We live at a time when humanity is steadily moving away from riskier forms of self-sufficiency to safer and more productive forms of mutual interdependence. Consequently, the future of ERM will be concerned with building enterprise-wide approaches to pursuing opportunities and managing threats. The future success of ERM, however, depends on whether it is grounded in an overarching philosophy and core purpose summed up best as reverence for life.
Using the backdrop of infectious disease (e.g., smallpox, cholera), the preceding sections explained how the future of enterprise risk management work will focus on being able to surpass prior thresholds of collaboration and cooperation in order to meet the challenges of the moment. Once this pandemic is behind us, there will be new pathogens that threaten the future of the human species, especially when one considers the accelerating rate of deforestation and the ever-increasing number and concentration of domesticated animals from which new diseases often emerge. Just in the past several years, the world’s scientific community has discovered 1,200 animal-borne diseases and it has estimated there may be 700,000 more that we don’t know about.
Advances in risk management come from building stronger institutional capacity to increase the probability and magnitude of good things happening (positive risk) while decreasing the probability and severity of bad things happening (negative risk). Such advances are both epistemological and cultural, meaning that we both (i) increase our knowledge and (ii) use that new-found knowledge in ways that serve the common good. Because everything, good or bad, is done by and through people, the challenge with managing uncertainty is achieving better alignment between what is epistemological and what is cultural. For example, we may be able to build an effective vaccine or antiviral drug in a matter of days (as was the case with COVID-19) but can humanity work together to produce and distribute enough vaccines or drugs to slow or stop the disease before it mutates into even more harmful variants and strains?
For guidance on how to bring what is epistemological and cultural together, let’s turn to Albert Schweitzer, the renowned medical missionary who lived from 1875 until 1965. Albert Einstein, perhaps the greatest mind of the 20th Century, wrote that until he met Schweitzer, he had “scarcely ever known personally a single individual in whom goodness and the need for beauty are merged to such a degree of unity as in the case of Albert Schweitzer.” (G. Marshall and D. Poling, Schweitzer: A Biography, 239 (Doubleday, 1971).) Schweitzer was born in Kayserberg, Germany (today northeastern France) two months after Germany annexed the French province known as Alsace-Lorraine. For generations, Schweitzer’s family had been devoted to education, music, and religion. Both of his grandfathers were talented organists and many of Schweitzer’s relatives were respected scholars.
Schweitzer followed in the footsteps of his talented forebears. He started taking piano and organ lessons as a young child and he would go on to become a world-famous musical scholar and concert organist, especially known for his playing the works of Johann Sebastian Bach. In 1893, Schweitzer enrolled at the University of Strasbourg where he obtained a doctorate in philosophy in 1899, and a doctorate in theology in 1900. By 1903 and still only 28, Schweitzer had become an ordained minister, a respected professor and scholar, and was well on his way to a promising pastoral, academic, and musical career. A prodigious talent writing books on theology, giving organ concerts, and delivering lectures that drew praise across Europe, it seemed unbelievable that one person could have so many talents.
Yet despite all his worldly success, Schweitzer was wrestling with a question that would change the trajectory of his life. As a student, Schweitzer saw many people suffering while he lived in comfort and he started wondering why despite all the advancements in science and knowledge that had occurred since the creation of the printing press some 400 years earlier, there had not been equal advancements in ethics and philosophy that led to a better life for more people.
Unable to answer the question, Schweitzer determined that he would pursue scholarship, music, and ministry until the age of 30 at which point, he would give all of that up in order to dedicate the remainder of his life to serving humanity. Ultimately, he decided to become a medical doctor and to work as a missionary in Africa. Consequently, starting in 1905, Schweitzer, now 30, began medical studies at the University of Strasbourg while still performing his regular work as an academic and minister. He became a physician in 1913 and then left for Lambarene, Gabon in French Equatorial Africa, where he built his first hospital.
In 1915, while working as medical missionary in Lambarene, Schweitzer, now 40, found the answer to the question that had perplexed him for nearly 20 years. World War I was raging and the year-old conflict had reached his hospital with the Germans making Schweitzer a prisoner of war for a time because he was living and working in French territory.
The impact of the war on Schweitzer and his fledgling hospital caused one of his African assistants to ask him why Europeans would come to Africa to help improve living conditions there while at the same time they were killing each other back home. Schweitzer thought even harder about the question that had long vexed him - why was science and technology able to produce such material progress yet humanity was unable to change its behavior for the better? It is the same question that haunts Americans facing a COVID-19 death toll (more than half a million people) that is higher than in any other country. How could we invent vaccines in a matter of days yet so many would refuse to take minor preventative steps to prevent harm to others such as mask-wearing and social distancing?
The answer that had long eluded Schweitzer came to him in September 1915 on a boat trip on the Ongooue River in Gabon, Africa. He long believed that an ideal civilization must have a foundation in knowledge but also be life-affirming, reasoning that civilization involves both the perfecting of the individual and society. What then would be a simple, resounding phrase that could unite the human will for scientific progress and the human will for humanitarian progress? On the third day of the trip while his boat was making its way through a herd of hippopotamuses, the phrase came to Schweitzer: “Reverence for Life.”
Schweitzer reasoned that each person carries a will to live in the midst of other life that wills to live and that this simple principle could serve as an internal compass for living in nature which beneath all the beauty is a brutish evolutionary struggle between humans and pathogens. Accordingly, even though all of life, including mankind, is required to sacrifice some forms of life in order to continue living, it is only by revering life of every form that each person can be in touch with his or her own internal will and can exercise that will for the good of all.
In the early 1950s as the horrors of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the prospect of global nuclear war were recognized, Schweitzer joined forces with Albert Einstein to urge social responsibility and a ban on the use of nuclear weapons. Schweitzer worried that humanity had reached a point of regarding each other only as members of a tribe either allied with us or against us and one’s approach (e.g., sympathy or antipathy) was conditioned by this mindset. This duality has also pervaded the field of risk management in which too often we are focused on whether risk is positive or negative. Einstein believed that it was in the hearts of people where a reverence for life exists and once unleashed, the human capacity to create an ideal civilization was limitless.
Except for short periods of time to raise money and to attend to his family’s needs, Schweitzer spent the remainder of his life in Africa. At Lambarene, Schweitzer was a physician, pastor of a congregation, village administrator, buildings and grounds superintendent, author of scholarly books, musician, and host to countless visitors. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952 and by the time of his death in 1965, at age 90, the hospital compound had grown to 70 buildings, 350 beds, and a leper colony for 200.
In the next section, we will explore what the Schweitzer principle of Reverence for Life means for the future of ERM.