Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Aesthetics of Profit

I was just reading Paul Hawken's remarkable synthesis of information and vision, 'The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability' (1993), and found myself in one of those moments of surprise while immersed in the familiar. In a call for a new language for business expanding its specialized dialect he says:

"The language of commerce sounds specific, but in fact it is not explicit enough. If Hawaiians had 138 different ways to describe falling rain, we can assume that rain had a profound importance in their lives. Business, on the other hand, only has two words for profit - gross and net. ... In other words, business does not discern whether the profit is one of quality, or mere quantity." (p. 10-11)

This made me think of the aesthetics of profit. What would be the qualities we would seek to vest in something that is apparently real, albeit merely a numeric fiction? If something as temporary as a cloud could have qualities, such as ... wispy, fluffy, buoyant, gloomy and stormy, why not profits? I can see no reason, as like Hawkens, I am not against profits or business, only the unconscious desire to externalise the costs of life to a location of isolation that is a solitary and momentary P/L statement.

The question is what qualities would we seek to attribute to the profits we desire? Rather than 'ethical', 'green', 'sustainable' or 'responsible' profits, I am sure we could discover more meaningful terms to recover the emotion of business.

I, like others, would invest in a business whose profits were 'nourishing', 'generative', 'enduring', 'resourceful', 'contributive' or even 'life enriching' to the human commons. The Accounting Standards themselves would require an inspired taskforce of newly enthused auditors to put greater meaning, feeling and precision into their assessment of the human worth of the productive gain. Rather than externalities, the profit forecasts of resonant aesthetics would appeal to the internalities, of our profoundest human emotions.

I wonder which 'beautiful' company might be the first to take this challenge? It is a conversation, I for one, would love to have.

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