Ever since my niece was born, half into our family of Minnesota Catholics of European descent and half into the Lakota nation, I have had to reconsider much of the world I take for granted. Some of those things are in the details, in insidious stereotypes perpetuated by sport team mascots and Peter Pan. Others are in the larger context of our cultural mythology, like the institutionalized teaching of the uniquely American Thanksgiving holiday, or even more unique: Columbus Day. It is not a far stretch of empathy to understand that a portion of our nation may not see either of those events as a reason to celebrate, or certainly in the same light that has been shined on them from the European perspective.
Thanksgiving is still one of my favorites, a holiday of gathering with friends, or less often these days, family; a chance to reflect on gratefulness, and an unabashed excuse to bask in self-absorbed guiltless culinary indulgence (hours in the kitchen all to myself!). More considered reading of history has only added depth to its importance. My total immersion this year into the effort to reduce toxic industrial air pollution provides interesting fodder for meditation while chopping onions and herbs. I find myself considering what was lost, as much as gained in that fateful collision of the two worlds represented in the history book as “pilgrims” and “indians.”
As a civilization we had a chance then, and in the ensuing years of establishing what would become the United States of America, to reconsider what was “own-able.” Ownership and sovereign rights vex civilization to this day. How different the world economy and potentially the environment and climate would be if we didn’t assume that the natural world was own-able. It occurs to me now, that since certain classes of people were still deemed own-able, convincing power and money hungry entities that trees, land, water, and air should be universally shared, would be nearly impossible.
The history of corporate America is littered with an undulating path of push and pull regarding sovereign rights. Early 19th century corporate leaders resisted labor organizing, leery of the inherent concept that employees had rights or ownership of any decision making regarding company practices. In the 1990’s when I worked for NIKE, the idea of rights filtered down to consumers, as activists insisted that a company that makes so much money from the African American community and culture, should also make sure that they are more inclusive in their hiring practices.
My hope for this century is a reformation of the cost of the environment. We need the external costs to be internalized, to be reflected in the value put on each and every thing we do and we produce. I have faith in the free market, and continue to be inspired by the ingenuity of innovation that characterizes American business practice. So I believe that once external costs of polluting air, of consuming non-renewable resources, and of harm to public health and well-being are calculated, businesses will be able to adapt and continue to do what they do best: determine a way to build wealth and capital. But, the problem I see for the future of sustainable business, is that we haven’t stopped subsidizing non-sustainable business. If a company can continue to process non-renewable raw materials spewing hundreds of thousands of persistent bioaccumulative toxins into the air, land and water and can still claim, as ESCO did in the letter to the NW Examiner editor in November 2009: “results assured us that ESCO is not causing harm,” then the bike component manufacturer around the corner with a net zero carbon output doesn’t have a chance unless we find a “value” to be added beyond market differentiation.
We need a discount, or at least a financial benefit, for the businesses who do no harm, who do not add to the health care costs of the state, or the superfund clean up, or the Department of Environmental Quality’s costs to protect humans and the environment. The businesses who, in effect, do not take for granted that impact on the natural environment is free.
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