Our staff is not known for dancing around tough issues. Fortunately, we’ve developed close ties with some of the most progressive business leaders in the building industry. To their credit, they’re willing to challenge themselves and their firms to keep up with the green “revolution.”
Nonetheless, we weren’t sure if our second Sustainability Summit might make even our staunchest mavericks uncomfortable. In the end our thought provoking event, held in the heart of one the most influential corporations on earth seemed to hit its mark.
The summit took place in Central Florida, at the Walt Disney World® Resort. We actually met in Epcot®, beneath the giant geodesic dome known as Spaceship Earth (generously sponsored by Siemens). In attendance were leaders from some of the building industry’s most ecologically progressive companies: top brass from Ingersoll Rand, Boral, Hanwha Solar, Panasonic, Schott, Pella, Armstrong, Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition, Rhino Linings and Resnet—along with several top Disney execs.
“IMAGINEER” to the Rescue
Just prior to the event, we learned that our scheduled keynoter would not be coming. We quickly reorganized the summit, and asked Disney imagineer Craig Duxbury to lead off the day’s presentations.
“Our goals are around inspiring people,” Duxbury explained. “Reputation is a big thing here. Our brand name is very important, for economic reasons, and we want to be seen as a company that cares about the environment.”
To that end, he says, the company, like most corporate giants today, has set benchmarks for its environmental goals, and uses something called “Ecosystem Services” which take into account how human activity impacts and benefits from ecosystems for essential resources such as clean water and healthy food supplies.
This approach is fairly new to the scene. It’s based on some parameters set in 2005, and is still fairly obscure in most corporate circles. It naturally appeals to large corporate entities, however, because it essentially frames environmental issues in the language of corporate capitalism, where various groups of people are considered “stakeholders” and the earth’s natural resources are evaluated “at the intersection” of ecology, technology, society and the economy.
What’s not clear about this new approach, however, is whether it will bring us closer to the “moral,” decision making described by our next speaker, as opposed to simply serving as a complex rationalization for continuing on the current trajectory of business practices.
The Moral View
That speaker, Kathleen Dean Moore, recently edited a book titled “Moral Ground,” where she allowed many deep thinkers from around the world to sound off on whether human beings need to take a moral position with regard to conserving and restoring the natural world.
Moore, a distinguished professor of philosophy at Oregon State University, began her talk by establishing three questions: What is the world? What is the role of humans in the world? How shall we live?
Moore asserts that the world view of most of the planet is changing, because it must.
“There’s an Old World view that the the world derives its value from its use to us, its service to us, but as Daniel Quinn explains, it’s as if we have been building a penthouse in a tall building using bricks from the foundation. One day soon it’s going to fall.”
The challenge, she says, is to react with honesty and empathy to what’s going on in the world—and recognize the shortcomings of science.
“Science can tell us what the emergencies are,” she explains, “but only our moral convictions tell us why we must save the earth. We have an affirmative moral responsibility.”
Moore noted that in all of her work on the topic of moral responsibility and ecology, she had never before been asked to speak to business leaders. She clearly had to make some adjustments to adjust her message to people in the room who might be responsible for thousands of jobs and the operation of vast manufacturing facilities.
“In World War II, America turned on a dime when we needed to,” she extolled. “Can’t we do it now? Why can’t a business turn on a dime? We have a cheap source of energy now, but it’s doing tremendous harm. We had another cheap source of energy once in this country They were called slaves. But we changed course, because it was the moral thing to do.”
Moore noted that many people feel trapped at one of two extremes, and thus do nothing to change their behavior to do less harm to the planet. “Hope is on one side. Despair is on the other,” she explains. “But integrity is in between, and that’s where we need to go.”
In what may have been her strongest argument for moral action, Moore described how Americans have come to misunderstand and misuse the word “sacrifice,” using it as a reason not to change destructive environmental patterns.
“We talk about not wanting to sacrifice, but we’re sacrificing constantly,” she explains. “We sacrifice our water, our connection with nature, our kids, our happiness. We must refuse to act as instruments of destruction.
“We can make our lives into works of art that reflect our deepest values,” she continues. “We are the hope of the universe—a way for the universe to celebrate itself.”
The Final Round
After Moore’s passionate appeal, Stu Ostro, a self-effacing, funny weather scientist from the Weather Channel arrived.
Ostro laid out in detailed form his own journey for climate change skeptic to true believer, based on irrefutable evidence. In his slow, dry way, he built a case that immediate action is needed to arrest some of the shocking manmade changes now rocking the world’s climate patterns.
His nerdy charm won over the room, and left us in a good place for open discussion of some of the day’s themes. We ended on a question of our own:
What is the crying Indian image of our time? (based on the highly successful anti-littering campaign of the 1970s). Which iconic image can cause people to change their behavior in a positive way?
Image: Iron Eyes Cody Advertisement
Perhaps we live in a world too flooded with imagery for a single image to wield such power any more. Perhaps we’re desensitized to imagery that makes us uncomfortable about our impact on the Earth. We couldn’t agree on a “perfect” image, but we all understood why such tools are needed. No one left this Earth Day summit unchanged.