Sunday, August 07, 2011

Conscious Earth Closes

(visit my new site at

First and foremost, a huge thanks the thousands of visitors, commentators and followers that took part in this blog over the past years. As those still following know, the blog tailed off after my trip abroad. After a long dormancy I'm ready to turn the page.

I started the blog for a few reasons. I wanted a writing project, and environmental commentary was a natural fit with my work role at the time. More significantly, when I began The Conscious Earth in 2006 environmental awareness was in a much different place than it is today.

The idea of environmental responsibility and values was still largely a special interest. People cared, but environmental concerns were considered something separate from the the social, political, and most importantly economic, decisions of the day. In that context, this blog really targeted three specific issues:

  1. The tendency of "environmentalists" to frame the environment as an ultimate value: to this day, many environmentalists and conservationists place the natural world above human concerns. The stance is not only wrong, but counterproductive to the movement as a whole. The environment never needed saving because it will ultimately outlast us all. Human beings aren't clever enough to wipe life from this planet, and the earth itself has no qualms with spending a few millions years recovering from us in order to re-emerge in full bloom.

  2. Second, and related to the first, our place in the natural world is not as a tiny subset in the web of life. People grow out of the earth in the same way apples grow from trees and poppies grow from fields. We're an end product of the earth, not a subservient part. Wipe out people and the earth goes on. Wipe out the earth and everything goes with it. The environmental movement's failure to understand this has always left the majority of people alienated from the cause.

  3. The criminal undermining of the reality of climate change: In 2006, the so called debate of humanity's role in climate change was in full rage. The news industry had singularly abdicated its responsibility to factual reporting, and the environmental movement was helping them by failing to frame the issue in human terms.

The Conscious Earth sought to address each by framing the environment in human terms, and flipping the spin of those who advocated the ongoing destruction of the planet in the name of profit.

The project was successful, as far as it went. But far beyond these small posts, the world changed rapidly while I was traveling in 2008 and environmentalism moved forward from the back burner. Since then there has been little debate about the need for change, as well as the need to live in a relationship with the planet that is at least remotely sustainable. The economic strains of the last years have only punctuated that. Fewer and fewer people buy into the argument that the economy and the environment are opposed. People want solutions that take both into account.

That is the good news. The bad news is that while everyone understands the needs, far too few are taking action. Every level of society - from the meaningless state of politics, to corporate greed, through voter apathy - has been blamed. I don't think its any of these things.

Paralysis and stagnation has set in at all levels - government, business and citizen engagement. The world seems too complicated, and leaders in all parts of society function more from fear than vision. Everyone's afraid to act out of an anxiety of sending the whole system into a tailspin. There seems to be too much to know, too many facts, too many perspectives.

Knowledge, facts and perspectives - the raw quantity of everything around us, and we're stuck in the middle of it wondering how to cope with the growing volume of an ever more complicated world.

But we mis-framed the question once again. The problem isn't in the apparent complexity. It's in the fact that we have been busy focusing on quantity.

The problems of the world are ones of quality not quantity. They are about meaning and not facts. Their about purpose rather than progress. If you doubt that, look more closely at the rise of fundamentalism and extreme views in the world. This is a reaction to a world obsessed with quantity - doing more, having more, being more - for no conceivable purpose.

The road to quality and meaning is always simpler and more direct. And this is the reason The Conscious Earth has come to a close.

I'll be launching a new site shortly. It doesn't promise to solve the world's problems. But, with luck, it will give a small glimpse at meaning, for better or for worse, to some of the challenges and events of the world today.

Those interested are invited to join. You can find it at Stories and content will begin tomorrow.

Thank you again for every ounce of support along the way. I hope readers gained as much from reading The Conscious Earth as I did from writing it.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Canada Savaged Over Oil Sands

I typically do not re-post articles, but yesterday's piece is the Guardian is noteworthy. Titled "Canada's image in tatters" the article details at length Canada's roll as a corrupt petro-state, and the litany of damage our nation has caused to climate change negotiations.

The following is an excerpt that clearly paints Canada's true colours when it comes to the environment.

So here I am, watching the astonishing spectacle of a beautiful, cultured nation turning itself into a corrupt petro-state. Canada is slipping down the development ladder, retreating from a complex, diverse economy towards dependence on a single primary resource, which happens to be the dirtiest commodity known to man. The price of this transition is the brutalisation of the country, and a government campaign against multilateralism as savage as any waged by George Bush.

Until now I believed that the nation that has done most to sabotage a new climate change agreement was the United States. I was wrong. The real villain is Canada. Unless we can stop it, the harm done by Canada in December 2009 will outweigh a century of good works.

In 2006 the new Canadian government announced it was abandoning its targets to cut greenhouse gases under the Kyoto protocol. No other country that had ratified the treaty has done this. Canada was meant to have cut emissions by 6% between 1990 and 2012. Instead they have already risen by 26%.... the future cut Canada has volunteered is smaller than that of any other rich nation.

After giving the finger to Kyoto, Canada then set out to prevent the other nations striking a successor agreement. At the end of 2007, it singlehandedly blocked a Commonwealth resolution to support binding targets for industrialised nations. After the climate talks in Poland in December 2008, it won the Fossil of the Year award, presented by environmental groups to the country that had done most to disrupt the talks. The climate change performance index, which assesses the efforts of the world's 60 richest nations, was published in the same month. Saudi Arabia came 60th. Canada came 59th.

In June this year the media obtained Canadian briefing documents which showed the government was scheming to divide the Europeans. During the meeting in Bangkok in October, almost the entire developing world bloc walked out when the Canadian delegate was speaking, as they were so revolted by his bullying. Last week the Commonwealth heads of government battled for hours (and eventually won) against Canada's obstructions. A concerted campaign has now begun to expel Canada from the Commonwealth.

In Copenhagen next week, this country will do everything in its power to wreck the talks. The rest of the world must do everything in its power to stop it.

None of this should represent news to any reasonably well informed Canadian. Seeing it laid out in one single column, however, should do more than give us pause. It should be the start of a serious conversation about what it is to be Canadian, and about what role we want to play in the world.

And nowhere is this issue more relevant than with respect to climate change, a crisis that most Canadians feel, "is the planet's defining crisis".

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Book Review: Confessions of a Radical Industrial

Many books offer environmental understanding and perspective, but few of them offer a genuine path for tangible change. This is exactly what Confessions of a Radical Industrialist, the new book by Ray Anderson, attempts to do.

In 1973, Ray Anderson founded Interface, a company he built into the world's largest manufacturer of modular carpets. But in 1994, he charted a new course for his industrial, petroleum based company after reading Paul Hawken's The Ecology of Commerce. In the abrupt, soul shattering understanding that followed, Ray Anderson launched a new transformative direction for Interface - to become not only sustainable, but restorative.

That year, he delivered a new vision to his management team that would ultimately make Interface a world leader in sustainability and environmental responsibility:

"So here's the vision (I) share with you today: I want Interface to be the first name in industrial ecology, and here's my challenge to you. I want to know how long it's going to take us to get there. Then, I want t o know what we'll need to do to push that envelope and make Interface a restorative enterprise. To put back more than we take from the earth and to do good for the earth, not just no harm. How do we leave the world better with every square yard of carpet we make and sell?"

That question was eventually answered by Interface's Mission Zero, a formalized corporate vision to make the company fully sustainable by the year 2020. They have come along way towards that goal. Over the past 15 years while governments and industries in the United States insisted that the 7% reduction in greenhouse gases called for by the Kyoto Protocol would destroy the economy, Interface lowered theirs by 71% while increasing sales by two thirds and doubling earnings.

Their environmental success did not stop there. They have also increased renewable energy use from 0 to 28%, water use has decreased by 72%, and the recycled content of their carpets has gone from 0.5% to 24%. These are just a few examples of Interface's transformation to date.

In Confessions of a Radical Industrialist, Ray Anderson details this success and outlines a pathway that other corporate leaders can follow in transforming their own organizations. He shares what he's termed the "7 faces" of sustainability that Interface embraced in guiding their efforts to eliminate waste, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and build environmental responsibility into every aspect of their operations and corporate culture.

Those faces are:
  1. Moving towards zero waste
  2. Eliminating emissions or rendering them benign
  3. Increasing efficiency and renewable energy
  4. Closed loop recycling and turning waste into raw material
  5. Making transport systems resource efficient
  6. Sensitizing employees, suppliers and communities to environmental responsibility and opportunity
  7. Redesigning commerce to assess accurate costs, set real prices, and maximize resource efficiency

Confessions follows Interfaces success and best practices through each of these faces while weaving in first hand stories of the employees and innovators who created these solutions. At each stage, the value of human creativity and innovation is emphasized, alongside the need to harness these gifts as an integral element in the path to true sustainability.

The book is more than platitudes and idealism. By his own admission Ray Anderson is a competitive capitalist with an eye pinned keenly on the bottom line and ultimate success of his business. And this, I'd argue, is a primary reason for his success. In Confessions, he has supplied a pragmatic roadmap for continuous environmental improvement that is anchored in the constraints faced by organizations in the real world. It is a bottom line approach that should gain the attention of industrialists throughout the developed word, where corporations are facing high input costs and the aftermath of the global economic recession. The competitive advantage Interface enjoys thanks to their efficiency and low waste operations can form a new model for the changing economic reality that corporations are facing here in the emerging era of sustainability.

Despite the author's industrial career, the book goes well beyond the typical line between industry versus environment and points towards a more fundamental relationship, one that accurately places human endeavour within the context of the natural world. It is not an indictment against industry, but instead points to its true and sustainable place as a system that operates through the gifts, and limits, of the natural world. Anderson calls this "thinking in the round", a reference to the perfectly efficient and renewable closed circle that all natural systems operate within. It is a sound model to follow.

And in following that model, the Anderson reveals a deep faith that because human beings are an extension of the environment itself, our best enterprises, values, and talents can find alignment and synergy with the natural laws of sustainability. Readers may respond, "This is the view of one person, in one small corner of the industrial world. How does this apply to global environmental problems facing our global society?" I'll let Mr. Anderson answer in his own words,

I am convinced that having a sustainable society for the indefinite future depends totally and absolutely on the vast, ethically driven redesign of the industrial system about which I have written, triggered by an equally vast mind-shift. But - and this is the hard part - that shift must happen one mind at a time, one organization at a time, one technology at a time, one building, one company, one university curriculum, one community, one region, one industry at a time, one product at a time until we look around one day and see that there is a new norm at work, and that the entire system has been transformed.

Confessions reminds us that while the problems facing the environment are large, the seeds of change are always the same. They encompass the dedicated actions of each individual person doing what they can to improve the world for the better.

However, the magnitude of each person's responsibility is also proportionate to the amount of impact they are responsible for creating. Ray Anderson stands apart not for his environmental awareness, but because he took the rare approach of both confronting the full impact of his petroleum based business, and accepting a level of responsibility that was equal to this impact.

Confessions of a Radical Industrialist and the success of Interface's environmental efforts to date are both testament to this acknowledgment of responsibility. Interface's journey towards complete sustainability is still being written, but with luck and hope we can look forward to reading about those last steps of the journey in Ray Anderson's next book.

For more information visit the Interface website, Mission Zero, or see Ray Anderson speak on TED.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Dark Side of Recycling

The following is a disturbing profile of the state of the computer recycling business in the United States, and where the electronics end up.

The town of Guiyo in southern China is now one of the most polluted places on earth, registering the highest levels of cancer causing dioxins anywhere recorded. Governments are guilty of turning a blind eye, as businesses in both the US and China profit from the poisonous conditions.

"The situation in Guiyu is actually pre-capitalist. It's mercantile. It reverts back to a time when people lived where they worked, lived at their shop. Open, uncontrolled burning of plastics. These are among the most toxic compounds known on earth."

"We have a situation where we have 21st century toxics being managed in a 17th century environment."

Watch CBS Videos Online

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Campaigning for Change

With most of the world's people facing the catastrophic fallout of the worst US presidency in history and the now undeniable threats facing the Earth's environment, there seems to be an almost universally shared sense of flux, change and uncertainty.  As unpleasant as that might feel, it's also a needed and necessary good that can clear the way towards real change and a new way of looking at the shared problems that, together, we desperately need to solve. 

So, following the themes of responsibility and action that I've outlined over the past several months, I hope you'll follow me on my next path.  Vancouver is coming up to a municipal election on November 15th, and I'm happy to announce that I'll be running the online campaign for mayoral candidate Gregor Robertson and the Vision Vancouver party.  

For those unfamiliar with the local business and political scene, Gregor Robertson is a progressive Vancouver businessman who first rose to prominence by creating an immensely successful national business based on organic foods, sustainability and fair trade called Happy Planet.  When the provincial "Liberal" government swept to power and promptly eliminated the Ministry of the Environment, Gregor made the decision to enter politics.

He was elected as a provincial MLA in 2005, where he served until this year.  In the wake of outgoing mayor Sam Sullivan's atrocious legacy of homelessness, self serving politics, and social apathy, Gregor stepped down from his office in the provincial government to enter the mayor's race.  

After meeting him in person I can gladly say he lives up to every expectation.  He's honest, passionate, and is running a leadership fueled, Obama-style campaign for change.  

For the past three weeks I've been helping to launch the Vision Vancouver campaign website with my friend and colleague Jason Mogus from the Webby award winning Communicopia and the talented shop of Agentic Communications.  The site is now live, and from now through November 15th I'll be be driving all online campaign communications and working to elect a truly progressive government to Vancouver City Hall.

You can follow me during the election on the Vision Blog, our Facebook group, or get on the ground updates from Gregor Robertson on his Twitter feed.  I'll also be offering an inside peek at the campaign here at The Conscious Earth.  I hope you join us. 

Thursday, September 18, 2008

8 Months of Photo Highlights

Thanks to all my readers for hanging in while I get my feet back on the ground here at home. Many new developments are coming soon, but in the mean time, please enjoy these photo highlights of 8 months of travel.

Thanks to everyone for following along.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

My Rights, Your Responsibility

I’m home now in Vancouver, with the daunting task of summing up and integrating a journey that covered four continents and more than eight months of my life. It can leave a person wondering how to bring that much home, or what home even means.

That said, there are a few common themes that became clear over the course of the journey. A major one concerns the views and assumptions that tend to guide the actions of our culture with the rest of the world, the damage of which becomes obvious when viewing there effects on some of the most impoverished nations on Earth.

In the case of Rwanda, we have been told that there horrific genocide was the culmination of tribal conflicts that stretched back centuries. After a mere days in that country, the truth became quickly and overwhelmingly obvious – that the division between Hutus and Tutsis was a colonial weapon established by the Belgians, and exploited by the French, in order to gain greater control over the population and later to profit by selling the weapons of genocide.

In rapidly developing India, they are celebrating their initiation into the world's nuclear fraternity, while domestically, the moral stance of the Dalai Lama has been criticized and questioned on the grounds that it may threaten Sino-Indian relations. One of the world's greatest ironies may explain India's true motivation. In 1999 , Major William Corson, intelligence aide to US President Dwight David Eisenhower, alledged that India agreed to grant the the Dalai Lama asylum in exchange for US help in developing nuclear weapons.

The case is similar in the issue of global warming, where western governments, in particular the US, points the finger of blame at developing countries while it is responsible for maintaining the worst mileage standards, consumes the most beef (one of the largest greenhouse gas contributors), and uses the most crude oil while they continue to propogate a war over oil to maintain the status quo.

That word, responsibility, is the key. Western morality is anchored on a bastardization of Adam Smith that assumes ultimate good will magically prevail for all by pursuing our own individual interests. However, unless balanced by an equal sense of our personal responsibility, what we perceive as our rights quickly turns into indulgence, and there begins most of the world’s problems.

An embrace of responsibility, alongside of our personal rights, makes it obvious that while we have a right to trade and deal diplomatically with African nations like Rwanda, we equally have a responsibility for the outcome of that trade when we market in weapons of destruction to an oppressive regime. It makes it obvious that the moral rights of an entire people are not appropriate negotiating items in diplomacy and trade. It also becomes obvious that the country responsible for the most environmental damage needs to take the lead in forming environmental solutions.

If we strike another person, that blow is not the fault of the person receiving it. A gun owner is responsible for their weapon falling into the hands of young children. Unintentional murder is deemed involuntary manslaughter and is not the responsibility of the murdered. Likewise, the direct harm caused by our consumer, policy, and business decisions is not the fault of our trade partners, but the responsibility of those perpetrating the actions - exploitative businesses, the government’s that those businesses lobby for profitable trade policies, and we, the citizens, who value what we call prosperity over the human rights of other nations affected. The solutions, then, rest with us.

Responsibility can begin at home. The United States, Canada and my own city of Vancouver have a lot of work to do this fall. It’s time to get to it.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Monday, July 21, 2008

An Accidental Trip to Thailand

It was meant to be a side trip to the Philippines where a good friend is doing anthropological research in a traditional Kalinga Valley village. Unfortunately, I let myself get bluffed out by the weather and never made it.

My arrival date earlier this month in Manila ended up being the day after a second of two typhoons rolled through the country. Conditions on the newsreel looked pretty tenuous and I opted to disembark at our stop-over in Bangkok rather than risk being stranded in Manila for two weeks. As it turns out, the route north to the village was fine, much to my disappointment.

Sooooo, I tried to go to the Philippines and all I got were these stunning photos of Thailand....

Friday, June 27, 2008

Ladakh - The Last of India

The past few weeks have definitely been a different flavour. Heading steadily to the north of India, the people and country side have both shifted towards mountainous and Buddhist, culminating in Ladakh which is called the closest thing to Tibet on the subcontinent. It was far and away one of my favorite places in the country.

The main city of Leh is almost indescribably beautiful. The town is a fertile strip of green nestled between the desert hills of brown and a back drop of Himalayan peaks. Set against crystal clear skies the view is an every changing Crayola box of greens, blues, whites and brown.

The culture is also an interesting departure. The area only opened to tourists in 1974 and until then a remarkably self sufficient society had braved the high desert and -50C winters for centuries, key to which was a strong sense of environmental values and strict population control. In addition to a large population of Buddhist monks and nuns, the area is one of a handful of cultures that actively practiced polyandry - the taking of more than one husband by a single woman (pause for applause from my female readers.....)

Polyandry is now a thing of the past (pause for tears from my female readers...), however the strong position of women and an intimate sensitivity to the natural environment has remained, giving the place a far more progressive spirit then many other places in India. I spent
most of my time there hiking up the nearby hills and visiting the centuries old Buddhist ruins, the centre piece of which was the palace looming above the town of Leh itself. Extensive restoration is going on, but despite that it was mostly just me wandering unobstructed
through 9 stories and 400 years of ruins. It was fabulous.

Fabulous and, as I mentioned, solitary. On the verge of departing from India that has probably been one my biggest surprises. This has far and away been the most isolated period of travel I've ever had. There are other travelers around, but the entire time in India has been a strange anti-confluence, like a trip to a parallel universe as if I disembarked in Bombay at platform 9 3/4.

Even where I've been following what should be the beaten path, things turn up empty. The most recommended hotels are barren, restaurants are strangely empty, and when I do things that seem to be the most natural cultural or tourist events there's nobody around.

In a day-trip outside of Leh I visited the active monastery at Hemis, the richest in the province and a 'must see' stop to witness the monks during morning prayers. The monastery again is impossibly beautiful, tucked high into a side valley away from the Indus River and surrounded with green trees and flowers. It was just myself there, taking a humble and uninterrupted seat at the back of the gompa (Buddhist temple) where I was graciously welcomed and served hot tea along side the monks. It was a stirring experience, admittedly made more so by the lack of outside distraction.

It was a similar case a few days later during June's full moon. It was one of my last days before leaving and the natural thing to do (as I saw it) was to climb to the "Shanti Stupa" - a stunning brand new Buddhist monument gifted by the Japanese. It's the highest point in town and the
only vantage point complete with a tea house/cafe. Again, mysteriously, it was virtually tourist free for the rise of the moon, which I can happily say was completely breathtaking.

None of that is to take anything away from the incredible time this has been. There have been countless things to see and there are the more than enough encounters with friendly locals, shop owners, and traders. However, over the course of some weeks, or months, I find I need a
little more than the same two conversations, "What country?" and "Very long man!...How long?", "....that's none of your business sir!."

After being turned back by fictitious concerns about the twin typhoons that recently rolled through the Philippines, I'm now in Bangkok - heading to the beach and the slow lead up towards heading home.

Here's the photo show from Ladakh.