How Sex, Politics, Money and Religion are Killing Planet Earth

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Steven Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and the Western Culture of Destruction

Steven Covey died yesterday. His best-selling, self-help book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, is a paragon of the Western, goal-oriented culture that conflates “effectiveness” with human value. In Covey’s seminal work, he promotes seven behaviors, which he contends will lead to self-mastery, interdependence and self-renewal. Nobody could argue with these goals. Self-mastery and knowledge, and intimate integration in a meaningful way with one’s natural and human communities, could be viewed as the ultimate goals in a human life.

However, as with many glitches in our culture, it is not Covey’s goals that are problematic, but rather his stated means of achieving those goals wherein the telltale signs of cultural dysfunction are found. The seven “habits” Covey promotes are:

1.       Be proactive
2.       Begin with the end in mind
3.       Put first things first
4.       Think win-win
5.       Seek first to understand, then to be understood
6.       Synergize
7.       Sharpen the saw

Immediately, one can see the contradictions that arise with Covey’s narrative. The first three habits are intended to promote the first promised value, self-mastery. It would seem that Covey equates self-mastery with productivity. The two are not the same. The next three habits are ironically intended to foster “interdependence,” ironic because if one looks at Covey’s plan for developing interdependence, he completely excludes mention of the primary player in interdependence, the earth itself. His platitudes are merely prescriptions to placate other human players in order to maximize production. Like most victims of Western culture Covey confuses interdependence with exploitation.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People advocates a system of visualizing a goal, creating a plan to achieve that goal and then implementing the plan. This process would indeed result in productivity; however, productivity has little to do with self-mastery, interdependence or self-renewal. Our culture prizes production and “progress.” The problem is that during the process of achieving one’s goals, actual life takes place. By focusing on an event or theoretical accomplishment down the road, one loses track of the immediate. The paycheck at the end of the month, the holiday at the end of the year, the paying off of a mortgage or car, graduation, looking ahead to a hypothetical future that may or may not transpire, overlooks the reality of the world around us.

Ultimately, our goal-oriented culture has been a disastrous “habit” for the earth. As Westerners clamor to grow their economies, the actual substance of those economies, living and non-living entities (capitalists call them “resources”), are being churned into oblivion. The 1,000 year-old redwood that gave its life to be toilet paper or siding on your latest construction is not impressed by your bottom line, nor are the spotted owls that once resided in its majestic branches. If Western humans weren’t so focused on achieving a desired number on a balance sheet, perhaps instead of cramming ourselves into inanimate cubicles and “working,” we would take a walk in the woods and come to realize that the redwood and the owl are infinitely more valuable than siding and toilet paper, never mind their right to simply exist. The “progress” that renders the earth into “goals” is no progress at all. It is a process of mass-murder. Self-mastery, self-awareness, self-control. These values are not based on achieving theoretical goals. They are based on an awareness of one’s place in the world, the acceptance of the inter-connectedness of that existence, and respect for the other entities that also inhabit that space.

In my work performing environmental impact assessment, I witness the realities of our goal-oriented culture on a regular basis. The hallmark of Western culture’s agenda is “development.” This holy grail of development promises improved livelihoods for the people and places upon which it is imposed. In every case, the degree of improvement in livelihood depends entirely upon where one stands in the hierarchy of theoretically trickling-down benefits. Those at the top of the pile certainly enrich their bottom lines, and the working class is pacified with jobs for their complicity. Those who support the entire infrastructure, the trees that are now lumber, the wildlife that once foraged and thrived in the landscape, now scraped clean of life and sporting a shiny new condominium, the “resources,” have paid with their lives. Covey (and the goal-orientation he advocates) says, “Don’t look at the massacre. Ignore that. Keep your eye on the prize.”

The world now stands on the precipice of the actions of “effective” humans. 200 extinctions of irreplaceable species are sacrificed on the altar of human progress every day. The aerial view of our once-beautiful shiny green and blue orb is now marred in every recess with the scars of development. Vast oceans, once brimming with the substance of creation itself, are now struggling to maintain a last few vestiges of life. The thermostat is broken, thrown permanently on the heat cycle. It is no small irony that Covey’s last prescription for effectiveness is “sharpen the saw.”


  1. KM-
    Brilliant piece. Prior to my retirement I was in business management for 40 years. Covey and Jack Welch (former CEO of GE who popularized Six Sigma) eventually became the twin gods of 'efficiency'(incidentally, very different than 'effectiveness')worshiped by many of my peers. You capture the results of slavish pursuit of profit at all costs very well in your post.

    Perhaps the only exception I would take to your post would be with your statement, "the working class is pacified with jobs for their complicity". I think the working class is 'pacified' (and managed)primarily by religion, reality tv and alcohol, not necessarily in that order. I don't think a majority of the working class find their jobs either satisfying or pacifying and I would guess they are oblivious to their complicity.

    1. Jim, you are very insightful once again. "Pacified" is probably not the right word. The power class has control of all the resources and everybody else has to work for them to gain access to resources. It is a form of slavery that people wouldn't engage in if they had access to the means of existence otherwise.

    2. KM-
      Slavery is a more accurate descriptor for much of our working class, considering that most would not have medical care or much of anything else if they gave up their relationship with their masters, excuse me, employers.

      Keep up the good work. It is always a treat to see things from your perspective.

  2. Hi Jim,

    Nice post of saving natural resources, and I could not agree more on the need to understand mother nature and nurture it with all our heart. However I think your post is harsh on Dr. Covey.

    Dr. Covey never suggest what the goal should be, in fact in the the 2nd habit he specifically mentioned about money, positions, titles, assets etc. may not really be one's goal when we start doing eulogy exercise.

    Goal (Mission as he says) could very well be to serve mother nature and all the other behavior gets driven from that goal.

    Framework provided by him very generic and does not impose on an individual what should an individual do.

    I guess if mission for a person is to serve mother earth (just like you seem to have), his framework is pretty good one to use.