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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Sustaining what? For whom? (A ramble.)
August 10, 2011 - 5:01pm

Yesterday, I got an email from an acquaintance of long standing -- a national leader in the field of sustainability-meets-education. It invited me to join a group " that brings together business and academia professionals to collaborate on what is needed to educate students" about sustainability. So I follow the link, and find myself on a page with a logo for the McGraw-Hill Research Foundation. Seems like a reputable outfit (McGraw-Hill having been around for a bit). Under the "more" tab, I see a list of sustainability-meets-education-related groups and associations. I'm starting to feel comfortable, and wondering whether this is something I want to sign up for. (Being in the sustainability-meets-education realm, you get more opportunities to sign up for things than you ever wanted. Or have time for.)

I look around the home page and find a link for the "Most Sustainable Companies in the World -- 2011 Global 100 List". Sounds like a quick way to find out what business outfits are involved, or at least of interest to the group's organizers. I click on it, and find that the #1 firm listed is Statoil ASA, a Norwegian firm that produces and refines North Sea petroleum.

Now, I know little or Norwegian firms of any ilk, but I've learned a little about the petroleum industry and I have trouble listing any oil company as the most sustainable in the world by any definition of "sustainable" that I use regularly. So I got to thinking -- what definition did the list makers have in mind, does it synch with what the group claims to be about, and what are the implications either way?

As near as I can figure out from the relatively opaque description of methodology, the list is of somebody's top 100 firms likely to be able to sustain profitability for the medium term, based on global economic conditions and strength of management team. A valid approach if what you're interested in sustaining is earnings, and you're interested in sustaining those earnings to protect the interests of large (probably institutional) investors. Not what I had initially imagined, and not something likely to attract most folks in the sustainability-meets-education community.

Some might argue, of course, that sustaining cash flow is a key part of economic sustainability. But my best understanding is that while cash must continue to flow in any future system, it needn't flow in the same quantities as it has of late, and it certainly needn't flow to the same persons (human or corporate). Indeed, since what we've been doing and who's been organizing the doing of it has gotten us to where we are, I'm suspicious of most "top n" lists which seem biased towards the powers that be. The powers that be are organized to obtain maximum value from, and so to perpetuate, the status quo. The powers that be got that way over a period now past, reflect the systems of the past, have no particular interest in promoting radical change. Being big and powerful may not make any outfit inherently part of the problem, but neither is it a recommendation as a natural part of the solution.

Some of this was hammered home to me in a conversation with an aged relative. A faculty widow with significant funds managed by TIAA-CREF, she was fretting that unless the economy gets back on its feet -- meaning the unemployment rate goes down, not just that corporate earnings go up -- she'll take a significant hit in her retirement earnings. I didn't argue the point, but it did come to mind this morning when NPR broadcast an interview with billionaire investor Wilbur Ross. Ross's main point seemed to be that we're not looking at another major recession, but neither are we looking at any smooth or rapid recovery anytime soon. Rather, Ross sees the US economy stumbling along aimlessly for a number of years. One of the reasons is that (in the rephrasing of the host) "corporate America has resized or downsized the necessary workforce and it's just not as large as the workforce population in the United States". Which is certainly true, but hardly a prescription for revitalizing US consumer demand.

But then I got to thinking about a chapter that I'd read in the Post Carbon Reader. Written by the Director of Research at the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, it's hardly an unbiased piece. Still, it's reassuring to know that much (by some estimates, as much as 80%) of beneficial and potentially valuable US activity is local or regional, and that there is good reason to believe that more could be were state and national policies not understandably slanted toward the interests of the powers that be. The powers that pay. The voices of the past. The voices that speak out of one side of their mouths while surreptitiously contributing dollars out of the other.

Which led me to the tentative conclusion that economic localization might not just be more durable, more sustainable, more socially just and environmentally responsible, it might also be quicker to ramp up and more likely to provide decent-paying jobs. And that maybe, just maybe, Wall Street has create an environment in which the seeds of a new (really, a very old) local/regional economic paradigm can take root.


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