December 2009 Archives

Till 2010

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It’s hard to believe, but I have been blogging for over a year. I’m still learning the rhythm and the pace. This has been both an easy and difficult year. It’s been easy to find targets for criticism, irony, or satire. It’s been much harder to find positive trends and events.

My Internet feed readers were overwhelmed everyday with incessant ballyhoo about the potential profits to made in “sustainability” In earlier days, “plastics” was the road to riches. At least it propelled Dustin Hoffman to stardom in The Graduate. The year-end summary of the 20 most read (green business) stories in Greenbiz is almost laughable. Joel Makower who publishes the mag seems to understand the irony of what he puts out on the web. Business, writ large, tries everyday to be the solution to the problems it creates. Einstein long ago recognized the impossibility of solving problems with the same thinking and practices that created them.

Business, resting on an economic model that also is part of the problem, has deluded itself with the invention of magical sustainability indices, greener products, CSR reports that forget what Adam Smith taught about the purpose of economic structures, and other ephemera. I don’t have an immediate alternative to offer so I should be tempered in my criticism, but it is excruciating to sit daily and read the hype and misbegotten efforts out there. It is hard and paradoxical to ask business to undo the very foundations that hold up this key institution and replace them with something that, virtually certainly, would require the corporate world to completely re-invent itself. Government leaders don’t want to recognize the current reality of the natural and socio-economic world. As long as corporate power rules, governments are likely to be conservative, unwilling to shake things up as they must be to find sustainability.

The much heralded H[C]openhagen negotiations ended with a whimper. I have avoided commenting on the happenings around climate change for a couple of reasons. I know little about the realpolitik driving the myriad of interests and power groups. I do understand the science, unfortunately, because the awareness mostly makes me sad, apprehensive, and occasionally angry. Sad because the contrary arguments are not worthy of a high senior who has finished an elementary physics, and disappointed that those that abuse the science are hiding away their real positions. There is no alternative to increased temperature as a result of all the ultra-violet absorbing gases we are spewing into the atmosphere. To deny this would be the same as to argue that the law of gravity allows apples to fall upwards.

What we don’t know is how fast the change will come and how its effects will be distributed over the surface of the globe. We know that there will be winners (only in a narrow economic sense) and losers. We even know who will be the first to suffer. Rather than face up and take action now to reduce the flow of these gases, we have collectively and globally put our eggs almost entirely in the basket of new technology and energy efficiency. There are other precautions we can and should be taking. Given that it is the global system that is threatened, not some artificial sovereign nation state, arguing over past and future [national] contributions to the global commons is folly. The shame of it is that most national leaders must know this at heart. Strategists advising government leaders almost certainly have invoked game theory and cost benefit as a basis for deciding action. Their models don’t pay much heed to the likely outcome of inaction—a lose-lose result, always the worst possible outcome.

One positive sign is that the educational system has started to wake up to the challenge of producing the actors and thinkers who will have to cope with these problems on their watch, since we have done little but forward them. Much of the traffic on my blog comes from educators who are introducing new ideas about what sustainability is and what really must be done to attain it. I have just started to teach in a small new MBA in managing sustainability program at Marlboro College in Vermont. It is one of a still very small number of such programs. The students here and at the other programs are concerned, committed, and capable of transforming business at the bottom. The numbers are still small, but this kind of program has nowhere to go but up. They understand that sustainability requires more than greening the campus and building LEED Platinum buildings.

Universities are still living in the same unreality as businesses, thinking that doing less harm will take care of the future. They have different institutional barriers to leap over than does business, but they have to start thinking fundamental change, not incremental action. The whole structure and pedagogy of universities is predicated on a model of knowledge that does not fit the world as we have come to understand it. Until sustainability forces major changes in the curriculum, pedagogy, research agendas, and organizational structure, little will happen. Reductionism, the technique that has created the thousands (yes, thousands) of disciplines that populate university campuses and the methods by which we analyze problems and design solutions, doesn’t map well onto the real world, especially for problems like global warming, terrorism, and pervasive hunger.

I have been a part of a new and evolving network of researchers and others gathering under the rubric of sustainable consumption. Although I think the name itself is somewhat oxymoronic, the group is onto the right path, digging deep into the forces and drivers that have produced an economy based on consumption of largely commodified goods and services. Through this connection and some of my own research, I have discovered small experiments with alternate economic structures aimed at what Fritz Schumacher, in Small is Beautiful, called Buddhist Economics—”… to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption.” None have reached or seem to be closing in on a tipping point, but they are sticking around and slowly gathering adherents.

I am aware of the shortcomings of my efforts over the past few years. It is much easier to criticize and carp than it is to offer constructive thoughts. It is not for lack of trying. I have no illusions of owning the answers. My basic way of thinking these days is through the lens of complexity. There is no a priori right answer in complex systems. The solutions to our common problems will have to come from our common efforts towards solving them. In his book, Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken has alerted us to the power of a myriad of small grass root organizations. Eventually their ideas and new practices will wash upwards and be adopted by the more powerful and entrenched elements of cultures everywhere. And on that note, Happy New Year.

A Toast to Sustainability

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Here’s to Old Year past, with all its doom and gloom.

Let’s sweep out its remnants with a brand new broom

And bury old troubles in a tightly sealed tomb.

The new days of 2010 have begun to loom

As they begin to fly from Future’s womb

With a resounding swish and echoing vroom.


It helps little to look back in anger, and fume,

But complacency and denial lurks in my room.

Even as I’ve avoided the swine flu’s rheum,

I worry about the next coal-fired smoke plume,

And all that needless junk we rush to consume.


I wonder if the progressive ideas of Hume

Can still guide us, as a prescient groom?

Should we bet on all those experts to whom

We‘ve left our tomorrows? No, I presume

It’s better to let a thousand flowers bloom,

And hope our blue planet doesn’t go kaboom.

Season Greetings

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I’ll be taking a few days off to visit family in Maine and to give my faithful readers a break as well. It’s difficult to leave with an upbeat message with hopes for real progress on the sustainability front scattered to the winds in Copenhagen. I have tried to find something to cheer about, but even those who have reached far to find something positive are not convincing. Tom Friedman’s column today was a great example of good and bad news. The bad news was that Copenhagen “was a bust.” The good news is that the Danes have been able to create a sensible energy economy, based largely on raising taxes on energy. Friedman was impressed.

As I listened to Denmark’s minister of economic and business affairs describe how her country used higher energy taxes to stimulate innovation in green power and then recycled the tax revenues back to Danish industry and consumers to make it easier for them to make and buy the new clean technologies, it all sounded so, well, intelligent.

He then points out the political impossibility of raising the gasoline tax even by a few cents, and asks:

How long are we Americans going to go on thinking that we can thrive in the 21st century when doing the optimal things — whether for energy, health care, education or the deficit — are “off the table.” They’ve been banished by an ad hoc coalition of lobbyists loaded with money, loud-mouth talk-show hosts who will flame anyone who crosses them, political consultants who warn that asking Americans to do anything important but hard makes one unelectable and a citizenry that doesn’t even ask for optimal anymore because it believes that optimal is impossible.

The larger point here is not about lobbyists and loud-mouth talk show hosts or even about energy policy. It is that we have come to live in a make believe land. I have gotten further into Empire of Illusion (the book I mentioned yesterday), finishing chapters on the illusion of wisdom and of happiness. It’s all pretty depressing. Hedges, the author, has picked a handful of themes central to what most would call a good life or to what I call elements of sustainability. Awareness of the world around us seen through a critical lens that filters out all the bullshit, artifice, self-delusion, and wishful thinking is absolutely to sustainability. American exceptionalism has become a caricature. Climate change should awaken us to the fact that we are only one group of people on a finite planet we share with some six billion others and can no longer call the shots as we see fit.

Our moral basis for that exceptionalism has a hollow ring when we ignore the realities of global warming or plan to send tens of thousands of soldiers to secure “freedom” in a land we know is corrupt. Is our Congress any less corrupt? We are going heat up the planet. There is no question about that. It is just as sure as we know that an apple will fall from the tree, but we don’t know when, how much, and where. What to do about it is a truly daunting challenge, but to deny or ignore the consequences of inaction other than again seeking technical BandAids is unrealistic at best and immoral at worst. Using children to support our needs failed the morality test generations ago (although we still condone it de facto today). Inaction on climate change and on many of the other unsustainable ills out there today is little more than punting and leaving the mess we create to the next generations.

Sustainability is at heart the possibility of creating flourishing day by day and year by year. Flourishing or any other equivalent name one gives to what we would call the good or meaningful life, has to be deliberately produced within the real world we inhabit. It’s tough enough to cope with that world even when we come to understand it without wearing blinders or rose-colored glasses, but it is impossible when we fool our selves all the time. Hunger is hunger. Illness is illness. Addiction is addiction. The only genuinely sustainable source of energy is sunlight. How can the failure to price fossil energy at somewhere near its real cost be anything but illusion? We need to ask this kind of question everywhere and everyday as our world moves closer and closer to resemble Disneyworld or some other theme park. We are already intoxicated by the latest technological wonders, social media, the internet, and the knowledge economy. It will take more than a handful of the usual annual resolutions to wake up to reality.

Any way, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year (or is this only an illusion)?

[Un]social Media

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One of my colleagues in the change community sent me a link to a video, extolling the explosion in social media activities. The rapidity of adoption is truly astronomical, but growth doesn’t necessarily mean improvement. Numbers are always a diminished indicator of the consequences of whatever has been growing. Growing GDP does not mean higher quality of life, and now appears to be causing just the opposite, as the social and natural structures that create that growth are being strained beyond their capacity to recover from inevitable stresses on the system. I am concerned we will come to realize a similar danger as social networks replace more tradition ways of interacting.

One of the statistics on the video is that Ashton Kutcher and Ellen DeGeneres have more followers on Twitter than the population of Ireland. Other than providing evidence of our addiction to celebrity, this number means absolutely nothing. Much of the data on the video told of vast amounts of information becoming accessible. “We will no longer have to find news; it will find us.” Its next bit replaces “news” with “products” that will seek us out. While the video is anonymous, it clearly was trying to impress and attract advertisers. The basic message is that more information is going to make life better. I do not agree.

The idea that more information makes life better rests on the assumption that we make our decisions based on information feeding some rational calculus. Certainly we do this at times, but not all the time, and rarely, if ever, when we act within a relationship. The important experiences in life are those which serve the cares we have: cares for our bodies, cares for others, and cares for the world. Care here means that we act with some intention to produce outcomes that have meaning for us beyond the mere acquiring of something. Social media are measured by connections between people and information. Connecting only creates a channel for conversation. Information channels are lifeless, what matters is what we do with the information.

Meaningful relationships allow us to act without coercion or domination. This does not mean that all patties have to be equal in some sort of power, but that we act consensually. Jurgen Habermas, an eminent German social theorist, has developed a model for such consensual behavior. He calls it communicative action as opposes to strategic action which is more like a game with winners and losers. Action, which is the essential core of relationships, follows from conversations, explicit or tacit between actors in which they assess the intentions of the parties. Action is always necessary to create a future which is satisfying to all involved.

Habermas says that we may enter into consensual acts with others if the following claims are established as valid:

  1. I understand what has been said.
  2. I accept as true whatever the other party claims as reasons for acting.
  3. I accept that the other is being truthful and can follow through.
  4. I accept that the other party desires to act out of a legitimate care for me. For example I do what a doctor tells me because his role as prescriber is the reason I went to see her. With the mechanization of medicine, this claim is getting fuzzier and fuzzier.

Context free information, by far the bulk of that being transmitted via social media, does not provide proper inputs to establish these claims. The video I watched claims that 1 out of 8 marriages came after an introduction on the Internet. There’s little argument that Internet dating may be less burdensome than bar-hopping or placing personal ads in the local newspaper, but that does not mean it will produce more satisfying relationships. Anyway, who says that creating, perhaps, the most important relationship in one’s life should be easy. Finding a partner should not, I believe, use the same process as buying a book on Amazon.

The ability to create communicative action has become increasingly eroded as interactions of all kinds, like health care, become commodified. Social networks are destined to be major contributors to the commodification process. They produce the illusion of relationship, not relationship. There is little Being possible in a world of illusion. I’m a couple of chapters into Chris Hedges book, Empire of Illusion, and getting more anxious as I go. The title is quite revealing. I have finished two chapters, The first exposes the centrality of celebrity culture and how it has invaded the public space of politics and other important social spaces. The second discusses the growth of pornography (mainly via the Internet) and how it creates the illusion of love. I’ve just started the next chapter on the illusion of education. More on this as I continue to read the book. It’s not calming bedtime reading.

Learning from the Past

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Atul Gawande has a fascinating piece in the New Yorker with an unusual argument on how to do health reform. I see the piece as also an insightful window on any of our “big” problems, like climate change, or even sustainability. He argues, against all the talk coming out of Washington, that the present messy Senate bill is built on a sound and successful precedent, although not deliberately or maybe even without any sense of the past. His reference is the history of reforms to our (and other) agricultural systems.

His central message is

So what does the reform package do about it? Turn to page 621 of the Senate version, the section entitled “Transforming the Health Care Delivery System,” and start reading. Does the bill end medicine’s destructive piecemeal payment system? Does it replace paying for quantity with paying for quality? Does it institute nationwide structural changes that curb costs and raise quality? It does not. Instead, what it offers is … pilot programs.

This has provided a soft target for critics… Where we crave sweeping transformation, however, all the current bill offers is those pilot programs, a battery of small-scale experiments. The strategy seems hopelessly inadequate to solve a problem of this magnitude. And yet—here’s the interesting thing—history suggests otherwise.

Gawande then leads us through a detailed history of how the United States dealt with a somehat similar situation starting around 1900—an agricultural system that was acting as a drag on the whole economy. Food prices were very high relative to family budgets, consuming about 40% of income. Even present health costs haven’t gotten that high, except for a few families. Other structural problems, like extremely low labor productivity, differ in specifics from those affecting today’s health system. One set of possibilities ran headlong into another, just as in today’s context.

For many reasons, out of this impasse, small experimental efforts were put into play, eventually ending with, for example, the Department of Agriculture’s extension program that introduced manifold improvements in the way farmers went about their business. Gawande’s point, which I strongly adhere to, is that, in such complex messes, it is folly to expect that the solutions that emerge from political and academic expertise will produce the results that their proponents claim. The more prudent approach is to try small experiments: keeping and improving the successful pieces, dropping the failures along the way, until the system begins to perform as desired. Complexity demands that we pay lots of attention to local knowledge, that is, knowledge coming from practice, rather than from theory. Such was also the theme of the New Deal designers and practitioners.

The Senate bill, Gawande points out, is crammed full of just such “experiments.” These do not and cannot provide the certainty about the future that gives politicians safe harbors. The same is true for climate change and sustainability in general. The problems arise out of a faulty system with many of its components malfunctioning and out of synch with others. Prudence and an understanding of such complex systems warns against a hubristic set of solutions, based on what our models and experts tell us will happen when we apply bandages or replace organs here and there. He sees the bill as promising because it, by and large, avoids a narrow framing philosophy. Obama let the Congress muddle through rather than present them with a more narrowly constructed program as did Clinton. It’s time, however, to move along, get a new set of experiments going, stop the political haranguing, and give those that play in the field the opportunity to create the system we want and need. He ends with:

Getting our medical communities, town by town, to improve care and control costs isn’t a task that we’ve asked government to take on before. But we have no choice. At this point, we can’t afford any illusions: the system won’t fix itself, and there’s no piece of legislation that will have all the answers, either. The task will require dedicated and talented people in government agencies and in communities who recognize that the country’s future depends on their sidestepping the ideological battles, encouraging local change, and following the results. But if we’re willing to accept an arduous, messy, and continuous process we can come to grips with a problem even of this immensity. We’ve done it before.

(Photo credit to: ©Tom Weigand, Inc., www.thewinningimage.com)

Strategy and "Collapse"

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Driving home from the weekend at Marlboro College, I started reflecting on the experience. Unlike texting while driving, I can keep my attention on the road while thinking. The last class I attended was a wrap-up of a course on Strategy Synthesis with an emphasis on integrating sustainability. The time was spent debriefing and discussing the experience of the three student projects. One of the questions that ran through all three was, essentially, what is strategic?

Looking at standard business school strategy courses is not terribly helpful in the sustainability context. Most interestingly, the first assignment in this course was to read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Strategy is his framework for winning or, in a less aggressive statement, managing conflict. So is it in business. The goal of a strategy is to capture ground within some competitive sector, most often measured by market share or share price. Sustainability, social responsibility, or environment have been placed into that strategy largely as rear guard actions.

It is increasingly clear in this age of climate change, hyper-consumerism, disappearing jobs, increasing wealth accumulation, and vast global hunger and poverty that there are other wars being waged. The war metaphor has been widely used to raise concerns about great unsatisfied areas of social concern. Business is the largest global institution in financial terms and dominant player in the market now chosen by global policies as the arena where most of these other wars are to be fought. If that is the case, then the strategic implications are monumental. Should and can business fight all these wars at the same time? Even great governments like ours with a much larger system of accountability and focused resources struggles to fight on all the fronts it faces. The biggest question of the day as seen in the media is whether the US can fight real wars, provide health care, and create jobs all at the same time. Each requires a different strategy.

Jared Diamond, an expert in understanding Collapse, the title of his last book, now thinks that business can take on the sustainability war. The headline in a recent column in the NYTimes blares, “Will Big Business Save the Earth?” Diamond answers positively.

There is a widespread view, particularly among environmentalists and liberals, that big businesses are environmentally destructive, greedy, evil and driven by short-term profits. I know — because I used to share that view.

But today I have more nuanced feelings. Over the years I’ve joined the boards of two environmental groups, the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International, serving alongside many business executives.

I think he misses the point. He has been impressed personally by the efforts and intentions of executives of big companies to act more responsively and responsibly to environmental problems. He notes

On each of these [environmental] issues, American businesses are going to play as much or more of a role in our progress as the government. And this isn’t a bad thing, as corporations know they have a lot to gain by establishing environmentally friendly business practices.

But that is not enough by far. Surprisingly for a student of complexity and of the systems nature of “big” problems like the collapse of earlier societal regimes, he ignores the fact that environment is only one of several interlocking pieces in the web that is creating the threat to our present world regime. Companies, governments, families, and individuals historically have been notoriously ineffective when called on to fight simultaneous wars. I am not sure that any existent institution is equipped to lead the battle against unsustainability, but certainly business is not the right one.

In Diamond’s article, Wal-Mart is named along with CocaCola and Chevron as exemplars of this new business warrior. If you think I am overstating my skepticism, just imagine encountering any of these scenes. When you walk into a Wal-Mart, you are always met by a greeter, there to direct you to the aisles with the goods you are looking for. Wal-Mart will only have entered the war against unsustainability when that greeter asks instead, “Is your purchase today necessary?” Or when the little TV screen that now adorns most gasoline pumps suggests that you take the bus or ride your bike instead of filling up with Chevron regular. Or, finally, when the label on one of Coke’s many brands of bottled waters suggests that tap water has the same rehydration power. If you can convince me that any of these are possible, given the dominance of the central strategy of businesses, then I will change my tune and adopt a different strategy for the war others and I are waging for sustainability.

Happy to Be Teaching Again

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This weekend, I’m back at Marlboro College teaching in their MBA in Managing Sustainability Program. It’s the end of the journey for the first cohort to enter the program two years ago. I listened to five of the group present their capstone project reports.One of their cohort is over in Copenhagen and presented her work earlier. Now this is not MIT where I taught for some time before retiring, but the quality of the work was quite on par with many of the Master’s students I worked with while I was there. What I learned in a short time working with this program, and earlier with a similar program at Bainbridge Graduate Institute is that on-line programs can produce outstanding results. Marlboro can and does address sustainability from a critical stance that would produce much discomfort at virtually all standard MBA programs, even those that advertise themselves as aligned with sustainability.

The students’ projects covered a lot of ground, from developing a program for inducing transformational change with sustainability at the core to an enlightened variant of the offsets concept extending it to saving critical habitat. It makes a great deal of difference when the students are motivated by a strong normative sense far beyond the commodified themes at “standard” business schools. I have been more or less an on-looker this trimester, but soon will begin a sequence of linked courses entitled, “Exploring Sustainability.” Not surprisingly, I intend to make the focus of the first course in the sequence on my book and the overall context to sustainability it provides. I will be able over the two-year-long program to expose the students to several contexts for exploring sustainability from the traditional eco-efficiency framework (sustainable development) to the emerging notions of sufficiency (sustainable consumption) and then to a spiritual frame. I am fortunate to have outstanding texts to guide this journey. I am aiming to instill a critical competence so that the students will be able to step back from the noise that accompanies most conversations about sustainability and cut quickly to the chase using the competence they brought into and acquired during the program.

Friday evening, the regularly scheduled evening speaker’s event presented a special program. We were privileged to listen to a most distinguished panel of players from the world of socially responsible investing community lead us through a candid historical narrative and discussion of the challenges they face in moving from their historical roots to address the much more complex issues of sustainability. The questions from the student audience were worth the price of admission (if there had been one). I believe the panel when they complimented the audience for asking the right and hard questions about their “business.” For me there was a bit of deja vu. Towards the end of my time at MIT, a few of my student’s did their theses on this sector. Their work raised many questions about the effectiveness of socially responsible investing, a sector just then really coming into its own and growing exponentially. I learned, last night, how far this financial sector has come, but also, how far they still have to go to match the challenges that sustainability poses to the institutions of business including the investment world. I discovered in the informal talk after the program ended that the participant from Trucost, the firm that prepared the analysis on which the recent Newsweek ranking of the 500 “greenest” firms was based, was quite familiar with the critique I had written on this blog. I had to correct my first post as I learned more about the details of the ranking methodology. It’s always satisfying to find out that people actually do read what I write here.

Remembering the Wizard of Oz

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I have been away for a few days visiting my daughter and family in Arlington, VA. I rarely read the Washington Post, but find it a good read whenever I am there. On last Sunday, I saw an article on the front page that jumped out at me. The headline read, “To really save the planet, stop going green.” Given all the ballyhoo about greening in the business news and environmental media, I thought for a moment that this was some ironic device to catch the readers’ attention.

No, the author, Mike Tidwell, was serious. The gist follows a line I have been writing about for just about ever. Greening as the manufacture and sales of incrementally better products is simply not enough to stem the tide of unsustainability in any form and specifically of climate change. Here’s his lede:

As President Obama heads to Copenhagen next week for global warming talks, there’s one simple step Americans back home can take to help out: Stop “going green.” Just stop it. No more compact fluorescent light bulbs. No more green wedding planning. No more organic toothpicks for holiday hors d’oeuvres.

December should be national Green-Free Month. Instead of continuing our faddish and counterproductive emphasis on small, voluntary actions, we should follow the example of Americans during past moral crises and work toward large-scale change. The country’s last real moral and social revolution was set in motion by the civil rights movement. And in the 1960s, civil rights activists didn’t ask bigoted Southern governors and sheriffs to consider “10 Ways to Go Integrated” at their convenience.

It’s worse than Tidwell thinks. Incrementalism towards sustainability is not just ineffective, it has perverse effects. (See an earlier post for details) People who engage in “green actions” promoted by advertisements and activist campaigns tend to believe that they are really contributing to the solutions of the problems they are concerned about. They then stop looking for the real reasons and for effective solutions. Part of the reason is that these solutions require changes in behavior and in values that they are reluctant to make. Green solutions follow the logic the Wizard of Oz used to satisfy the wishes of the three companions of Dorothy: a diploma for the Scarecrow, a medal for the Lion, and a faux heart medal for the Tin Man. It’s easy to fool one into believing his or her concerns are assuaged.

Tidwell’s argument continues by stating that climate change is not just a scientific problem; it is a moral issue and requires action beyond merely self-interested initiatives. He starts with the presumption (I agree with him.) that climate change is coming and threatens the lives and livelihoods of many people, and follows with a claim that to do nothing more than incremental, virtually meaningless, acts is to ignore the moral implications of inaction. His response is to call for widespread calls from the general public to political leaders demanding legislative actions to stop the increase of atmospheric levels of CO2 at 350 ppm.

I am a skeptic of this approach on the the basis of getting the public to act similarly to the case of civil rights (his example) or of seeing the political system respond to such calls from the public. That’s why I advocate a lower-key attack on the values and beliefs that have gotten us into the present mess. Action on all fronts is essential, in any case. I applaud Tidwell for bringing an important, but not widely held, argument to the front pages of an important newspaper.