Meals Are More Than Eating

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Thanksgiving is one of the few holidays that celebrates the family and looks inward instead of honoring a public event or individual. As is now our custom for the last few years, we traveled to DC to be with my daughter and family, and enjoyed a sumptuous holiday dinner with friends. Our two families shared the preparations as we have done for the lat few years. A high point was to her everyone’s thoughts about the occasion. One theme ran through everyone’s comments: thankfulness for being together again.

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The End of Consumerism?? Not Yet

News from the New York Times reporting on the “biggest” shopping day of the year.

A Wal-Mart employee in suburban New York died after he was trampled by a crush of shoppers who tore down the front doors and thronged into the store early Friday morning, turning the annual rite of post-Thanksgiving bargain hunting into a Hobbesian frenzy. . . .

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The End of Consumerism??

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The media abounds with prognostications that the rampant consumerism that has fueled the US and other economies has gone South and will not return for quite a while. Some economists celebrate this turn of events as an opportunity to bring more sense to the market. A senior manager at Morgan Stanley, ironically one of the many firms that have been implicated in ramping up levels of spending by inflating assets and reinforcing the belief that the bubble would never break,. . .

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Missing the Point

Excitement over a finding that more people will buy “greener” presents this holiday season misses the important point. It’s consumption, itself, that is the problem. I found several articles recently that point to more enlightened shopping this year. Here’s an example:

A study of Americans done by the retailer Plow & Hearth, however, shows that some consumers – green consumers – are willing to spend a little more to buy a product that is environmentally friendly. . .

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Plus ça Change, Plus C’est la Même Chose

This old French saying is an elegant way of referring to the shifting-the-burden behavior so common in individuals and organizations. By continuing to follow familiar superficial patterns of action aimed at relieving symptomatic problems, attention is diverted away from the underlying causes, and things continue to show up in the same old ways.

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What Counts Can’t Be Counted

iStock_scales.jpgSustainability is a property of the whole planetary system. It should not be confused with the performance of discrete parts of the system, for example, single firms. That’s why I am careful to define sustainability as flourishing, an emergent property of the whole, complex system, including all forms of life, human and otherwise. And like all such properties, sustainability cannot be reduced to a single or even a set of metrics. To do so is to risk confusing progress in reducing the burden on the world with advances toward flourishing. Worse, better numbers gives the impression that we are doing just fine and can go back to the same habits that brought us unsustainability in the first place.

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Pot Pourri 11/23/2008

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This is the second week for this feature. I will repeat the caveat from the first collection. Sustainability is not a single, tightly constrained idea. So this posting will include items about sustainability, per se; greening; complexity; culture change; and others. Please email me or leave a comment if you have other topics that you think should be included under the broad theme of sustainability. But remember I don’t write about sustainability in the same way as the mainstream media does.

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Sustainable Capitalism or Capitalism for Sustainability?

Today, following the momentous election of yesterday, the WSJ published an op-ed piece by Al Gore and David Blood, identified by their roles in their investment management firm, Generation Investment Management. The last few paragraphs carries the main message.

Sustainability and long-term value creation are closely linked. Business and markets cannot operate in isolation from society or the environment.

Today, the sustainability challenges the planet faces are extraordinary and completely unprecedented. Business and the capital markets are best positioned to address these issues. And there are clearly higher expectations for businesses, and more serious consequences for running afoul of the boundaries of corporate responsibility. We need to return to first principles. We need a more long-term and responsible form of capitalism. We must develop sustainable capitalism.

They are absolutely correct in pointing to the critical linkages between “businesses and markets and society and the environment.” But as long as we start from the fundamental concept of a world apart and separate from us, we are inexorably drawn towards a world-view that ignores the interconnectedness.

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Citizen Renaissance

I just “stumbled!” upon a remarkable website, offering an opportunity to contribute to a book entitled, Citizen Renaissance. The basic idea is that those who are now consumers will become citizens in the future. One of the co-authors, Robert Phillips, is the head of Edelmann, UK, a branch of the world’s largest independent PR firm. I found his short essay, The Rise and Fall of the C Word, compelling. Although his solution to the unsustainable consequences of consumerism is different from mine, it adds another path to follow in the quest toward sustainability.

Here are a few keys pieces from his essay.I encourage all the readers to read it in full. It’s language comes from the world of advertising and communication, but it’s message is clear to any concerned citizen.

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Detroit May Live After All

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Don’t give up yet, GM and Ford. SUV’s may make a come back after all. Americans’ memories are very short and there is nothing like $2.00 gas to make them forget the pain of the last several months and let them return to their addictive habits. Boston Globe columnist Derrick Jackson points to a New York Times headline, “Drivers Take to the Road Again as Gas Prices Fall.”

But our addiction to automobiles, a huge source of greenhouse gases, is just part of the problem of unsustainability. As I write in Sustainability by Design, it is a much deeper addiction driven by cultural beliefs and values buried deep in our collective mindset that threatens the globe. Addiction cannot be overcome simply by taking away the drug, gasoline in this case. Unless something else is put in the place of the addictive substance, the old habits will come back sooner or later.

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