Published in The Link Environment and Sustainability special issue, 36.14, Nov 23
Good news: we’re saved! The world’s politicians will come together in Paris this month and solve climate change, once and for all. We did it. Good job. Go home, it’s cool.
Are they gone? Okay, here’s the truth. Things aren’t hopeless, but we have serious work ahead. Whatever goes down in Paris, we’re still looking at irreversible losses in biodiversity and natural resources, still watching the sea levels rise, still feeling the temperatures climb.
But, finally, people are doing things. Citizen lobbyists, students, politicians, small-business owners—they are figuring out how to keep our world and our cities running sustainably.
But what does “sustainably” mean?
Ann Morrow is from Montreal’s chapter of the Citizens Climate Lobby, an international group that connects constituents to politicians, giving a platform for environmentally and civically-minded folks to influence policy. She sells sustainability.
“It’s not that old paradigm of infinite growth: expand at all costs,” she says over fair trade coffee. “It’s a system that’s in balance.” Infinite growth and disregard for the consequences are, she argues, what got us into this mess. They took us away from our roots, severed our relationships with our land and our communities, made us see only money as the goal. Money, she says, is not the bottom line.
But balance is the real sustainability keyword—especially in the business community. No company wants to be told it isn’t allowed to grow, that it isn’t allowed to make a profit. Nobody goes into business not wanting to make money.
Take Shannon Cleary—she says the purpose of her handcrafted artisanal soap company, Shakti Things, is to make customers happy. Her business is based on yogic principles and natural ingredients, and she tries to educate customers about their soaps, even when they come in complaining that their all-natural bath bombs leave suds—of course they do, it’s coconut oil, not battery acid. Even she says, “if you can make a profit, that’s obviously the ultimate goal.”
Profit and sustainability aren’t exclusive. They can’t be, if we want businesses to contribute to our greener future.
“It is no longer a question of importance, but rather of necessity,” says Olivia Oudinot, student and executive VP of John Molson School of Business’s Sustainable Enterprise Committee.
She says growth is the foundation of our economies and businesses, but that there are two ways of looking at it. The first is growth as the enemy. The second is growth as a means of finding and testing resources.
“The first perspective isn’t willing to work with businesses to reshape [them] in sustainable ways,” she says. “The second is.”
The second attitude—leveraging business into solutions—isn’t only popular in nascent businesspeople. Laura Boroditsky has worked in the energy engineering sector for decades, and currently owns a company that makes solar charging stations for electric cars, renewz. Actually, renewz has grown so much that it’s spinning off its solar and storage business into a new company that will soon divest—Agere Energy. Growth is a vehicle for her company to be a force for good in the world.
“If I can find a way of taking solar or wind—resources that are still naturally free—nobody’s going to be able to tax it yet, and [I can] turn it into something that can displace a generator,” she says. “That’s a good thing.”
Not everyone agrees that growth is good, or even necessary. Morrow sees growth as a potential distraction from what a company should be about.
“When you’re no longer thinking of things in terms of ‘grow grow grow,’ you’re creating beneficial relationships in the world,” she says. Now it’s important to note that she’s not against expansion, but her emphasis on small, local, grassroots businesses highlights her
aversion to what she feels is unnecessary growth.
Others view growth as a symptom of a larger societal malaise. Alex Tyrrell, leader of Quebec’s Green Party says, “the economy right now is based on people wanting to climb to the top, wanting to have as much money as possible, having as much luxury as possible.”
He says this leads to overconsumption, to wastefulness, to a poor quality of life. He says a lot of the things we need to transition to a more sustainable economy are actually bad for job numbers. His vision is to trim growth down to manageable levels.
“I don’t know why we need to create more power so we can create more stuff,” Boroditsky says, and she literally make a living off making power and making stuff. “We’ve provided growth for ourselves, we haven’t provided growth for that raspberry producer in Chile.”
But Oudinot says that growth shouldn’t mean exploitation or overconsumption—quite the opposite, in fact.
“There is no differentiation between sustainability and business,” she says. “Sustainability looks at profitable stability and growth in the long run.” What this means is if your idea of growth is to mindlessly expand, then you’re killing your own chances for success.
So really, everyone is on the same side here—everyone wants balance. The problem is how we’re supposed to get it. But is that a problem?
Boroditsky says change comes from governments and consumers pressuring companies. Cleary says it comes from ethical companies educating consumers. Tyrrell says it comes from smart governments enforcing laws on companies. Morrow says it comes from communally invigorated citizens lobbying governments. Oudinot says it comes from incorporating different approaches and philosophies.
But here’s the thing: governments are made up of consumers, and so are businesses. There’s interplay—the more voices there are talking about this stuff, the more ideas we’ll have. The more ideas we have, the more likely that one of them will be what we need. It’s here where the ideas will come, not in Paris and not in Ottawa. Here, with all of these people disagreeing on how to agree.
Once we figure out how to figure out what to do about sustainability, we get to move on to the fun questions. Like, how do we as humans on earth not fuck up everything, for everyone, forever?