Why Earth Day?

April 27, 2001

By Michael Jessen

Thirty-one years after the first Earth Day, why are we still dedicating April 22 to the planet we call home? By now we should have forgotten all about how to be green. After 31 years, green should be second nature, the accepted everyday way we do things.

Why is it so hard for us to start using compact fluorescent light bulbs and energy efficient appliances? Are we really scared of reducing our electricity bills by over 50 percent?

What keeps us alone in our automobiles instead of utilizing public transportation? Do we harbor a secret hope that global warming will actually improve the miserable Canadian winter?

Why do we continue to prop up an economic system that says we must continually buy more stuff in order to have progress? There really is no guilt to having an empty garbage can on collection day!

Science fiction writer Bruce Sterling may have some of the answers.

"Greens excel at spreading dread and malaise," writes Sterling in the June issue of dwell magazine (www.dwellmag.com). "Alarmism is still what they're best at."

Sterling says being green is not really about the greenness. "Being green is cranky, fringy, and deservedly unpopular, and has never been simply taken for granted as a sensible way to get along," he writes. "The constant grind of all that self-conscious alternative being-ness is a major drag."

Greens are even afraid of victory, he states. "Victory means becoming a green establishment and sacrificing the bohemian romance." According to Sterling, greens "are permanent revolutionaries who would rather starve in a garret than govern."

Well, Bruce, not here in British Columbia, where 72 "green" souls have offered themselves on the May 16th election chopping block.

In a province where being an environmentalist has been the almost exclusive preserve of tree-huggers for the past decade, it's great to see Adriane Carr (Western Canada Wilderness Committee) and Colleen McCrory (Valhalla Wilderness Society) step into the political arena and explain their positions on tax-shifting, health care, education, human rights, arts and culture. The Green Party platform (available online at www.greenparty.bc.ca) even advocates zero waste.

Maybe greens are making some connections. After all, the "environment" is everything around us. Everything really is connected to everything else and garbage is the most concrete connection each individual has to the global environmental crisis.

Garbage is about consumption, labour standards, fair trade, pollution, and even taxes. The fact we choose to bury (low-employment) or burn (health-risking) most of our garbage speaks volumes about our attitudes to the concerns of the unemployed and those who live next door to incinerators. Every time a new landfill or incinerator is built, we delay for at least 20 years the much-needed debate about our consumptive lifestyles.

In a newspaper profile last week, John Ralston Saul (Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson's better half) urged sideline critics to run for political office. That, he maintains, is one of the best ways to put caring into action.

"Reform tends to come when reformers join the democratic process," Saul says. "As long as a good cause remains on the outside, it may actually give comfort to those who oppose it. A cause really only makes ethical, utilitarian and social sense when it and its proponents are integrated into the democratic system."

And what about that powerful force Pope John Paul II calls "corporatism" -- big business. Is there room for anything green -- aside from money -- in their world? Apparently. But not always for the reasons greens might hope for.

According to Carsten Henningsen, chair of Progressive Investment Management, the companies that are embracing environmental sustainability are doing it for a competitive advantage.

"It is not the stick of shareholder resolutions or government regulations," he says. "It is actually a carrot. I find that very exciting because that speaks to the language of a corporation, and how a corporation works in its own best interest."

On the other hand, the New South Wales Chamber of Commerce says Australian companies that refuse to become better corporate citizens are at risk of losing customers and shareholders. The chamber's chief executive Katie Lahey says consumers are increasingly expecting companies to be socially and environmentally responsible. "Businesses are underestimating the importance of corporate social responsibility to their bottom line," she said. More consumers are voting with their wallets and buying products based on companies' social or environmental behaviour.

Meanwhile, a growing body of research is proving the connection between corporate sustainability performance and business success. A report by SustainAbility, a leading UK consultancy and think tank, concluded corporate sustainable development performance has the strongest impact on business brand value and reputation. But it noted such performance also has significant links to other business success dimensions such as shareholder value, operational efficiency, human and intellectual capital, and risk profile.

SustainAbility Chairman John Elkington notes, "Companies recognize society's growing interest in their ethical performance and are beginning to take it seriously. Their biggest challenges now are to address the missing pieces: how sustainable development activities are integrated into and justified as part of their regular business activities; how they are accounting for their activities in and impacts on developing countries; and how they account for impacts right across the supply chain." Sounds like the election of a judicious mix of greens and concerned corporate CEOs could give us ethical government in the Earth's best interest and hasten the implementation of those missing pieces. After election day, one of their first tasks could be the elimination of Earth Day.

ONE SMALL STEP - "Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare" is a Japanese proverb. Make sure whoever you vote for has a vision to put into action. The Earth is depending on your vote.

RESOURCES - SustainAbility's report "Buried Treasure: Uncovering the Business Case for Corporate Sustainability" synthesizes the accumulated evidence on the positive payoff corporations gain when they adopt triple bottom line strategies. It is available online at www.sustainability.co.uk/business-case.

Michael Jessen is the owner of toenail environmental services, a consulting company that helps businesses and communities profit from environmental leadership. He can be reached by telephone at 250/229-5632 or by e-mail at toenail@netidea.com. His firm's award-winning web site is at www.toenail.org/.

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