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Wavelength100: We Should Be Angry

As many of us shake off the torpor of the Thanksgiving holiday, the appalling turn of events during that post-stuffing mad dash for stuff known as “Black Friday” will prove more difficult to digest. Black Friday, of course, is a …

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As many of us shake off the torpor of the Thanksgiving holiday, the appalling turn of events during that post-stuffing mad dash for stuff known as “Black Friday” will prove more difficult to digest.

Black Friday, of course, is a marketing invention-turned-cultural ritual that kicks off a season of serious shopping with breathless promotions, can’t-miss deals, and extended hours. Endless column inches are spilled in anticipation of what has become both a national pastime and a crucial bellwether of the health of the retail sector (and thus, the whole economy). Ever year we can look forward (with delight or disgust) to front-page pictures of “middle America” lined up in the wee hours, dozens deep, nose pressed against the glass of the local big box store, poised to rush the towering displays of flat screen TVs and videogames.

This year, the picture was grim—not so much due to dissolving margins, but because bargain hunting became more than a metaphor when a deal-seeking mob trampled a hapless Wal-Mart temp worker to death in Long Island, NY. (One analyst opined that the worker was simply “not prepared” for the violent intensity of Black Friday. Isn’t the real tragedy that so many of us are?

It truly was a black Friday—and what that mob scene (and others like it around the world TK global nature) throws into broad relief is just how inextricably bound together our thrift and our greed are. Black Friday has always been a particularly spendthrifty display of thrift. But the interplay between spending and scrimping (not to mention stimulus), is particularly striking now, as the deep shadow of scarcity darkens the traditional season of abundance. Austerity itself has become a powerful sales pitch. In a holiday ad blitz , De Beers has recast extravagance as an austerity measure. Images of sparkling diamond jewelry are accompanied by the copy:

“Fewer, better things. Our lives are full of things, disposable distractions, stuff you buy but do not cherish, own yet never love. Thrown away in weeks rather than passed down for generations. Perhaps things will be different now. Wiser choices made with greater care.”

It’s no wonder we’re struggling to find a workable balance between the virtues of abstention and the necessities of consumption. At least we can count on the new leader of the free world to expand the definition of civic duty beyond “go shopping.” That’s a start, but it’s going to take a lot more to temper the most powerfully animating drive in American culture: the desire for more. More stuff. More success. More growth. It’s embedded in the DNA of democracy and at the heart of the American Dream: every person gets an equal chance to make it and it’s our responsibility to take it.

The problem, of course, is that more is never enough. That’s what turns subprime mortgages into CDOs and fecund forests into fetid landfill. And that’s why making do with less is just a baby step out of the fix we’re in. It’s time to embrace an entirely new game.

That was the forceful argument made by a pair of leaders I sat down with at Wavelength100. Tim Smit and Reed Paget are both passionate advocates and successful practitioners when it comes to harnessing entrepreneurial drive and innovative energy toward a more sustainable form of success. Neither hesitate to frame the challenges we face in the starkest of terms.

Paget is the founder of Belu, a bottled water company created to raise concern and affect change around the global water crisis—and to provide a compelling new model of purpose-driven profit in the process. Launched in 2004, Belu is on a growth tear, selling some 500,000 bottles a month. Those bottles, by the way, are made of corn (the UK’s first compostable bottle) and the company donates 100% of profits to clean-water initiatives around the world. Belu is also approaching its goal of becoming the world’s first carbon neutral bottled water—and Paget and his colleagues remain outspoken advocates of tap water as the most environmentally friendly source of hydration (the company has extensive tap water filtration projects in the works).

Why start a bottled water company—or any company for that matter—to send a message about the evils of unchecked growth and consumption? Paget, who grew up in the heart of the Pacific Northwest’s abundant natural beauty—and in the shadow of a nuclear power plant and the lumber industry, says “What pushed me into the business world is that, while I’ve always admired the green community, we were still on the outside pointing fingers and begging, ‘Won’t you please clean up your act Mr. Exxon or Mr. McDonald’s?’” His idea: “What if we set up a green business and put them out of business? Business is too important to be left to business people.”

Tim Smit had a similarly outsize ambition: to create the eighth wonder of the world in Cornwall. To take, in his words “the most derelict place we could find and create life in it.” That is exactly what he did with the extravagantly visionary Eden Project, an entirely original hybrid of botanical garden, science center and cultural attraction grown out of a clay pit in one of the poorest regions in England. The grounds feature several enormous biomes filled with the plants of the all the world’s forests. The experience includes emotionally-resonant performances and storytelling designed to communicate our deep connection with nature in a way no science center ever could.

In the last few years, the Eden Project has attracted some 10 million visitors and poured nearly £900 million into the local economy (more than the double the government’s budget for the entire Southwest of England). Eden employs hundreds of people from the local community and sources the majority of its food and goods from Cornish producers.

In the process, Smit has become a powerfully honest voice when it comes to what it takes to create and lead more sustainable businesses and more business-like social enterprises. He says, “I think there’s going to be greater change in our culture in the next five years than at any time in the last 300, 400 years.” As the De Beers advertisement suggests, “things will be different now”—but perhaps a lot more different than is comfortable for anyone hawking diamond stud earrings (or anything else for that matter.)

And that’s exactly the point. We’re confronting change at the cellular level when it comes to how we run our businesses and live our lives. That’s why sobering terms like “financial meltdown,” “recession” and even “depression” seem inadequate to the moment—to its challenges and opportunities.

As Paget says, “We’ve all been sold a dream—that we need things that we don’t need. We’ve reached the ends of the earth, literally. We need to rethink our very concept of consumption on all levels. The biggest culprit is this idea that we can profit endlessly and that the growth of every business must continue like it’s a religion. But it can’t. So the key question is: how can businesses profit by selling less?

Smit’s answer is simple—and bracing. Get angry. Not Facebook cause-angry. But truly, blood-boilingly angry. “We should be angry about the things we don’t like. We should be angry that as a race we abuse the resources around us, that we don’t care for our environment, that we have no proper understanding of what a sustainable future looks like, that commerce is all too often unethical. . . I blame, predominantly, people like me. Men, usually middle-aged men who reach a level in the establishment where they no longer remember to be angry. They forget to say that something is wrong because they want to be accepted. In their hearts they know it’s wrong to cut this down, to pollute this. How can we say we didn’t know? We all knew. We were just craven. Absolutely craven. And we’ve got a chance to redeem ourselves.”

Read Polly’s other blogs from Wavelength100:

Wavelength100: The Power of the Poor and the Purpose of Profit
Wavelength100: Human Organizations for Human Beings
Wavelength100: Higher Aims: From Poverty of Ambition to Audacity of Imagination

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