting smashed up, not fixed, but that more importantly we would all, myself included, be big ol’ hypocrites for criticising business for the very behaviour that we ourselves are so guilty of. I will water my next door neighbour’s garden because our daughter and their son as best buddies and we like drinking wine together, therefore to be clunky about it, I’ve decided that they’re stakeholders in our lives. But the other neighbour, one door removed? The whiny one? Do I have to? I don’t see her that much and what she ever done for us?
It is easy to step away from our collective responsibility when we define our realms so narrowly and engage with the wider world so infrequently.
So here’s an idea. Sit down right now and jot down the people for whom you feel a sense of responsibility. Then stand back and ask yourself “Can I expand this?” And maybe “How responsible am I being towards the planet?” This is not a time for beating ourselves up. It’s simply a time for expanding our definition of stakeholders.