Martin Melaver  @  ChelseaGreen

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Leveraging Business For Change: It Ain't About the "Where"

Posted on Sunday, March 15th, 2009 at 5:22 pm by Martin Melaver

George S. invited me to have coffee with him the other day. George is a young real estate developer in town (Savannah, GA), passionate about strategies to reduce our carbon footprint. He and his wife and two young daughters have been in town about five years. Foremost in his mind, the reason he wanted to chat over coffee, was the idea of moving elsewhere, where the ground was more fertile for sustainable business practices.

"It's just so hard, here," George said. The refrain was familiar. A conservative state legislature that seemed largely deaf to conservation. The overweening influence of the Southern Company and its persistent steamrolling lobbying tactics to preserve its coal and nuclear monopoly. The lack of a statewide climate action plan ─ the only state on the east coast still lacking the political will to push such an agenda.

And so George was ready to pull up stakes and move elsewhere. Maybe to a place like Portland, Oregon or Boulder, Colorado that had the foresight to create a zero growth boundary. Or to an Austin, Texas, with its own citizen-controlled utility company. Or to a Washington, DC or Chicago, cities with strong green building programs.

Richard Florida has become a household name with his demographic research into the so-called "creative class," that innovative, youngish, restless segment of the American population desirous of "loose-tie associations" and with the capacity to pick up and move from one hip place to another. The phenomenon is certainly real. Americans change job every four years ─ though most changes are lateral ─ and move with similar frequency. A college graduate today can anticipate holding 11 different jobs before he or she retires. A 20- or 30-something year-old is half as likely as his or her grandparents to join a group.

Numerous studies (Putnam, Bowling Alone; Suarez, The Old Neighborhood; Wachtel, The Poverty of Affluence) have variously bemoaned the devolution of community set in motion by the pursuit of loose-tie associations. But the most striking message to my mind comes from a brilliant monograph by the sociologist Richard Sennett (The Corrosion of Character), who picks up on the silver underside of it all: "One of the unintended consequences of modern capitalism is that it has strengthened the value of place, aroused a longing for community. All the emotional conditions we have explored in the workplace animate that desire: the uncertainties of flexibility, the absence of deeply rooted trust and commitment . . . most of all, the specter of failing to make something of oneself in the world, to 'get a life' through one's work. All these conditions impel people to look for some other scene of attachment and depth."

Sennett helps frame a response to my friend George: The foot-loose sensibility George articulates bespeaks something quite opposite and more profound: The yearning for a strong sense of community. Sure, each place will face its obstacles. But in taking stock of the particulars of a place, a bubbling up of change-minded assets can be found: certain government officials and agencies that are open to ICLEI guidelines and grey-water ordinances; forward-looking academics and researchers working on clean-tech solutions; environmental groups shaping holistic strategies to nurture our lands; faith-based organizations that link spirituality to walking more softly on this earth; and businesses whose sense of purpose is to leverage its activities to be better stewards of our communities.

To pick up and move on down the road every four or five years is to squander an unparalleled opportunity to put deep roots down into the community, to enable the rich nutrients in a community to nourish one's own growth, and to return that enrichment by creating a business that is sustaining and provides sustenance for all who come into contact with what you do and what you care for most deeply.

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