A Call to Keep the Faith

Finding Purpose: Environmental Stewardship as a Personal Calling
Andrew J. Hoffman
Greenleaf Publishing, 2016, 174 pages

It’s rather easy to get sucked into the black hole of pessimism when it comes to the state of our planet. And it’s just as tempting to find needed solace in optimism, a vague hope that something – technology or an eleventh-hour revolution – will put civilization and the biosphere on a sustainable course. Andrew Hoffman’s Finding Purpose: Environmental Stewardship as a Personal Calling, offers a path out of this stale polarity between optimism and pessimism.

The book is unique in the realm of environmental literature in that it is less an alarmist call to action or policy prescription, and more of a call for self-reflection. Hoffman presents a collection of essays on the need to find purpose and calling wherever one is on life’s path. Whether a college senior on the eve of “selling out,” or a late career CEO who needs courage to look beyond the limited horizon of shareholder value, Hoffman gets the reader asking herself questions about her role in the wider effort to save our world.

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An academic and multidisciplinary bridge-builder between sustainability and business studies, Hoffman documents some of the ways that business – greentech and cleantech – is frequently a step ahead of environmental policy. Yet, by no means does he let business and markets off the hook. He makes a compelling case that capitalism needs to “evolve to address the new challenges we face as a society.” Hoffman presents a radicalism that works within the establishment. It’s path dependent. It’s not revolutionary, but evolutionary.

Hoffman invites us to investigate our own minds and reflect on how, by changing our tactics, we could help change others’ minds more effectively. Indeed, the one big question on my mind after setting the book down was: How can I do more? Like many environmentally conscious people, I fight the good fight in my own way. I donate money to green groups; I write about environmental issues; I march in protests. But Finding Purpose forced me to see the compartmentalization in my life. My environmentalism mirrors the data Hoffman cites: Two-thirds of Americans rarely, if ever, discuss global warming with family and friends.

Many who read Finding Purpose may be confronted by the cynicism that holds us back. There were many points in the book where I wanted to critique Hoffman, for example for his failing to highlight the role of money in politics. Yet, when I reflected on his message, I realized there might be something hiding behind my cynicism. Perhaps anger or frustration? Guilt? Sadness? For me, Finding Purpose proved to be almost a “self-help” book for someone trying to help the planet.

Hoffman outlines some of the tension between the “dark greens” and “bright greens,” between those who follow a more radical approach and those who follow a more “accommodationist” and corporate approach. While it’s easy for many of us to come together in our various camps, Hoffman makes a compelling case that these two nodes within the wider environmental movement are “mutually dependent … and need each other to accomplish their goals.” He poignantly quotes an early EPA administrator, Russell Train, who said, “Thank God for Dave Brower; he makes it so easy for the rest of us to be reasonable.”

In this view, it’s the radicals who present the needed vision, and it’s the moderates and incrementalists who also play an essential role in making it reality.

Without pushing, Hoffman brings his reader to a place beyond that old pitched battle between optimism and pessimism. That place is idealism. Finding Purpose crescendos when Hoffman cites Don Quixote as a model for pursuing a calling. “You may fail,” he writes, “but you will learn who you are and be your own person.” He links this quixotic tradition to many past luminaries in business who rapidly transformed the way we work, move, live, and communicate. While such rapid transformations might give us hope that our economy will rapidly decarbonize, Hoffman puts it back on the reader’s shoulder to boldly follow an ideal for a better world.

Whether through his vision of an effective “Anthropocene business school,” the boardroom, or our culture as a whole, Hoffman invites his readers to take out the trail map and compass and reorient themselves on the landscape of their careers and lives. He invites us all to renew our idealism for a rocky path ahead.

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