In the 1987 film Wall Street, actor Michael Douglas lent an oily authenticity to the character of Gordon Gekko, an archetypal portrayal of the American Capitalist at his worst. In an oft-quoted cinematic speech before a fictional stockholders’ meeting, Gekko made a blunt sales pitch for the ethos of short-term, self-serving profit above all other considerations:

“The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed — for lack of a better word — is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms — greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge — has marked the upward surge of mankind.”

In the movie, Gekko’s demonic anthem solicited a rousing ovation from the audience. And there is no doubt that greed has always inspired much of American business, while also feeding its worst flaws and failures. Capitalism’s genius for spurring creativity, innovation, and unparalleled productivity has seemed inseparably wedded to greed’s historic exploitation of the working class, to environmental pollution, and to massive corporate meltdowns like Enron. In fact greed has been such a central force in American capitalism that the two ideas have often seemed inseparable, if not actually synonymous.

Until now, that is. In the new book Megatrends 2010: The Rise of Conscious Capitalism, veteran business writer Patricia Aburdene confronts the historic ethic of Gekkoism by stating simply and dramatically that “Greed is the ruin of American capitalism.” In her preface, she cites no less an icon of capitalism than Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who complained to Congress in 2002 of “an infectious greed” that “perversely created incentives to artificially inflate reported earnings in order to keep stock prices high and rising.” It was such a diseased business attitude, Greenspan implied, that led to widespread fraud and falsification, twin demons that are “highly destructive to free-market capitalism and, more broadly, to the underpinnings of our society.”

In Aburdene’s eyes, thus did the high priest of American commerce deliver the eulogy for Greed. Gordon Gekko, RIP. In Aburdene’s view, what is rising in greed’s place is a force that, for lack of a better word, can be called spirituality: a powerful, universally accessible source of inspiration that keeps creativity and innovation alive while marrying these crucial forces to personal integrity, social responsibility, and environmental health.

While this profound sea change has certainly not yet swept through all of American commerce, it has nonetheless been a long time coming and has become increasingly visible in all aspects of the business realm, from corporate conduct to investment strategies to consumerism. During the 1990s I wrote several feature articles for Yoga Journal on the rise of spirituality in business, reporting on what then seemed to be nascent trends in disparate parts of the economy. Like yoga itself, “conscious capitalism” was then a countercultural movement that seemed a long way from capturing the popular imagination. Now, reports Patricia Aburdene, this movement is strong enough to be called a megatrend: “a large, overarching direction that shapes our lives for a decade or more.” In their 1982 title Megatrends, Aburdene and her former husband John Naisbitt talked about the birth of the Information Economy; in Megatrends 2000, published in 1990, they predicted the networked, technology-driven Internet era. The coming megatrend, Aburdene asserts, will not be driven by external, social, or technological forces so much as “the internal dimension of change” that will reinvent free enterprise. And she’s predicting that this spiritual megatrend will take firm hold of the American way of business by, say, 2010.

In seven chapters the book identifies the major facets of the new megatrend, including:

• The Power of Spirituality — From Personal to Organizational
• The Dawn of Conscious Capitalism
• Leading from the Middle
• Spirituality in Business
• The Values-Driven Consumer
• The Wave of Conscious Solutions
• The Socially Responsible Investment Boom

Along the way, Aburdene offers many intimate portraits of the people behind the spiritual evolution in business, from meditating CEOs to value-driven consumers and socially responsible investment counselors. While the prose often has a breathless, cheerleading quality, the author’s enthusiasm is buttressed by plenty of facts and figures that should give even the most wizened materialist pause. For instance, her introduction of the topic of socially responsible investing (SRI) includes data indicating that “In 1984, SRI was a healthy $40 billion market. By 2003, it had morphed into a $2.16 trillion industry — a 5,000 percent increase in less than two decades.” And while the growth of SRI has a lot to do with the fact that “skepticism and mistrust toward business as usual are sending investors straight into the arms of socially responsible funds,” investors are staying with SRI because it is matching or outperforming conventional funds that haven’t been “screened” for social responsibility issues.

As an example, Aburdene cites the performance of the Calvert Social Investment Equity Fund, which in the “good, bad, and awful” years of 2000-2002 dropped overall by 3.6 percent. In the same years, the staid, reliable, and decidedly less conscious S&P 500 lost 14 percent. “It’s one thing when a fund thrives in boom times, quite another when it beats the bear,” comments Aburdene. “The years 2001 and 2002 were about as grim as it gets, but the Calvert fund in question clobbered the S&P.”

In “Leading from the Middle,” Aburdene suggests that conscious capitalism will spell an end to the era of high-profile CEOs who are outrageously overpaid not only to provide symbolic leadership of corporations, but to take virtually all the credit and blame for their companies’ fortunes. Both in daily practice and in the changing perspectives of business school educators, it is increasingly accepted that “The leadership that millions of managers practice — quiet, modest, behind-the-scenes — is more persuasive and more effective than the bold, heroic leadership we associate with CEOs and other top leaders.” Aburdene thus predicts an increasing democratization of corporate leadership, and she offers a handful of “grassroots leadership” techniques and initiatives to help people at all levels of corporations raise the consciousness of their workaday environment.

What drives business is customers and consumers, of course, and Aburdene spends a chapter noting how consumers themselves are increasingly driven by social values, not just by getting the best value for their dollars. Citing a New York Times report, Aburdene reveals that “By 2000 the market for values-driven commerce, from organic food and eco-tourism to Earth-friendly appliances and alternative medicine, had reached $230 billion . . . and was growing by double digits every year. No wonder the Times called it, ‘The biggest market you never heard of.’” Often categorized as “LOHAS” (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) consumers, values-driven buyers reached a peak of 63 million Americans in 2005, or 30 percent of the adult population. Obviously the yoga-practicing, stuck-with-acupuncture-needles, brown-rice-and-veggies-eating crowd has graduated in just a few decades from the status of an esoteric cult to an economic powerhouse. The question is what this and all the other “conscious capitalism” trends really portend for the future of American commerce.

To Patricia Aburdene, this future will be one in which “the spiritual transformation of capitalism” will shift the American way of doing business “from greed to enlightened self-interest, from elitism to economic democracy, from the fundamentalist doctrine of ‘profit at any cost’ to the conscious ideology that espouses both money and morals.” If the author is overly optimistic, one hopes that she’s not too far off the mark. In a time when natural disasters and accelerating environmental decline are colluding with exceptional political ineptitude to stress the great American experiment as never before, it might just be the approaching enlightenment of capitalism that illuminates a sane, sustainable path ahead for us all.

Author's Bio: 

D. Patrick Miller is a leading writer in the field of contemporary spirituality, and the founder of Fearless Books. The online Fearless Reviews regularly features the best recent works of the independent press.