Sunday, January 24, 2010

Economics and Ethics

"For an ethic is not an ethic, and a value not a value, without some sacrifice for it, something given up, something not taken, something not gained, . We do it in exchange for a greater good, for something worth more than just money and power and position." - Paul Hawken, Ecology of Commerce.

There is a line in sustainability where people rush like mad to reach then they spot cold in their tracks, cold in their hearts. This line is a master of men and has many names: breakeven point, point of diminishing returns, equilibrium point, cost-benefit analysis (CBA). Money makes a poor master and makes for a poorer environment.

The line ... she is imaginary. Those that cross it find themselves walking through a new world of ethics-based decisions. When we sell environmentalism on an economic argument, that is no great sale for it is no accomplishment to entice people to make money by avoiding expenses or waste. It allows us to bypass the ethics conversation, the conversation that is awkward but necessary to sustain the human species.

We do many thing in our lives that have no monetary motivation and in fact, actually costs us money. I shower daily though it is an expense; the intangible hygiene seems worth it. I do not sell my children into slavery though that would be an economically justified action. Ethics are not pesky, they are necessary for all that is good. It is time to expand that thought process to the larger decisions about the environment that our world faces..or more accurately too often neglects to face.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Pursue Beauty - Resist Stupidity

I am rereading Ecology of Commerce for the Nth time and am once again struck by the design flaw inherent in our commerce system. Some human being, not nature, CHOOSES to include toxins in our daily products... CHOOSES to manufacturer products that can not be disassembled and recycled. And we, the oblivious masses, involuntarily CHOOSE to support this insanity by spending every penny we have to purchase these toxic products. But as Dr. Jerod Diamond says in his speech "we created these problems so we also have the ability to address and correct these problems." (paraphrased) Thus the second half of the bumper sticker "Resist Stupidity" but the first half is very important and often overlooked "Pursue Beauty."

Beautiful items last. They don't get put in the landfill. They are cherished, appreciated daily, and inherited.

Pursue Beauty - Resist Stupidity together is powerful. Too often we see the absence of it such as when a city council votes to remove a lovely tree-lined boulevard and replace with an "efficient" four-lane road. (Duck Street in Stillwater Oklahoma) Where was the voice of wisdom that should have cried out "HEY! We must not resist beauty and pursue stupidity!"

(Duck Street was a jewel of urban form: Timeless Victorian homes lined a street that boasted a canopy of trees. In exchange for this perpetual beauty we CHOSE to destroy it; we now have fast traffic and weekly car wrecks while discouraged walking, bicycling and street life. Let's rethink this trade-off.)

That elusive voice of wisdom is latent within us. Imagine what the world would be like if we all pursued beauty and resisted stupidity. Someday sustainability will just be the way things are. There will be no discussion required. No persuasion necessary. We will have a culture of sustainability or we will have no culture at all. The choice is simple but we have to CHOOSE it.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

A Quiet Time of Year

The solstice is a time to sigh and reflect on what has been and what will be. Christmas is a ritual to endure and I'm always glad when the expectations pass and we can get down to the business of playing with new toys. The New Year is my most quiet time of year. It is when I ponder how to best approach a new crop of students. How will I reach them? What do they need? What have I learned that I can give to them to take on their lifelong journey?

I'm so glad I don't teach English. I like teaching about survival and prosperity. These seem important. In fact, it hit me that sustainability is on a species level not an individual level. We tend to think in terms of sustaining our household and our legacy but it is so much bigger than that. How does one teach something so big?

I'm reading an essay called "Survival U" in a 1970 Environmental Teach-in book. It is worrisome that they were right, we have faced this challenge before and failed to create a systemic change that would value the environment that supports human life. Times are different now so the question is how to leverage all that favors successfully teaching sustainability ethics.