Sunday, October 30, 2011

(re)Connecting for Change 2011

For the third year running, I decided to head down to New Bedford, MA for the last day of the Marion Institute's Connecting for Change event, a Bioneers by the Bay conference described as: internationally acclaimed annual gathering of environmental, industry, and social justice innovators who have demonstrated visionary and practical models for restoring the Earth and its inhabitants.
I enjoyed my visits to the event over the past few years, and was curious about what would be different (if anything) from what I'd experienced in the past considering the Occupy protests underway nationally and internationally.  Given some of the comments I saw written in the community sign-making area, it appeared that a few people were aligned with the Occupy protesters.

My visit focused on the speakers and performers gracing the stage of the Zeiterion Theatre, an historic space in downtown New Bedford standing as symbol to New Bedford's once (and future?) status in the nation's and regional economy.

Unfortunately, I underestimated the drive time to New Bedford (badly) and missed William Foote of Root Capital.  I've heard of the organization, and would have liked to have heard first hand about their mission to make finance for small-scale farmers in the developing world work.

I caught the end of Mercy Bell's performance (a nice way to arrive) and settled into the crowd to take in the rest of the morning's speakers and performers.  John Francis - Planetwalker's mixture of serious thoughts with one-liner levity made his message of taking responsibility for our individual impact on future generations easier to swallow.  His "A-ha!" moment came in 1971; he decided to forgo motorized transportation, after he and his wife drove down from their house to the San Francisco Bay to view an oil spill resulting from a tanker collision.  He realized that his actions were part of the problem, and he could do something about it.  Then, on his 27th birthday, he gave everyone a "gift"; he did not talk for the day.  Quickly, he realized that when he did not talk, he listened - intensely - and learned things that he missed when he was thinking about what he was going to say.

Chachi Carvalho took the stage for a powerful rap performance.  I find Bioneers by the Bay interesting because they integrate arts into their programming about solutions-based sustainability and social justice.  These performances provided a brief respite for my mind to process what I just heard and exposed me to things I would otherwise not experience.

John Perkins was next, sharing thoughts about native cultures' prophesies associated with 2012.  We're not talking about the movie versions of 2012 but the mythological versions of multiple native cultures.  His scheduled partner, Llyn Roberts was unable to make it and unfortunately I did not get the name of her replacement (I believe her first name was Liza).  The story of the Eagle and the Condor helps illustrate the multiple versions of this story.  The Eagle represents the society of the intellect and mind an the Condor represents the society of the heart and spirit.  We're at the time where these two societies have the chance to combine and  the next phase of humanity's growth....combining the best of both.  What else might we combine?
  • left & right
  • for & non-profit
  • industry & environment
  • oil & water 
My restless nature revealed itself toward the end of the morning as I fell in and out of the auditorium.  Kari Fulton climate justice and new media activist of and Laurie David writer of The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect... joined us.  The key take-a-way from Kari was that "future justice" happens now - the decisions we make today will affect those coming after us - we have a moral responsibility to think in the long-term.  Laurie made the point that everything we need to address as a society - economic, social, educational, environmental (and more) issues - crosses the family dinner table.

Remember that awkward holiday dinner moment when someone brought up a politically charged topic?  It may have been awkward, and those moments are necessary as we process our social challenges.

Here's the full program of the weekend's events.

I appreciated the people people tweeting from the event.  I was not there Friday or Saturday so searching by the event organizer's pre-determined twitter hashtag #cfc2011 provided some small bits of insight into what was happening.  Depending upon the type of event and the content people share, I find this immensely valuable.

I am sure there is much more to say about Bioneers, Connecting for Change, and the Marion Institute...thoughts?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

What Will be (Y)our Legacy?

image from
The birth of my first child and the recent deaths of two innovative American business leaders prompted me to think about what we're leaving behind.

The innovators I'm referring to are Steve Jobs of Apple and Ray Anderson of Interface.

Before their deaths, I'd fallen into the habit of reading The Economist's obituary upon receiving each new issue.  I found myself seeking information about how people were remembered upon their passing, and  appreciating the wide range of personalities featured there; "celebrities" of a different sort, most of which I had never heard of and maybe should have.  They made their marks in different ways and in different places in the arts, politics, social justice, sport, etc.  This weekly reading brings up questions about my legacy, our generational legacy, and society's values reflected in who we collectively remember, celebrate, or demonize.

With that in mind...

It's easy to understand the volume of celebratory media coverage; blogging, writing, reporting, and business hand-wringing about the loss of Steve Jobs.  He was truly an American icon in the technology world, contributing to the transformation of how we experience communication technology and consume information. In many ways, Ray Anderson was just as iconic a visionary leader in the corporate sphere, but instead of seeking to transform our lives with access to information through personal technology, he was seeking to transform manufacturing, rebuilding a company with zero impact on our planet.

It's easy to see why Steve Jobs is celebrated, his design influence has touched millions globally since Apple's early days with Steve Wosniak in the late 70's.  In fact, according to John Maeda at RISD, he brought "design" as a discipline into the world of technology, making it consumer technology such that just about anyone could pick up or plug in an Apple product and start using it.  Apple's products (with a heavy dose of his perfectionist design input) made it easier for people with access to the products to generate, experience, and share media in many forms and encouraged innovation in other disciplines like publishing and medicine because of what they could do with Apple's devices.  I may not own any Apple products (gasp!) and I'm a beneficiary of their innovations.

As a consumer society generally enamored with bright and shiny advances in technology, Apple's products fit quite nicely.  We celebrate them because they conform to our perception of advancement, moving forward, of gaining access to more and varied content, and looking ahead to the next great thing.  These are admirable qualities in many ways, though we tend to gloss over the underlying problems associated with relentless consumer electronic advancement, like where are these made?  Where does the energy required to make this device come from?  What happens to it when it's obsolete in 6 months?  What about the digital divide?

Ray Anderson took the entrepreneurial leap in the 70's as well, betting his future on modular floor-coverings, depending upon your point-of-view, not as sexy as consumer electronics.  After building a successful company through the 1990's Ray was asked by his employees to help them launch a sustainability initiative driven my customer demand.  Not knowing where to start, he read Paul Hawken's The Ecology of Commerce and had what can be called an epiphany - his company, and therefore he, was a despoiler of the earth, an ecological criminal - their activities extracted natural resources, processed them into forms that were not digestible by nature at their end of life, leaving the responsibility for their disposal elsewhere.  It was then that he committed to making Interface an ecologically neutral company.  Consumers' wide-eyed Apple gadget awe may not be duplicated when they learn about the Interface FLOR carpet tile solution.  They're made of 100% recycled material that, when worn out, is torn up, disassembled, and remade into a new FLOR tiles, closing the loop of industrial nutrients.

What's more empowering, taking a picture and sharing it with the world from wherever you are or knowing that there's a company seeking to reduce their impact on the earth to zero?

Imagine if Ray and Steve had met and had a conversation, and Ray told Steve about his "spear in the chest" realization about his contribution to despoiling the earth and the need to take action to preserve the planet's resources for his children and grandchildren.  Imagine if Mr. Jobs' design vision not only encompassed the customer's use with the customer, but with the eventual return of Apple's products to the biosphere with no impact. Wow.  There have been advances in electronic recycling, and Apple is among the companies taking action, is it enough?

To be clear, I'm not seeking to tear anyone down nor do I have some clear-eyed answer to how we proceed as a society in times of rapid technological change and finite natural resources.  What I am proposing is that we pause to question our assumptions about what progress is, what we remember and celebrate, and perhaps cast our forward-looking gaze a bit further down the road thinking about how our actions will affect generations to come...what are we leaving behind?