Saturday, February 27, 2010

Frankenstein & Sustainability (Part 1 of The Frankenstein Series)

What? A passages in this time-tested novel caught my attention in terms of its relevance to sustainability.

Victor Frankenstein, while relating the story of his horrific creation of the Creature that would go on to terrorize him and his family and lead to his perpetual misery, lets loose (Page 38 of the Bantam Classic Edition printed in 1991):
Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.
There's an element of humanity's fear of the unknown, that knowledge (especially scientific knowledge) in and of itself is dangerous. Given that science was part of philosophy at the time of Ms. Shelley's writing, perhaps there is a knee-jerk reaction against scientific knowledge in her philosophy. Science threatened beliefs in ways that some were uncomfortable with (just ask Galileo). I propose that knowledge in and of itself is not the enemy, but the application of said knowledge without a moral or ethical framework from which to draw guidance.

A person's potential for happiness being greater if s/he focuses on the hear-and-now of an immediate world is a simplistic analysis. I'm interpreting this as a thinly veiled message from Ms. Shelley warning us (mankind) of the dangers of meddling with Nature, with things we do not understand.

"...he [mankind] who aspires to become greater than his [Nature] nature will allow."

Dr. Frankenstein grasps the knowledge he sought, the ability to spark life into inanimate flesh, yet he did not have the wisdom to understand the consequences of his actions and the power of the Creature over him mentally and physically. Victor also believes that the application of his knowledge will yield benevolence, that it will lead to greater discoveries and move all of humanity along. Of course, he's horrified by what he's wrought, and quickly disowns it (and the memory of it for quite some time). The Creature comes back into his life as it begins to take vengeance for its creation on Victor's family, seeking to drive Victor into the utter wretchedness the Creature experiences in the lonely life made for him by his creator.

From a sustainability perspective is the Creature the globalized economy we've developed, one bent on constant growth to create a future of plenty for all despite ignoring the rules of Nature that we are in fact a part of? There's a belief that our technologically advanced method of living is the right way to go (benevolent), that we've separated ourselves from Nature and have the knowledge to mold our environs to our desires. But, do we understand the long-term consequences of our actions and have the cultural wisdom to apply the vast stores of knowledge we've accumulated in ways that preserve and nurture social and natural capital?

Are we only reminded of the unnatural operations of our economy through shocks; recessions, wars, The Great Depression, and the current unraveling of global debt? These are the times when we pause to reflect on what we've deem important and question our trajectory. Is the Creature we've all helped build and animate over the past 12,000 years (I'm going back to the birth of agriculture) with our crops, mortgages, trips to Disneyland, 401ks, and high-end outdoor equipment coming back to haunt us?

Dr. Frankenstein's self-inflicted melancholy, the result of the Creature's threats to his happiness (as Dr. Frankenstein interprets it; his life) illustrates his focus on self. The Creature's threats to rain misery down upon Dr. Frankenstein is through slowly taking away Victor's friends and family, the ultimate way to drive a person to despair. It is only with the murder of Victor's friend Henry Cherval in the wilds of Scotland by the Creature that Victor understands, it's not about him, it's about the people around him; he can no longer ignore the threat of his is time to take action.

Is the latest financial meltdown and the looming threat of energy scarcity our murder of Henry? Will that break the spell of navel-gazing, of seeking to maintain our way of life at the expense of those around us and of the generations yet to be born? It is not only environmental degradation I'm referring to, but the financial debt burden we're passing on.

So, if this 200 year old story may be applied to the analysis of our current state of affairs, what does it mean going forward? What will the Creature of the next 100 years look like? What do you think? In part 2 I'll risk thinking about a Creature that is indeed benevolent.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

B Corporations: For Benefit of Society.

I've been doing a lot of reading about B Corporations and the organization responsible for their creation and certification, B Lab (Yep, it was talked about at PopTech) over the past few weeks. I first heard about the organization when still a student at BGI (it's hard to believe that I graduated in June of last year) and remember thinking that it certainly seemed like a fabulous idea; an organization dedicated to digging deeply into companies' "green" and "sustainable business" claims to provide some level of transparency as well as seeking to gain favorable regulatory status for such entities. Why not seek to create an incentive for companies that work to benefit the society they function in beyond mere economic gain? Seems like a no-brainer, right? (image from AuthenticOrganizations)

I was fortunate to have met some people familiar with B Lab and B Corporations while studying at BGI; seemed that people passionate about changing the way we do business were somehow associated or connected with BGI. They visited our school to share their experiences, their ups-and-downs, existential crises, experiences, you get the picture. When I pause to think about it (this is from memory, so I hope I do not overlook anyone!), it's quite an honor roll; I was fortunate to have been exposed to their light and wisdom:
As I reflect upon this list, what's striking to me is the broad range of sectors they represent; consumer products to financial services to office products. In my opinion there are not enough companies in the b-2-b space paying attention to the same trends B Lab reflects. This will change as consumer demand moves up the supply chain. There is movement toward a socially aware business model in more places than I think (overcoming my own cynicism). I also remember being impressed and humbled with the thoughtfulness these business leaders brought to their businesses, they were not content to start a business, a challenging undertaking by itself, rather they seek to inculcate their businesses' future with values that reflect the humanity within their businesses and the people they serve.

When we pause to think about it...why haven't we been doing this from the get-go?

I suppose we accepted the concept that by focusing on profits and maximizing shareholder returns companies would benefit humanity by generating jobs and wealth. Perhaps we're reaching the point (with unemployment "officially" hovering at ~10% in the US and profligate sovereign spending of natural and financial capital endangering future generations) where our belief in this singular business purpose is teetering on the brink of oblivion.
B Corporations represent part of the way forward for our society, encouraging and empowering businesses to respect the societies in which they operate.
As I finish this post I am seated at a business that would is a strong candidate for B Corporation status, Nourish Restaurant (@nourishlocal) in Lexington, MA. If you live near Boston, pay it a visit.