Kendra Pierre-Louis is a Justmeans staff writer with an interest in creating healthier, more sustainable society. She's particularly interested in the intersection of business, sustainability and economics. How can we structure an economic system that allows business to behave better? She has a M.A. in Sustainable Development from the SIT Graduate Institute and a B.A. in Economics from Cornell Uni...
Thanksgiving and The Story of Sustainable Development
Here in the United States it is Thanksgiving weekend. Thanksgiving, as currently celebrated, is a holiday that some might argue is the exact opposite of sustainable development. For those of you who are not North American and are unaware of this holiday, it is an annual testament to gastronomical gluttony featuring such culinary excellence as deep fried turkey, jellied cranberry sauce, pumpkin and sweet potato pies, and my personal favorite the turducken: a turkey stuffed with a chicken stuffed with a duck, with each form of fowl girded with it's own layer of sausage or oyster infused stuffing. Lest you think that Thanksgiving is solely about gluttony, there is also a televised parade, lots of football, and at midnight the start of the holiday shopping season with "door buster" sales and "early bird specials" to entice us to further consume, consume, consume.
Officially, Thanksgiving is a time to give thanks. It is a nod to our nation's Pilgrim ancestors who after a year of struggle, strife, and near starvation made it through with a little (or a lot) of help from their Native American (or First Nation) friends (acquaintances, enemies) to celebrate a bountiful fall harvest. That the truth of this story is a great deal less rosy, not least because it's tempered by the beginning of a genocide doesn't matter for the purposes of our holiday. Each year when Americans, old and new, sit down to their Thanksgiving turkey (or turducken, or goose), we are in essence enacting a piece of this myth or story of Thanksgiving.
We aren't however, just enacting it - we are giving it weight not just in a historical sense but also in a way that guides our future actions. By reaffirming this very linear and inaccurate telling of American history, we not only obliterate the past but we create a compelling environment for a xenophobic narrative which spews ideas such as "Americans for Americans" and narrowly defines what it is to be American to a specific race, creed and ideology.
This idea, that our day to day lives are guided not only by our actions but also by the stories that we use to explain our actions and our desires is a bedrock of anthropology - and of development. The neoclassical economic model, perhaps most clearly popularized in the works of author Ayn Rand, have lead most of us to believe, -whether we've read Rand or not - that government is best when it's not too big, that corporations are synonymous with capitalism , that corporations have the same rights as people, and that growing the economy will solve most, if not all, of our social issues. It also means that when market failures occur - such as in our current economic crisis which has created systemic unemployment rates of over 9% which will endure for at least two more years - we tend to think the problem stems from not allowing the market to properly operate. That the way we've structured - and chosen to include - in the market may very well be the problem, escapes most of us, because this is not part of our story of how the world works. Yet as this 2008 dialogue between former Fed Chair Greenspan and Representative Waxman during congressional hearings to get to the root of the financial crisis illustrates, perhaps the market isn't the problem - perhaps our story is.
REP. HENRY WAXMAN: The question I have for you is, you had an ideology, you had a belief that free, competitive -- and this is your statement -- "I do have an ideology. My judgment is that free, competitive markets are by far the unrivaled way to organize economies. We've tried regulation. None meaningfully worked." That was your quote.
You had the authority to prevent irresponsible lending practices that led to the subprime mortgage crisis. You were advised to do so by many others. And now our whole economy is paying its price.
Do you feel that your ideology pushed you to make decisions that you wish you had not made?
ALAN GREENSPAN: Well, remember that what an ideology is, is a conceptual framework with the way people deal with reality. Everyone has one. You have to -- to exist, you need an ideology. The question is whether it is accurate or not.
And what I'm saying to you is, yes, I found a flaw. I don't know how significant or permanent it is, but I've been very distressed by that fact.
REP. HENRY WAXMAN: You found a flaw in the reality...
ALAN GREENSPAN: Flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works, so to speak.
REP. HENRY WAXMAN: In other words, you found that your view of the world, your ideology, was not right, it was not working? (emphasis my own)
To reiterate, our current patterns of un-sustainable development emerge as much from a pattern of thought as they do a pattern of behavior. If we want to move towards true sustainable development we have to reframe how we think about the world - we have to change our story.
This is what the small nation of Bhutan did when in addition to charting it's gross domestic product it also choose to chart it's gross national happiness. What, after all, is the point of riches if they don't make us happy?
The business retailer Patagonia is taking a similar tactic. This week it unveiled that sometime in the next year, it will have the ability to recycle every article of clothing that it manufacturers. More tellingly, it strives to live up to the sustainability motto it once plastered on organic cotton tee shirts. Patagonia is doing its best to use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without - and to get its customers to follow suit. Launching in 2011, Patagonia's Common Threads Initiative will, to paraphrase their own website, reduce the quantity of clothing items their consumers will need to buy by using quality materials solidly constructed. Repair garment failures such as failed zippers in garments that otherwise have a lot of life in them. Reuse items by facilitating a way for consumers to sell, trade, or donate an item they no longer have need for, and then finally, if all else fails, recycle.
That's correct - Patagonia has unveiled a business model that is predicated, at least in part, on getting its consumers to buy less and to repair what they have.
In a culture of planned obsolescence this is pattern breaking behavior.
Patagonia, you see, is enacting it's own story - one that says it can work to be environmentally friendly, encourage it's consumers to actually purchase only what they need an nothing more, and still remain in business.
If that isn't a story of sustainable development, then what is?