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Sierra Magazine
Getting it Right

GETTING IT RIGHT 1 | 2 | 3

John Sweeney: I am observing a similar e-mail conversation led by the International Labour Organization called Trade Unions in the 21st Century. The points made regarding the "single-mindedness" of organizations and institutions are underscored by these simultaneous online experiences. None of you express concerns beyond traditional environmental or sustainability matters, and the ILO adds environmental groups only as one of a list of possible partners in our global pursuit of strengthened worker rights. This speaks volumes about the nature of the work ahead for us both.

Our task is to figure out how to move forward in search of improved global environmental stewardship in ways that protect workers, jobs, and communities. Single-mindedness will continue to be a fact of life for many, so our task is not going to be easy. We have to start with that understanding.

We can be proud, whether we look at the engagement of labor and environmentalists on Fast Track trade legislation or on local efforts such as reintroduction of grizzlies to Idaho, that where we've taken the complex, comprehensive route to an answer, we have found it together. We must recognize that single-mindedness prevents us from being sufficiently respectful of each other's situations and views. Lacking respect, we cannot create the political alliances that will be necessary to make change.

I disagree with the theory that if we keep doing what we're doing because it is right, we will prevail. It is going to take hard and sophisticated work to overcome the increasing power of fewer and fewer giant corporations who control the work and the resources that sustain both the planet and the people on it. We will win neither environmental change nor worker rights unless we share a common vision and devise a common strategy that is political in nature. We are nowhere near that goal now, but a thousand years is a long time to practice till we get it right.

I am struck by the repeated references in this dialogue to this ubiquitous corporate power that is a central reality for both of our movements. While corporations force on us the lowest common denominator globally, perhaps they will simultaneously goad us into finding our common ground with each other, and force us not only to improve our institutional peripheral vision but to take more seriously the interconnections between the resources of Earth and the people on it who deserve safe jobs, economic security, and thriving communities.

Paul Hawken: That there are many organizations addressing specific tasks does not necessarily mean that people are single-minded. It means that in this society it is astonishingly difficult to be a signal in a vast sea of noise, and we have learned both painfully and reluctantly to promote single-issue causes in order for at least something to change.

To quibble slightly with John Sweeney, I did not say that if we keep on doing what is right, we will prevail. I said that I believe that the broad understanding that informs a broad and complex movement across the world will prevail. Admittedly, this is a matter of faith, but if we do not have that faith, our work has no meaning. Even in the darkest days of the pogroms, Jews would say, “Next year in Jersualem.” They said it for a thousand years. This faith requires the very ideals that Sweeney espouses. There is in the tens of thousands of organizations the “hard and sophisticated work” that is required. At the same time, we have to step back and look at the system itself. We cannot protect communities, jobs, and the environment within a system that is designed by default to destroy them all.

In our new book, Natural Capitalism, Amory and Hunter Lovins and I try to describe the deeply embedded assumptions within our economy that continue to erode the security and pay of workers. What is not commonly understood about industrialism is that its purpose is to make people more productive, and it does so by using more natural capital-resources and services from our living systems. Nature is turned into machinery, tools, energy, and infrastructure to provide people with the capacity to do more work. To a great extent, it was a good idea. Higher productivity means higher income. But today, the obsessive pursuit of higher human productivity is at the very heart of our economic dysfunction. Although increased labor productivity made sense when the Industrial Age began, the underlying conditions have reversed. Two hundred years ago there were relatively few people, and they could only do so much work in a day. And there was abundant natural capital because of the European "discovery" and exploitation of the resources in the Americas, Africa, and Asia.

Today, there are lots of people, but every living system is declining. We are using more of what we have less of--natural capital--in order to use less of what we have more of--people. No wonder that in the past 25 years the world rate of un- and disemployment has grown faster than real employment. According to the International Labour Organization, there are over one billion people in the world who want to work and cannot, or who have jobs that pay so poorly they cannot support themselves or their families. In the United States, where there is seemingly full employment, that statistic is deceptive. When you break down employment numbers, you find tens of millions of temps and service workers with no benefits, low wages, and no security.

We can strike, picket, boycott, protest, and litigate on social, labor, and environmental issues -- and should -- but until there is both a method and a mandate for the world to step back from the gerbil wheel of manic industrialism, our efforts will only delay and slow down the social and environmental destruction.

In Natural Capitalism, we describe an economy that can proceed from here. It does not require a new “system,” but it does require the perception that we need to exponentially improve the productivity of nature, to use radically less material and energy to do what we do today even better. We can do this now, with off-the-shelf technologies. To do this, we need more employment, not less. By pursuing radical resource productivity (which conserves nature) we can literally create more jobs than people who want them. Until every woman and man feels that there is meaningful work that provides family wage levels, they will act out their disvalue with the attendant social problems that ensue. We are the only species without full employment. That alone should tell us that our economic models are removed from the wisdom of the earth and the welfare of all.

Carl Pope: The good news is that this gathering of hearts and minds agrees on what is to be done. Between the lines of these comments is a vision of a world less driven by frantic materialism and more connected by spirit and imagination, a world perhaps somewhat slower but more thoughtful, with fewer smart chips and more wise hearts. The bad news is the sense of how little time we have left to make this transition. However bad climate change looks in North Carolina after the floods, it is infinitely grimmer in Homero Aridjis' Mexico. Some of us have emphasized the need for individual change; others focused on strategies for altering institutions and policies. While speaking to a gathering of surgeons recently, I was reminded of the wisdom of the Hippocratic oath, and its potential usefulness in guiding both individuals and institutions. "First, do no harm," a physician swears. In order to do so we must, first, know fully what we do. We cannot be single-minded, oblivious to the ripples of our deeds, if we are to be true to this principle. Perhaps each of us, as a "new millennium" resolution, should seek to find a similar bridge between what Terry Tempest Williams calls the "contrary equilibriums" of despair and hope.

GETTING IT RIGHT 1 | 2 | 3

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact sierra.magazine@sierraclub.org for more information.


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