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 Accellerating Marginal Utility


Open Letter to Business:


Towards Accelerating Marginal Utility



Alastair McIntosh



Published in The Nature of Business, WWF International (Worldwide Fund for Nature), Switzerland, Vol 3:1, 2005, p. 5.



I remember when I first encountered Mark Twain’s famous statement, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” I was a boy, but it struck me with such a force of cynical truth that I had to write it down.


Think about it in terms of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainable development. They’re boring, aren’t they? “Worthy,” “do-goodish,” something to “keep up appearances” while getting on with the “real job” of making money and acquiring power.


Is it any wonder that, when it comes to business ethics, much corporate endeavour feels like, to borrow the words of a famous radical clergyman before a shocked General Assembly of the Church of Scotland once upon a time … “standing outside pissing on the roses while the house burns down.”


Many of you reading this newsletter will already have achieved much. Even the joys of money-making are perhaps receding into diminishing marginal utility, and you know it’s going to get worse!


So I ask you: “What kind of a human being do you want to become in the rest of your working life?”


Do you want to retire one day and look back and have to confess to your grandchildren, “All I ever did was get rich pissing on the roses as the house burnt down – your house!”


Will that be your swansong?


Or will you be able to tell the kids how you learnt about the only motivating force capable of renewing the familiarity that otherwise wears out and breeds contempt – contempt with our relationships, with our environment and with our jobs?


Will you be able to teach them the economics of accelerating marginal utility - in short, the economics of love?


I don’t care if this sounds silly, because the alternative is too ugly. I just want to suggest a shift in perception: imagine subtly revising your corporate plan, so that love, rather than profit, is at the core.


Imagine that principles like CSR, sustainable development and service to humankind are the prime objectives. And that profit – hopefully very good profit – becomes merely the lubricant to help these things to happen.


What would you do differently? How might everything be affected? And what kind of story might you have to tell the grandchildren?




Alastair McIntosh (MBA Edinburgh, 1981) is a Fellow of Scotland’s Centre for Human Ecology and in 2004 he accepted a seat on Lafarge’s Sustainability Stakeholder Panel. His book, Soil and Soul, has just appeared in French as Chronique d’une alliance: Peuples autochtones et société civile face à la mondialisation (Editions Yves Michel).




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18 May 2005