Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The Greening

In the spring of 2005, I designed my ideal Mountain Classroom curriculum. I called the term "Beyond Organic." It was an integrated curriculum focused on the industrialization and globalization of the organic lifestyle. Coming on the heels of Bush's second-term victory and Adam Werbach's "Is Environmentalism Dead?" speech, it was a pretty gloomy time that demanded soul searching answers to deep and complex problems. Molly and I asked students to look past simple, accepted environmental solutions, such as buy organic and recycle your pop bottles. We introduced students to "buy local" initiatives that questioned the conventional belief that organics are always the right choice. We asked students to sit in on a debate between a long-time hippie, tofu maker who embraced the corporatization of the natural foods industry and his non-hippie, activist daughter who thought the soul of the movement had been stripped away in quest for profits. We met up with Earth First! tree sitters who espoused eco-sabotage and mainstream environmentalists that thought all protest and other actions should remain above board. At some point during the term, we sat down with Global Exchange's founder Kevin Danaher and ex-Sierra Club president, Adam Werbach. Our meeting just so happened to take place directly after Werbach's luncheon with the number two person at Wal-Mart. Adam couldn't help but notice the contrast. He kicked off the meeting with a bang, simply saying, "I've had the weirdest fucking day!"

In our meeting, as in his speech, Werbach encouraged the students to throw away labels and be open and engaging. He encouraged students to look for solutions by exploiting common interests that corporations and activists share. In that meeting, Werbach noted that many of his friends and fellow activists were upset at him for agreeing to meet with and discuss environmental ideas with Wal-Mart. He even expressed doubts about this himself by way of posing a series of questions and answers, that went something like this:

"If Wal-Mart begins selling organic milk tomorrow, it will automatically become the world's largest seller of organic milk. This is a good thing, but does it make Wal-Mart an environmentally responsible company? Of course not. So how about if Wal-Mart tops all of its roofs with solar panels, which will make it the largest producer of solar electricity in the world? Still, the answer remains, of course not. So what will it take for Wal-Mart to become an environmentally responsible company? Maybe, they simply need a whole new business plan.

At the same time, each of these microscopic Wal-Mart steps is, in actuality, a huge step for the larger business world. So would you rather Wal-Mart not make them?"

As an educator, teaching relevant material on the cutting edge of contemporary issues—where students are forced to debate with real live people doing real live work that matters—was just a dream. And since our meeting, I have also kept abreast of the scope of Wal-Mart's greening. Personally, the whole subject still makes me cringe. Buying organic milk from Wal-Mart is analogous to purchasing McDonald's organic coffee. What? It throws my 1990s environmentalist prejudices out the window, focing me to re-think issues and debates I naively thought had been put out to pasture. But more than anything, this eco-entrepreneurial inventiveness adds to my conviction that the time period we are living in or entering will be unexpectedly radical, and radical in unexpected ways; ways probably closer to the example of Kevin Danaher dressed in a suit and tie infiltrating multinational stockholders meetings (as an actual stockholder) and demanding that the companies put people before profits or the culture jamming activities of The Yes Men, than an Earth First! tree sit.

In closing, I'll use this quote from a recent Yvon Chouinard Fortune Magazine article, that simply adds fuel to the fire:
"The revolution really has started," he says with a slow, curling and just slightly subversive smile. "I'm blown away by Wal-Mart. If Wal-Mart does one-tenth of what they say they're going to do, it will be incredible. And hopefully America will get a government that we need rather than one we deserve, that will put pressure on business to clean up its act. But the most powerful pressure will come from the consumer. Oh, my God, it's going to be really powerful."

I end with this, because, obviously, Werbach saying that evironmentalism is dead does not signal a death knell for the environmental movement, but functions more like Gary Snyder screaming out with his selected book title, "No Nature"! It forces us wash off our fogged-up and pasé cultural lenses—to see reality for what it is. And reality dictates that there is no nature and no culture, and you can't separate environmental issues from social problems from immigration issues from globalization of big business from politics from education. Like taking your cushion, day in and day out, working with interconnectedness takes a lifetime of continuous daily practice. To paraphrase my friend, the novelist Gavin Pate, there is no shortcut on your way to get here.

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