Sub-theme 56: Organizing for a Living Earth: Beyond Human-centered Analyses of Organization and Management

Maria Ehrnström-Fuentes
Hanken School of Economics, Finland
Galina Kallio
University of Helsinki, Finland
Steffen Boehm
University of Exeter, United Kingdom

Call for Papers

We live in the midst of severe ecological crises and overshoots of planetary boundaries (Rockström et al., 2009). Despite efforts to include topics such as CSR, sustainability and business impacts on the natural environment, organization and management studies (OMS) have generally remained stuck in, what can be called, a ‘weak sustainability’ paradigm (Daly, 1995). This means that OMS scholars mostly approach sustainability through a corporate environmental management frame, rather than defining concrete steps of how business can contribute to sustainable development, as defined by the United Nations (Roome, 2012). Yet, even studies that see organizations’ purpose through a ‘strong sustainability’ lense – taking a much broader societal perspective that goes beyond the boundaries of the firm – often treat ‘the environment’ as an exogenous entity that organizational members should harm less (e.g., Marcus et al., 2010; Whiteman & Cooper 2011; Whiteman et al., 2013).
While climate change and other environmental issues are now increasingly problematised in OMS, organizational and natural phenomena are usually treated as two separate entities. That is, there tends to be a deeply held, dualistic conception of nature being ‘out there’, i.e. outside the organization (Good & Thorpe, 2019). The whole discourse of doing less harm and reducing organizations’ impact on the environment assumes that humans are separated from nature. Viewing organization as an outcome of just human actions within particular socially constructed structures (i.e. institutions, economic systems, organizational or cultural boundaries) does not account for how different living organisms, materia, and ecosystems contribute to the life-making relations of the organizations (Moore, 2015). Such anthropocentric theories create a distorted view of the actual agencies involved.
The spread of the virus Covid-19 has made visible how nonhuman others, through their inseparable interdependencies and interconnections, can intervene and disrupt all forms of human organizations in a matter of weeks all over the globe. The dire societal consequences of the Coronavirus crisis makes it evident that we can no longer ignore how other living (and dead) organisms play a central role in the ways we organize the sustainment of our own lives. Organizing for a living earth – which we here understand as the ability to collectively sustain, repair and regenerate the world beyond just human beings (Puig de la Bellacasa, 2017) – calls for new theoretical, methodological and analytical approaches to OMS, which do not separate social relations from the wider natural world. Humans and companies are not just part of nature, they are nature and ecosystems participating in the life- or death-making processes of their own beings. From this perspective, even the most polluting, extractive companies can be seen as ecological organizations.
In a variety of academic disciplines, scholars have for long argued that other than human beings (i.e., things, animals, physical forces, earth beings) cannot be separated from humans or the processes that collectively sustain their lives (de la Cadena & Blaser, 2018; Capra & Luisi, 2014; Escobar, 2018; Naess, 1984). These networks of beings constitute a wider web of relations from which the reproduction of life on earth emerge (Haraway, 2016; Puig de la Bellacasa, 2017; Shiva, 2015). Although recent work in OMS have created an opening for viewing organizations as a wider network of actors and entangled practices (e.g., Bell & Vacchani, 2020; Hultin & Mähring, 2017; Introna, 2019), such insights have not yet been sufficiently connected to work on OMS sustainability research.
Perhaps we need to even stop talking about nature, given that it is so engrained in people’s minds as something untouched and ‘natural’. Morton (2007) takes a more radical step and wants to understand ecological organizing as a wider ontological force that includes human activities, even texts, even perhaps corporate manifestos. Equally, taking an entropy perspective, energy clearly cannot be seen as simply an oil-based or renewable industry; instead, energy is the stuff that connects all ecological relations on the planet (Georgescu-Roegen, 2014). Living systems themselves should be seen as powerful self-organized systems that emerge out of the energy of life itself (Shiva, 2015).
In this sub-theme, we want to open up a debate on how to move beyond human-centered theories of organization and management in order to tackle questions of sustainability and climate change. We ask: what does organization mean when we think and live interdependently with others within an ecological, living system? We call for contributions that engage with diverse approaches and methodologies that explore and theorize organizational practices involving how people, together with other living beings and things, co-construct an (un)livable earth. We are interested in the relations, senses and emotions that ‘glue’ people together with soils, nonhuman animals, microorganisms in socio-bio-material processes that enable a living and thriving earth. Such contributions could, for example, be informed by ecological economics, ecofeminism, post-structural philosophy, world-ecology theory, science and technology studies, practice theories, and others. While theory is clearly of interest to us, we are also encouraging empirical investigations and practical cases that vividly engage with the problems outlined here.
The following topics might form a starting point for some contributions, although the list below is by no means supposed to be exhaustive:

  • Theoretical and onto-epistemological approaches that can support a conceptual broadening of the term ‘organizing’ so that it also includes other than human agents

  • Theories and methodologies that explore entanglements between humans, soils, animals, waters and other living and dead beings within and beyond the limits of established approaches in organizational research

  • Entanglements that enable harmonious relations in organizations comprised of humans and more than human beings

  • Violence and destruction, in patriarchal, colonial organizing of some human lives causing death and destruction of other human and nonhuman actors

  • How to understand power and how different constellations of power enable/limit/suppress transformations in more than human organizations

  • How to expand theories of planetary boundaries and other environmental science approaches to include questions of ‘organization’

  • Theories and empirical cases of an entropy perspective of organizing

  • Land-based models and processes of organizing that are not human-centered

  • Organizing for climate change that are not anthropocentric

  • Circular economy perspectives that are embedded in wider flows of ecology and materiality; waste as a natural ingredient of open, living systems


  • Bell, E., & Vachhani, S.J. (2020): “Relational encounters and vital materiality in the practice of craft work.” Organization Studies, 41 (5), 681–701.
  • Capra, F., & Luisi, P. (2014): The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Daly, H.E. (1995): “On Wilfred Beckerman's critique of sustainable development.” Environmental Values, 4 (1), 49–55.
  • de la Cadena, M., & Blaser, M. (2018): A World of Many Worlds. Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Escobar, A. (2018): Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds. Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Georgescu-Roegen, N. (2014): Energy and Economic Myths: Institutional and Analytical Economic Essays. London: Elsevier.
  • Good, J., & Thorpe, A. (2019): “The nature of organizing: A relational approach to understanding business sustainability.” Organization & Environment, 33 (3), 359–383.
  • Haraway, D. (2016): Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Hultin, L., & Mähring, M. (2017): “How practice makes sense in healthcare operations: Studying sensemaking as performative, material-discursive practice.” Human Relations, 70 (5), 566–593.
  • Introna, L.D. (2019): “On the making of sense in sensemaking: Decentred sensemaking in the meshwork of life.” Organization Studies, 40 (5), 745–764.
  • Marcus, J., Kurucz, E.C., & Colbert, B.A. (2010): “Conceptions of the business–society–nature interface: Implications for management scholarship.” Business and Society, 49 (3), 402–438.
  • Moore, J. (2015): Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. London: Verso.
  • Morton, T. (2007): Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Naess, A. (1984): “A defence of the deep ecology movement.” Environmental Ethics, 6 (3), 265–270.
  • Puig de la Bellacasa, M. (2017): Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press.
  • Rockström, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K., Persson, Å., Chapin, F.S., Lambin, E., et al. (2009): “Planetary boundaries: Exploring the safe operating space for humanity.” Ecology and Society , 14 (2), 32.
  • Roome, N. (2012): “Looking back, thinking forward: Distinguishing between weak and strong sustainability.” In: T. Bansal & A. Hoffman (eds.): The Oxford Handbook of Business and the Natural Environment. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 620–629.
  • Shiva, V. (2015): Soil not Oil: Environmental Justice in an Age of Climate Crisis. Berkley: North Atlantic Books.
  • Whiteman, G., & Cooper, W. (2011): “Ecological sensemaking.” Academy of Management Journal, 54 (5), 889–911.
  • Whiteman, G., Walker, B., & Perego, P. (2013): “Planetary boundaries: Ecological foundations for corporate sustainability.” Journal of Management Studies, 50 (2), 307–336.
Maria Ehrnström-Fuentes is Assistant Professor in Management and Organisation at Hanken School of Economics in Vaasa, Finland, and SCANCOR-visiting scholar at Harvard University, USA. Her research interests focus on making the ‘pluriverse’ visible in organization studies through collaborative projects with grassroots organizations engaged in regenerative and place-based practices and with indigenous and rural movements resisting extractivism on their land. Maria has published in Journals such as ‘Journal of Management Studies’, ‘Geoforum’, ‘Journal of Rural Studies’, and ‘Critical Perspectives on International Business’.
Galina Kallio is a post-doctoral researcher in Ruralia Institute at the University of Helsinki, Finland. Her research focuses on alternative economies, regenerative agriculture, conceptualisations human-nature relationships and methodologies for studying non-symbolic and sensuous ways of knowing. Galina works in the intersection of academia and activism by conducting research and by actively participating in societal discussions to support a bio-centric paradigm shift.
Steffen Boehm Steffen Böhm is Professor in Organisation & Sustainability at University of Exeter Business School, UK. He holds a PhD from the University of Warwick, and is a Fellow at the Royal Society. His research focuses on the political economy & ecology of the sustainability transition. He has published five books: Repositioning Organization Theory (Palgrave), Against Automobility (Wiley-Blackwell), Upsetting the Offset: The Political Economy of Carbon Markets (Mayfly), and The Atmosphere Business (Mayfly), and Ecocultures: Blueprints for Sustainable Communities (Routledge). The book Renewable Energy Activism (with Annika Skoglund) is forthcoming with Cambridge.