A new documentary – and an exchange with now-legendary enviroactivist Bill McKibben – illuminate how we go about
Thursday, July 19, 2012
In the sustainable-business documentary Fixing the Future, which just got its simulcast debut in Monterey Wednesday, host David Brancaccio is asked a heavy question: “Do people exist to serve the economy, or should the economy exist to serve the people?”
The PBS reporter travels all over to find different thought-provoking answers.
“I set out from my hometown and go cross-country to meet people trying to revitalize their communities and bring back jobs,” he says. “I’m looking for ways that you, me, my kids, your kids can have better lives and happier lives without spoiling the planet. Let’s see if Main Street can give Wall Street a run for its money.”
That includes a visit to Bellingham, Wash., where unemployment comes in well below national averages, and a surprisingly inspiring community culture has taken root. Here 600 local businesses – from Lummi Island Wild, a sustainable salmon fishery, and Wood Stone, a high-end pizza oven manufacturer – have formed an alliance called Sustainable Connections. Their mission, according to alliance director Michelle Long, is to return business interactions to a place as natural and respectful as a lasting relationship between two loved ones.
“What we are building is a relationship economy, with the accountability that comes from a relationship with another person,” she says, “as opposed to a one-night-stand economy, where we don’t have the accountability.
“If you think about it, today, we don’t know where our food comes from and what kind of impact it’s had along the way,” Long continues. “We don’t know where our waste goes when we are done with that meal. When you put your money in a mutual fund, you don’t know the impact of the money circulating where it is going. We want to reconnect farmers with eaters, investors with entrepreneurs, and businesses with the communities they serve.”
Later Brancaccio heads to a worker-owned industrial laundry company in Cleveland, Ohio; Yo Mama’s Catering started by a group of young moms in Austin, Texas; a community bank in Fargo, N.D.; and a time bank that swaps services in Portland, Maine. Each are not just profitable, creating jobs, and growing business, but are doing it in a way that provides a better quality of life for all parties involved.
Brancaccio’s easygoing and friendly manner – far from what you’d expect from a reporter who’s spent a career surrounded by stuffed shirts reporting on Wall Street – allows him to jump from one community to the next like he was one of the neighbors asking if there’s any of that apple pie left over from the potluck. As he wipes the crumbs away, he puts what he discovers into an easy-to-understand perspective with the current economy and ways of doing business.
The coordinated screening of Fixing the Future similarly covers the map, appearing in more than 70 cities throughout the U.S. on Wednesday and Thursday, July 18 and 19.
Communities for Sustainable Monterey County sponsored the film with Osio Cinemas in Monterey on July 18. A presentation by CSMC and a prerecorded discussion panel – with Brancaccio plus environmental heavyweights including Majora Carter, a Peabody Award-winning broadcaster and urban revitalization strategist known for her work “greening the ghetto,” and Mike Brady, CEO of Greyston Bakery and social entrepreneur – followed.
The approaches taken by the luminaries in Fixing the Future – such as forming co-ops, local business networks, and reinvesting local money into the local community – are only a sampling of ingenuity put to practice. Like-minded local organizations like CSMC are expanding. There are also similar local groups in Big Sur, Carmel, Carmel Valley, Marina, Monterey, Pacific Grove, Salinas and Seaside. These community collaborations are trying to increase public transportation, create sustainable jobs, extend and protect green spaces, reduce harmful and costly pollution and waste, and implement other changes beneficial to local communities now and for the long haul.
For those who didn’t catch the film in the theater, PBS is airing it for free online at www.pbs.org/now/fixing-the-future.
Another of the Fixing the Future panelists, environmental activist Bill McKibben, wasn’t always compelled to pair action with observation.
He began his career as a journalist for The New Yorker, but once he left the magazine in 1987, his focus turned to environmental writing. In 1989, he published his first book, The End of Nature, which is regarded as the first book about global warming that clued the general public into the massive extent of the problem. He was so stirred by the severity of climate change that he committed his life to solving this crisis and other important environmental issues. Over the years he has become an expert on the subject and written more than a dozen books while becoming one of the world’s leading environmental activists.
He co-founded 350.org, named for 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide (CO2), the level of CO2 in the atmosphere that scientists believe the planet must return to in order to stop the predicted levels of environmental catastrophe. The 350.org team fights for policy change that will help reverse CO2 buildup, and it organized the largest rally of its kind in 2009, when over 5,200 demonstrations were held in 181 countries to demand fixes to global warming that included creative performance art pieces. McKibben has a faculty position as a distinguished scholar at Middlebury College, which now runs the Monterey Institute of International Studies. In advance of the panel this week, the Weekly asked for his thoughts on some very tough issues that must be addressed in order for citizens to prosper now and in the future within a healthy environment and rewarding economy. Here’s what he had to say:
Weekly: How broken is the future and why does it need fixing?
Bill McKibben: We just had the weirdest 10 days in American weather history – massive fires, the earliest fourth-named tropical storm in history, off-the-charts heat and a Midwest looking at Dust Bowl levels of drought. And that’s at the earliest stages of global warming – we’ve barely raised the temperature a degree. Scientists tell us that unless we get off coal, gas and oil fast that one degree will soon be four or five.
As individuals, we seem like such as tiny part of the environment. How is our future tied to it?
Well, we live on this planet, with no real prospect of leaving. So, we’re literally tied to it.
What are some of the biggest problems facing us?
Global warming is far and away the biggest – everything that happens on the planet’s surface, everything that isn’t tectonic or volcanic – stems in some sense from the amount of the sun’s energy we trap in our narrow envelope of atmosphere. That’s why the planet is going haywire.
What are the challenges these days that are prohibiting us from fixing the future?
Above all, the power of the fossil fuel industry. They’re the richest industry the planet has ever seen, and they like things the way they are.
Why is it so hard to do the right thing?
Rich and powerful people want to keep things as they are.
Is fracking an answer to fixing the future?
No – it produces both carbon and methane. Sun and wind are an answer.
Is desalinization an answer to fixing the future?
Not on a globally useful scale.
Monterey and Carmel just enacted plastic bag bans. How is this fixing the future?
A good fix and a small reminder of what we constantly waste.
Americans are enormous consumers – if the rest of the world consumed the way Americans consume, we would need multiple Earths just to provide the natural resources. How can this be?
We pull in resources from all over the globe. There’s no way our planet could maintain all its people at an American level of affluence – there’s not enough metal, or meat – or especially not enough atmosphere – to hold the waste.
Compared to the last few years, has climate change gotten worse?
Yes – it will get more or less steadily worse as long as we pour carbon into the atmosphere.
Are we more certain than ever that humans are responsible for the current rate of climate change?
The scientific community has been certain since the mid-1990s.
What is the main reason why people find it so unbelievable that climate change can be caused by humans?
A massive disinformation campaign funded by the fossil fuel industry.
Why do you think so little progress has been made by the government?
Because the fossil fuel industry is more powerful.
The world has gotten complicated in terms of the chemicals and procedures used in manufacturing. It is impossible for an individual to know everything that is a potential threat. Is self-regulation the answer?
Putting a price on carbon is the answer. If we do, then the fossil fuel industry will turn into the energy industry and we’ll have solar, wind, etc., quickly.
It seems that big corporations get all the breaks. Why aren’t federal, state, and local governments doing more to reward local businesses, especially since local business seem to be where more job creation is happening?
Because big corporations are the ones who make large campaign donations and lobbying expenditures.
Why does it seem that those opposed to fixing the future always say it is bad for jobs?
Because they have no real arguments.
What is greenwashing?
When companies pretend they’re fixing the problem with small gestures. The more penguins in an ad for an oil company, the more damage it’s doing.
Is it fair to make profits or fix problems in this country by shipping them overseas to people who aren’t afforded the same environmental, health and safety protections?
Nope. But there are plenty of countries that have much better protections, and they often have better economies, too – Germany, for instance, which one day last month generated half its power from solar panels.
Business leaders all talk about competition and keeping on top of the market. It seems to be a double standard, though. Businesses often say they can’t compete while fixing the future. Doesn’t regulation level the playing field?
It seems the overwhelming reality of our business culture is that what’s good in the short term is all that matters. How can the future be fixed if this is the dominant way of thinking and behaving?
Changing pricing. If we internalize externalities, we’ll get somewhere.
Corporations have been granted rights as individual citizens. Is this a problem?
Yes, a huge one. Because they can continue to set the ground rules.
We have a consumerist society. How does this square with a sustainable society?
I worry less about individual behavior than I used to. If we fix the underlying economic rules, people will change behavior fairly fast.
What is a good starting point for getting involved to make some kind of positive change?
Joining up to build the political movements large enough to make a difference; 350.org is a good place to start.
What’s the most important thing that as individuals we should try to fix?
Our own apathy. Time to get your political muscles working again.