Ethical Marketplace Archive

Ray Anderson: Oh Captain, Our Captain

Friday, August 12th, 2011

Ray Anderson, founder and chairman of Interface, Inc., author of two books on sustainability and a tireless champion for re-inventing business to service the environment, passed away last Monday at the age of 77.

Ray was vice-chairman of my company for eight years, a mentor, a guide, and a dear friend. I write this in the hours leading up to his memorial service, a bittersweet time for so many of us, whose sadness at his passing is mixed with a celebration of a life that helped launch the sustainability movement globally.

For Ray was one of those rare individuals who somehow touched the core of what human-ness is all about – a blend of ambition and selflessness. He would begin most every talk he gave with the statement that he was as driven and as competitive as any businessman you would ever meet. And yet somehow, he would “flip” this all-so-common human trait, one most of his audience identified with, into something filled with a higher purpose: stewardship of planet earth. He was a self-proclaimed plunderer of natural capital, a sinner – but then by implication so weren’t we all? And his hope and undiminished optimism gave us all a clear path toward redemption.

Ray never said a lot at our quarterly board meetings. But when he did, you sat up and took notice. At one of our last board meetings together, several years ago, Ray came up with this pronouncement: “Wouldn’t it be something,” he said, “if as a real estate development company, we would be profitable as a result of what we didn’t build instead of what we did.”

I thought he was crazy. Well, to be more accurate, what I really thought at the time was more along the lines of it sure must be nice to sit back and make these Yoda-like oracular pronouncements. He’s Ray Anderson. Everything he says is wise, right? How in the hell are we supposed to reinvent a real estate company that profits more by building less?

But like a true radical industrialist, Ray was on to something. It’s just taken a lag time of several years for me to figure that out and launch a new business based on his premise.

It’s a document chock full of data on the diminshment of our home, one that we all need to keep close by. But one chart buried in the middle of the report gets to the heart of it all:

WWF Living Planet Report 2010, p. 73

In 2010, the World Wildlife Federation, in conjunction with the Global Footprint Network, published its Living Planet Report.

The chart looks at Human Development around the globe as it relates to consumption. The message is as clear as it is known to many of us already. We in the first world are consuming more and more resources, but not getting much more from that consumption. We’re not getting more in the way of longevity, or reasonable healthcare or educational access, or economic well-being or downright happiness. I don’t know if Ray would have expressed it this way, but our consumption has become both a cause and symptom of our increasing lack of community and our lack of connection to one another.

But Ray knew this intuitively. He knew that we needed to better utilize all that we already have, rather than discard and replace with some new thing. He knew that a sustainability movement was not about technology – despite his engineering background – but about people. It was about changing one mind at a time, one mindset at a time, one business at a time, one community at a time, one law at a time. One of his best aphorisms went like this: “Every time a person embraces the environment, that’s one more of us and one less of them.”

I feel blessed to be one of the many thousands whom Ray embraced as one of his own.

Martin Melaver is a principal and founder of Melaver McIntosh, a sustainable development and consulting firm focused on transformative approaches to regenerating communities and businesses. He is the author of Living Above the Store: Building a Business That Creates Value, Inspires Change, and Restores Land and Community, foreword by Ray Anderson.

In Praise of Late Bloomers

Saturday, March 28th, 2009

It’s already spring in my hometown of Savannah, GA. Partiers have already blown in and out of town to celebrate a raucous St. Patrick’s day. The tourists are in full swing, enjoying a three-week music festival and the annual tour of homes. And, of course, there’s the early bursting onto the scene of azaleas, the photogenic poster-child for travel magazines capturing my historic city framed by the whites, pinks, and orange blooms.

It seems I have spent my life amidst the hustle of fast-growth, early-blooming activities.

Decades ago, back in school, it seemed I was surrounded by classmates all certain of their trajectory in life. They were off to law school or to study business or medicine while I was still, in that somewhat patronizing phrase, “discovering myself.” In the ensuing years, businesses grew exponentially, executive salaries ballooned, and last year’s crop of built-to-last companies got replaced by fast company wannabees. Meanwhile, my own company, founded in 1940 by my grandmother, was still trying to figure out what it wanted to be when it grew up.

It’s taken much of my professional life to get comfortable with the notion of slow growth. After all, the role models all around us evoke what the financial scholar Joseph Schumpeter once promulgated, a culture of creative destruction: “the perpetual cycle of destroying the old and less efficient product or service and replacing it with new, more efficient ones.” It’s been a generation of Schumpeter triumphing over Schumacher, the global over the local, the fast-moving invasive species over slow, native plantings.

It’s taken much of my professional life to get comfortable with the notion that it takes perhaps a lifetime for the parts to cohere. To create a business culture in which individual value systems gel into an overarching sense of meaning and purpose. To learn how to leverage the activities of a small business to shape change in a community. To be part of an overall movement where all of our major social sectors ─ civic organizations, government, faith-based groups, academia, and businesses ─ join forces to shape a more sustainable way of life.

Recently, I had the opportunity to meet with a class of graduating high-school seniors in my hometown. My own alma mater over thirty years ago. I was curious about whether the current downturn in the economy was shaping their thoughts about college and beyond. Were they suddenly finding themselves forced to think more pragmatically about their choice of a major, their selection of a profession, of making a living? Did they find themselves thinking linearly, getting themselves “on track?” Did they feel they had the luxury of time to explore? Where were their dreams in all of this?

Their answers varied widely. Some seemed as fast-track focused as classmates of mine thirty years ago. And others didn’t have a clue? I found myself wanting to reassure this latter group, to let them know that our culture needs more than ever later bloomers.

So as the azaleas run through their gaudy display in my hometown, I find myself looking forward to seeing signs of low-growing vines like the dwarf smilax. They aren’t the sexiest-looking plants, are evergreen, have these simple red berries in the fall and winter, and are so common as to go unnoticed. I’ve never seen them glossing the pages of a travel magazine. And yet there they are, year after year, providing needed ground cover for my region.

A Tale of Two Banks

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009

Several hundred billions of dollars in commercial real estate loans are up for expiration in the coming year, with a multiple of that ($1.7 trillion) coming in the ensuing 12 months.. Reports of vulture capital in the $500 billion + range are reportedly poised to pounce on anticipated flea-market pricing. And the question on the minds of so many in the nation is simply this: How are our nation’s banks ─ pushed on the one hand by stress tests by Treasury regulators to reduce overexposure and on the other hand by solid, established businesses to support longstanding relationships and work through this downtown ─ going to respond?

It’s a huge question. On the one hand, there’s the lesson of Japan, working sluggishly through its own overload of questionable loans in the 1990s, slow to write off problematic debt, and providing an object lesson that such slow-to-respond leadership resulted in a 15 year stagnant economy. The lesson of Japan: bite the bullet hard and fast, call all challenging loans ASAP, and set the ground work for a faster recovery on the back end. Seems logical.

On the other hand, there’s the undocumented case history of a large corpus of businesses, many of them small, many of them relatively prudent in their business practices that absolutely NEED the capacity of banks to work with them through this downturn, so that they survive. After all, much of the financial growth of this country over the past three decades has come from small business, whose growth has been both deliberate and local. In the interest of faster economic stabilization at the global/national level, do we promote stringent fiscal policies that perhaps unduly cripple the heart of what has been the economic lifeblood of the nation?

What’s a financial system to do?

I think the big picture issue is more easily graspable by some specific case studies. My own company is currently dealing with two distinct challenges that provide as good a picture as any.

We have two loans which are coming due in the next three months. How our banks work with us, or don’t, will affect our business. Their approaches will probably serve as a synecdoche as it were for what’s going on in the nation as a whole.

Story #1. One loan is with a LEED-certified condo project, a portion of which is set aside for workforce housing. It’s a cool project in an up-and-coming area of Atlanta, mixed-use, in close proximity (one mile) from the downtown area. Unfortunately, our completion of the project coincided with the downtown in residential real estate. Sales are limping along.

More fortunate is the fact that our banker on this project seems willing to work with us on extending the loan for several years until we can generate enough sales to pay off the bank debt. The negotiation on our renewal is not yet finished. But the bank, to its credit, recognizes that we are a long-term, local business committed to delivering on its obligations. And so they are willing to ride with us during this downturn, knowing full well that if they create flexible terms, we will pay off principal and debt and provide the community with a produce that is clearly needed.

Story #2. Loan Number 2 is a different story. It’s on a sweet piece of real estate in downtown Atlanta, beautifully situated as part of the redevelopment of Atlanta’s urban core. However. Since the downturn, real estate values have decreased. Which means that the leverage on the project has increased. Our bank, following the recent trend in the economy is looking 1) to de-leverage its loans, and 2) to increase fees to help with productivity. As such it is expecting us to a) pay down the principal, b) pay an increased rate on interest, and c) pay a new loan origination fee for an extension that may only be for 12 months.

Their demands, should they hold sway, could set off an unfortunate ripple of events. It could force us to sell a current performing asset at a steep discount to what it’s probably worth in a stabilized market. The sale of a performing asset might result in forcing our hand to reduce our workforce (since we no longer have the income from that asset). A staff member losing his or her job could easily result in the inability to pay a house mortgage, the loss of a home, and managing through the downturn by subsisting on unemployment payments. And so on.

In short, a banking crisis that began with greed and the over-leveraging of credit in the past could result in a bank making moves to shore up its balance sheet at the expense of hardworking members of our society who deserve better and who had absolutely nothing to do with the cupidity occurring at levels way above their pay grade. It’s not only unfair. It’s immoral.

It is probably clear from the way I’ve framed things that I feel that, in a tale of two banks, story #1 has a lot more going for it than story #2. I’m hopeful that cool heads will prevail to make this happen. The vitality of solid, slow-growth, local businesses probably hangs in the balance.

If you have your own story to share along these lines, I’d love to hear from you.

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

Sunday, March 15th, 2009

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.

Doing the Scapegoat Thing - Not So Profitably

Saturday, March 7th, 2009

During the past nine months, virtually every board I serve on has gone through crazy tumult. A few execs have lost their jobs in the process. You could say that each situation is unique, and that these terminations were called for. Perhaps that's true. But I think there are systemic forces at work that call for deeper probing and reflection.

Despite running my own for-profit business, I would contend that one of the toughest jobs in the world is to be the chief executive of a non-profit. In good times, a non-profit CEO needs to have a fundamental passion for his or her line of work (education, conservation, etc.), must possess an eye for strategic vision, have the capacity for strong organizational skills to deftly deploy a staff that is compensated more for doing good deeds than salary, be adept at fund-raising, be savvy with financial management and shoestring budgets, serve as the eloquent face of the organization with strong communication skills, and know how to adroitly manage the politics of multiple stakeholders.

Non-profit CEOs are built much like those in the for-profit world. They — or we — tend to be upbeat about prospects, accentuating the positive in good times and converting problems into opportunities when things are a bit more challenging. They learn to do more with less, shoring up financial shortfalls in one area by shifting things around and leveraging skill sets of colleagues across disciplinary lines. It's a constant juggling act, typically performed under constant budgetary constraints, competition among other groups for funding from the usual sources, and the chronic challenge of translating long-term visionary goals into measurable, shorter-term objectives. And that's during good times.

But obviously, these are not the best of times. First, there's the money question. Non-profits are appealing to a traditional donor base that is suddenly unable to pony up for needed operational funds. Corporate giving has been put on a short leash. And endowments, to the extent non-profits are fortunate enough to have investments that haven't been sucked dry by Madoff and company, are a fraction of what they were a year ago. So what's a CEO of a non-profit to do? S/he typically doesn't have the wiggle room which for-profit CEOs have, of multiple revenue-producing strategies. And so s/he cuts costs to the bone or beyond, jeopardizing delivery of services in the short-term, cannibalizing upon strategic vision in the longer term. Or, s/he tries to shuffle cost centers around and hope that the turnaround happens before all the juggling balls fall to the floor.

Secondly: time-starved lives and the professionalization of non-profits. In the last 25 years, we've added around 200 hours or an additional long month to our work year. Every 10 minutes of additional commute in the car results in an hour less community service The 20-40 year-old American is half as likely to join a group as his or her grandparents. In the past 30 years, the percentage of Americans who visit frequently with their neighbors has dropped in half (from 1/3 to 1/5). The statistics go on and on, documenting a looser communal structure becoming ever more friable. The basic point here is that as our time becomes more and more bound up in work and travel, it becomes less devoted to community give-back ─ which means that the heavy-lifting of volunteerism is taken on more and more by paid professionals who have fewer volunteer resources to draw upon.

Then there's the board governance issue. Always a sticky wicket during the best of times, a non-profit board is often made up of well-intentioned, testosterone-laded execs all too eager to weigh in with their individual pronouncements on things that must be fixed right now (including termination of non-profit heads). It's not that they are wrong. But I think most of these folks are missing the boat on two fronts: they are 1)looking in the rear-view mirror, at strategies that have worked in the past for 2) businesses managing through a downturn. As the cliché goes, images in your rear-view mirror appear closer than actual. I don't think anything has prepared us for managing for the current situation, least of all for managing our non-profits. Quick fixes, especially of a corporate nature, will fall prey to that time-honored notion of insanity: repeating the same thing and expecting different results.

What's to be done? Perhaps some basic rethinking of our nonprofits is called for, along the following lines:

  1. A deeper understanding of the role of non-profits. Alexis de Tocqueville, in his seminal two-volume study Democracy in America, famously observed that our nation was one of numerous, small associations. And that worked well in a newly-minted democracy, as these associations covered panoply of social services left unaddressed by government itself. Fast-forward, however, to the present day, when, as historian Jeremy Rifkin has pointed out (The European Dream), a society's complex needs far surpass the capacity of a nation of associations to service them adequately. We are asking our non-profits to deliver on a smorgasbord of critical services at that precise moment in time when they are both most urgently needed and most desperately under-funded. Recognizing and appreciating the critical role non-profits perform is a first step in assisting with their work.
  2. Supplementing weaknesses not peremptorily changing leaders. There is no way that most CEOs today can deliver today on the far-ranging set of competencies expected of them, especially during this economic downturn. Scapegoating a current exec, firing him/her, and finding a replacement is likely to set up the replacement for failure. Instead, what is called for is supplementing identifiable weaknesses through strengths on the management team and beyond.
  3. Enhancing volunteerism. The current downturn, along with the need to do more with less, calls for us all to roll up our sleeves and assist our non-profits in ways that we have up til now been content to outsource to a professional staff. That doesn't mean second-guessing those hired to do their jobs. It does mean doing less armchair quarterbacking carping and more getting our hands dirty and assisting with the work that needs to be done.
  4. Being wary about applying for-profit criteria of performance to the non-profit world. Yes, donors and supports want to know that their donations accomplish something. Yes, non-profits need metrics and non-profit heads should be accountable. But often the objectives of a non-profit are hazy and tricky to objectify. Rather than force non-profits into a mold of corporate accountability, we need to allow for the loftier visions that many non-profits set for themselves.
  5. Creating a new paradigm. We cannot rely solely on non-profits for the quality and quantity of services which they have traditionally provided. All sectors of society traditionally siloed from one another ─ government, academia, faith-based organizations, and yes, even and perhaps especially the business community ─ need to complement each other's efforts. We cannot continue having business externalize its costs onto society, lament the lack of governmental leadership to redress the problem, and expect our civic organizations to fill the gap.

The origin of the notion of scapegoat comes from the ancient practice of projecting the sins of a collective society onto the body of one hapless goat that was sent off from Jerusalem into the Judean desert alone, to die. It's time for a more collective form of responsibility and leadership to assert itself.

Restoring the Business of Government

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

One of my favorite quotes from the social critic H. L. Mencken: “Living with a dog is messy like living with an idealist.” The same could be said about democracy living with big business. It’s messy. And the clean-up is a bitch.

In the past few days, a number of newspaper articles and editorials around the Atlanta area have focused on the large engineering firm CH2M Hill and its contracts to run city government and services for three area municipalities: Johns Creek, Milton, and Sandy Springs, some of the first municipalities in the country to have government out-sourced. Out-sourcing government is such a bad idea, so obviously bad that it almost seems pointless to dwell upon it. Right up there with privatizing the running of schools and privatizing military operations around the globe.

The gist of this current spate of articles on CH2M Hill focuses on the refusal of this Denver-based company to reveal much about how much it is expending on items like code enforcement, processing building permits, and general operations. These cities, quite naturally, are asking for some basic financial accountability. And the company, doing what comes naturally to a privately-held corporation, is claiming that its P&L sheet for running a city is proprietary. As Herb Washington, CH2M Hill director of operations for municipal services says: “Even as a partner, we are a private firm. Are we obligated to reveal our profit margin? No more than any other contractor.” Washington’s statement unwittingly captures the essence of the whole bad idea: Open, participatory government cannot be managed by private enterprise that is hardwired to be run by its own internal rules of accountability and narrower self-interests. As my kids would say, “duh.”

The issue is not new. The roots of this problem probably date back to an 1886 Supreme Court decision, Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, in which the 14th amendment is interpreted to proclaim corporations as “persons” (see Eric T. Freyfogle, The Land We Share, for a more thorough treatment). In recent years, though, extending corporations Constitutional protections rightfully focused on individual human rights has gotten so far out of control that we now have a governance structure so eviscerated that it could aptly be described as “government of the corporation, by the corporation, for the corporation.” So much for Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It will take more than Obama speaking against the backdrop of the Lincoln memorial to set things right. Sheldon Wolin’s brilliant critique in Democracy, Incorporated and Robert Reich’s Supercapitalism should be mandatory reading for any civics class today.

So what is to be done? How do we get our various distinct social “tribes” government, business, social organizations, academia, faith-based institutions to focus on what they each do best while also working in concert together to restore our lands and communities? Here are a number of big-ticket suggestions, reforms that would actually suit well successful implementation of the current stimulus package:

· Campaign finance reform, with publicly-funded elections, equal access to public airwaves for free public advertising, etc.

· Overhaul of lobbying regulations, including banning corporate contributions and prohibiting the dizzying cross-overs now occurring between folks taking jobs in government and the private sector.

· Formalizing the principles of the ancient Justinian Public Trust doctrine by developing trusts for our natural capital (see Peter Barnes, Capitalism 3.0).

· Resuscitate the Fairness Doctrine, which for many decades mandated that our broadcast media serve to inform the public, before it was abolished by Reagan in 1988 (see Robert Kennedy, Crimes Against Nature).

· Pass legislation strictly regulating the manner in which corporate support of academic research inhibits the free flow and exchange of ideas, technological development, etc. (see Denise Caruso, Intervention)

· Limiting (if not outright prohibiting) private management of public areas of responsibility such as the running of municipalities like Johns Creek, Milton, and Sandy Springs.

Messy? Yes. Necessary? No question.

Collar Me Green

Sunday, February 22nd, 2009

The internet is abuzz these days with blogs and postings and comments about whether our downturn in the economy will push environmental issues off the table as a national priority. Seems like a no-brainer to me, more like a huge opportunity to finally create a critical synergy between social and environmental issues. And at the center of this opportunity is the promising if loose and bandied-about concept of green-collar jobs. So what’s the rub?

The first challenge, familiar to anyone well-versed in discussions about sustainability, is the baggy nature of the concept. Joel Makower, who has a new book out on the subject (Strategies For the Green Economy), has recently blogged about the fact he can’t precisely define a term that could lead to green jobs becoming the next greenwash (

The second challenge, one trenchantly pointed out by historian Donald Worster The Wealth of Nature), is that in the twinning of sustainability and development, development is at the center of decision-making and sustainability comes trotting along as an afterthought. The Congressional Budget Office’s recent recommendation that we waive environmental review to speed infrastructural spending is a prime example of this type of first-among-equals thinking.

The crux of the problem is brilliantly addressed by David Orr in an essay entitled “Speed” in the Nature of Design: “The same forces that have combined to give us a high-velocity economy and society reform themselves at glacial speed.” We need, argues Orr, “a more robust idea of time and scale that takes the health of people and communities seriously.”

Systemic, integrated thinking built for the long-term while addressing current triage issues: How to pull this off?

It’s a question well-worth considering as the nation pours over the 1100 page “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009,” which includes: $48 bn. for transportation, $16 bn. for energy, $6 bn. for the environment, $4.5 bn to convert GSA facilities to high-performance buildings, and $11.5 bn. for affordable housing. Some things worth bearing in mind as state governments and businesses and trade organizations line up at the trough:

· Low-hanging fruit of energy inefficiencies. Rocky Mountain Institute has recently issued a report enumerating a host of strategies to improve energy efficiencies by 30% using existing technologies and products ( At the heart of RMI’s report is a telling series of charts indicating each state’s electricity productivity (dollars of GDP) versus Kilowatt hours used. Channeling stimulus dollars where productivity is low seems to be an appropriate strategy for picking low-hanging fruit.

· Localization. This past week on NPR’s Morning Edition, Christopher Joyce talked to a University of Massachusetts economist Robert Pollin, whose calculations show that the stimulus could infuse the US with about 2 million new jobs. But Pollin goes on to say that where people are put to work really matters. For example, he told Joyce that $1 million spent on making buildings more energy-efficient employs many more Americans than the same amount spent on oil and gas exploration, which requires fewer, but more highly skilled workers.

· Revising the Brundtland notion of sustainability to address the true notion of need. To put it starkly, we don’t need more roads and shopping centers, we need approaches to our culture that address the overall health of our communities and our environment. At the risk of sounding sappy and idealistic, our approach should be less of creating value and more of leveraging the embodied values immanent within us all.

My colleagues and I at my own company are admittedly scared by all that is happening around us. Scared at the uncertainty of it all. Scared that things need to change and that the changes won’t be quick enough and fast enough and scared that in the furious pace to do something for chrissake, the real opportunity for retooling the way we think and act and conduct ourselves with one another will be lost. The stimulus package is an invitation to stimulate our thinking of what matters most if only we will take the time to do so.

Bleeding Green in a State of Red

Saturday, February 14th, 2009

Much of the time, my colleagues and I at work feel a bit like a poster child for BSD: Business Schizophrenia Disorder.

We’re often the odd-man out at real estate gatherings promoting a deliberate go-slow approach to business. We’re the token business trotted out to articulate strong conservationist positions, making us seem like environmentalists to the business community and odd business folks to the environmental community.. We think with the head of a financier, act with the heart of a non-profit, and show a balance sheet that seems to swing between the two. We are deep-green in a very red state (Georgia).

That’s all old hat. But with a new progressive administration in Washington and a regressive old-boy network plying its business-as-usual trade stateside, things have suddenly gotten a whole lot stranger.

On the one hand, wow, talk about winds of fresh change blowing onto our shores:

  • A legislative push for drilling off the coast of my hometown for gas and oil, which has been in political overdrive for the last year, is now being slowed down for further study thanks to a new directive this week from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

  • The head of Georgia Tech’s Strategic Energy Institute just announced publicly what all of us locals really knew: Tech’s joint-venture study with Southern Company on the potential for wind energy off the Georgia coast is showing promising results results that up until now have been stymied by Southern Company and the prior administration in Washington.

  • Meanwhile, deepening of the harbor channel of the Savannah River, another pet project of big business in my area, is all of a sudden being studied anew by economists of the Corps of Engineers. That’s good news for conservationists, concerned with the environmental degradation that deepening and dredging are likely to wreak.

On the other hand, it feels as though it’s one step forward, two steps backward. I thought it was bad enough last year during the drought when our state made national news: 1) when our governor held a prayer for rain on the capitol steps and 2) when we began to clamor for redrawing the 190-year old boundary with Tennessee in order to tap into the Tennessee River. Last year was comedy. This year looks more like tragedy-in-the-making:

  • An energy bill heavily lobbied by Georgia Power is motoring its way through the state legislature, calling for all Georgians to pre-pay for additional nuclear facilities that won’t come on line for another 10 years and probably won’t even break even for another 16 years beyond that.

  • Another regressive piece of legislation working its way through the state capitol proposes to weaken significantly the requirement of a 25-foot buffer along our surface waters.

  • Our state Senate this week passed a resolution calling on the Federal government to build reservoirs on Chattahoochee National Forest land.

I used to think it sad that our state government is mandated to meet a maximum of 40 days a year. I’m beginning to wonder if it’s a blessing.

So what’s a business suffering from BSD to do with all of this? There are a few prominent business people in my state, well-known and respected in the environmental community, who have decided to focus on facilitating change at the national level. With the political clout of Southern Company and a Republican administration, might as well write off our state, seems to be the sentiment of these business leaders. I can understand that.

And there are other, equally respected progressive business folks who have simply decided to hunker down and try to survive in this down economy. We’d like to be more engaged in environmental issues, but right now we’ve got more basic things to focus on, is the tenor of these business leaders. I can understand that as well.

At the end of the day, though, I don’t think our business (or any business for that matter) can sustain itself for the long term without being thoroughly grounded in its context: the place it conducts business, the people with whom it engages. I’ve got things topsy-turvy by calling our business schizophrenic. It’s precisely by wearing a variety of hats and playing a variety of roles and being engaged in one’s own community that a business is fully integrated into the fabric of society.

Fortunately, I have a local role model right in front of me.

This past week, the Chatham Environmental Forum celebrated its 20th anniversary. The Forum is a rather unique coalition of business people, government officials, and environmental groups coming together to broach professional and ideological differences in order to enhance the quality of life for the region. It is currently putting the finishing touches on a year-long set of proposals to make our county the greenest county in the state. Hard to say who’s green or red or blue, democrat or republican, capitalist or environmentalist amidst this collaborative ensemble. And that’s a good thing.

Love & Schadenfreude

Saturday, February 7th, 2009

For a long time, my home town of Savannah, GA suffered from a type of petty jealousy, a malicious enjoyment in the misfortune of others. We called it the “blue-crab phenomenon.” Maybe you know it by another name.

We used to go crabbing as kids along the coastal tidewater, pulling in crabs with a clothesline attached to chicken-neck bait, netting them, and tossing ‘em into a big wooden-slatted peach bushel basket on the dock. Most of the crabs just stayed put. But there were always an entrepreneurial few that tried to crawl up the sides of the peach basked toward freedom, before being pulled down by the others below. Somehow, that metaphor aptly captured life in my hometown, as the few who tried to innovate and create something new for the community were stymied by others more settled in their ways.

Over the last decade or so, I think our community has managed to transcend some of the inherent petty jealousies that have inhibited progressive thinking. That’s not to say that we don’t have our problems. We do, with something like 27% of the population without basic health insurance and living below the poverty line, with much of the white population educating its kids in private, parochial schools. But our community is beginning to find this golden mean between newcomers and old-time residents, between an older economy based on manufacturing and tourism and a nascent economy focused on knowledge-based businesses. Just recently, in fact, I fielded a call by a journalist from Georgia Trend magazine, researching a story about Savannah becoming a leading light and model for sustainability.

I don’t know about that (as Forest Gump once notably said, in a movie filmed in my home town). But I do feel that there is a growing sense of shared purpose in my community, one being echoed around the country. As a nation, with our backs against the wall both environmentally and economically, there’s a strong push to accentuate the positives of all sectors of society to chart a different, viable, sustainable path forward.

And so, as I read the Buffalo Beast’s recent post of “The 50 Most Loathsome People in America,” while some part of me rails inside at the folks on this list, I wonder, to what end?. And as I look at a recent survey of business, showing both an unprecedented lack of confidence of Americans in our CEOs and a lack of confidence of CEOs in business itself, I try to balance the absolute deservedness of this assessment with a sense that somehow we need to learn and get beyond this. Same goes for all the focus of attention on the revolving doors between government and corporate lobbying, recently captured in Michael Winship article in Truthout ( It sucks, it’s wrong, it needs to be fixed, we’ve got bigger issues we need to get right.

Call me naïve, but it seems to me that the sustainable path forward calls for a paradigm shift toward a magical synthesis of parts, built for the long term. With that in mind, it’s worth invoking two of my favorite big-systems thinkers: Donella Meadows and Bill Russell. Meadows of course is well known for her prescription for paradigm change: “You don't waste time with reactionaries; rather you work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded.” I’d like to think that there is indeed just such a vast middle ground out there open to shaping a whole new order. And Bill Russell, legendary center of the Boston Celtics? Here’s what he has to say::

“Every so often, a Celtics game would heat up so that it became more than a physical or even mental game and would be magical. The feeling is difficult to describe, and I certainly never talked about it when I was playing. When it happened I could feel my play rise to a new level . . . It would surround not only me and the other Celtics but also the players on the other team and even the referees.” (see Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline, p. 217).

The magical flow comes when all parts cohere. The question, then, is how to reach that next level of play by involving not only other players, the competition, and the referee, but also other teams in the league, the sponsors, and the viewing audience ostensibly sitting idly on the sidelines.

Love and Schadenfreude: “Something that can make you do wrong, make you do right.”

I'll Have What They're Having

Friday, February 6th, 2009

OK, I’ll admit it: I have a streak of local jingoism in me. There are times when I’ll crow to anyone who’ll listen that, believe it or not, there’s a lot of cutting-edge sustainable thinking going on in my neck of the woods. But this week took the cake.

Georgia Senate Bill 31 (SB 31) has made it out of committee and is being pushed for a Senate vote imminently. It’s a doozy. For starters, the bill ─ which is all about the funding for additional nuclear capacity at Plant Vogtle ─ does a nifty end-run around democracy, calling for a state law that would enable capital projects such as this to sidestep decades-long oversight by the Public Service Commission. In addition, the bill calls for all Georgians to pay for the darn thing now, through $1.6 billion in additional taxes, almost 10 years ahead of when the project is projected to be completed.

Can I have some of what Georgia Power is having?

As a business person, I would love nothing better than to have my customers pre-pay for my products 10 years ahead of when I have to deliver them. Talk about free use of money. I thought the federal bailout of the banks after the fact of fiduciary irresponsibility was controversial enough. But this is taking corporate lobbyist sleight-of-hand to a new level entirely.

And as a business person, if I were running a publicly-regulated company such as Georgia Power, how sweet if I could figure out a way just to go around the whole awkward democracy thing and just get the legislature to green-light funding for my project.

And as a business person, if I were running a company with public shareholders, how cool would it be if I could force a whole market to invest in my wares without even giving them the say-so of their own purse strings. Such would be the result of such a bill, by compelling current ratepayers to invest in energy they may never see on a project that is not even expected to break even for at least 16 years. How would you like to be forced into such an investment? Probably not much. But as a business person, that’s an offer I just simply couldn’t refuse.

But perhaps the most brilliant bit of all is that this bill distracts attention from where things really matter: public consideration of ways to create better efficiencies with current energy systems and investment in alternative energy solutions. But hey, gotta love that razzle-dazzle.

One of my most favorite business book is called All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, . by Robert Fulghum. I went back to my dog-eared copy recently to re-check. Hope. Not there. Didn’t think so. Nowhere could I find as part of my kindergarten rules the lesson that “Rules are made to be broken.” Nor could I find the statement, made famous in George Orwell’s Animal Farm: “All men are created equal. Some are created more equal than others.”