By Thomas L. Friedman*
New York Times, 14-5-2010
By the time I got there last Sunday, the fire at the Marfin Egnatia Bank on Stadiou Street here had been extinguished, but the charcoal smell of the torched bank interior still wafted out onto the sidewalk through the broken windows. Ever since Greek anarchists firebombed the bank on May 5, killing three employees who had defied a general strike, the Marfin bank has become an impromptu shrine. A huge pile of bouquets, teddy bears and scribbled condolence notes grew by the hour on the sidewalk out front, as Athenians kept on coming to pay their respects to the innocents killed inside. People would lay down a rose and then just stare at the building or read the handwritten messages pasted all over the facade. My own eye went to a colorful drawing, clearly done by a child, of a burning building and people screaming “help, help” from upper windows. Under it was written, in Greek: “In what kind of a world will I grow up? Lydia, age 10.”
A good question, Lydia.
The Marfin bank was ground zero for the global meltdown 10 days ago. As soon as TV footage of the bank employees trapped in the blaze hit the news channels, it sparked fears that Greece would default on its massive debts held by other European banks. That triggered a steep decline in the euro and the shares of European banks. That plunge was then exacerbated by news of the inconclusive election in Britain, and, finally, all of it together helped fuel the sudden 1,000-point drop in the Dow on Wall Street.
And that is where I would start to answer Lydia: You are growing up in an increasingly integrated world where we’ll all need to be guided by the simple credo of the global nature-preservation group Conservation International, and that is: “Lost there, felt here.”
Conservation International coined that phrase to remind us that our natural world and climate constitute a tightly integrated system, and when species, forests and ocean life are depleted in one region, their loss will eventually be felt in another. And what is true for Mother Nature is true for markets and societies. When Greeks binge and rack up billions of euros of debt, Germans have to dig into their mattresses and bail them out because they are all connected in the European Union. Lost in Athens, felt in Berlin. Lost on Wall Street, felt in Iceland.
Yes, such linkages have been around for years. But today so many more of us are just so much more deeply intertwined with each other and with the natural world. That is why Dov Seidman, the C.E.O. of LRN, which helps companies build ethical cultures, and author of the book “How,” argues that we are now in the “Era of Behavior.”
Of course, behavior always mattered. But today, notes Seidman, how each of us behaves, consumes, does business, builds or doesn’t build trust with others matters more than ever. Because each of us, each of our banks, each of our companies, now has the power to impact, for good or ill, so many more people’s lives through so many more channels — from day-trading to mortgage-lending to Twitter to Internet-enabled terrorism.
“As technology has made us more interconnected with others around the world, it has also made us more ethically interdependent with others around the world,” argues Seidman.
Indeed, in a world where our demand for Chinese-made sneakers produces pollution that melts South America’s glaciers, in a world where Greek tax-evasion can weaken the euro, threaten the stability of Spanish banks and tank the Dow, our values and ethical systems eventually have to be harmonized as much as our markets. To put it differently, as it becomes harder to shield yourself from the other guy’s irresponsibility, both he and you had better become more responsible.
But that hasn’t been the trend. We’ve become absorbed by shorter and shorter-term thinking — from Wall Street quarterly thinking to politician-24-hour-cable-news-cycle thinking. We’re all day-traders now. We have day-thinking politicians trying to regulate day-trading bankers, all covered by people tweeting on Twitter.
So more and more of us are behaving by, what Seidman calls, “situational values”: I do whatever the situation allows. Think Goldman Sachs or BP. The opposite of situational values, argues Seidman, are “sustainable values”: values that inspire in us behaviors that literally sustain our relationships with one another, with our communities, with our institutions, and with our forests, oceans and climate. Of course, to counter this epidemic of situational thinking, we need more and better regulations, but we also need more people behaving better. Regulations only tell you what you can or can’t do in certain situations. Sustainable values inspire you to do what you should do in every situation.
How do we get more people behaving sustainably in the market and Mother Nature? That is a leadership and educational challenge. Regulations are imposed — values are inspired, celebrated and championed. They have to come from moms and dads, teachers and preachers, presidents and thought leaders. If there is another way, please write me. I’ll leave a note for Lydia.
*Thomas L Friedman is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.