At the final intensive of the quarter, I had the pleasure of sitting in on a panel for incoming students. Both Gifford Pinchot, BGI President, and Scott Schroeder, Dean of Academic Affairs were present. One of the incoming students asked a brilliant question, one that was actually extremely relevant and timely. She basically asked how the ensured the integration of Social justice into its course work.
Scott answered this question, citing the example that had just taken place, where the faculty and staff of the school had just recently decided to change the entire first-year foundations sequence, so rather than breaking it up into Foundations of Sustainable Business (mainly focused on environmental issues), Social Justice and then Systems Thinking in separate quarters, that you instead take them concurrently, so the three elements are all present in three consecutive courses. You get the same amount of time with each of the three subjects, but rather than segmenting them into separate time frames, you get to experience them all together, weaving the connections between them as you go.
Gifford’s answer to this question actually ended up putting all of my BGI education thus far (two quarters). While I can quote him exactly, Gifford had a way of clearly explaining this in a few pointed sentences. He basically stated that as you learn more about the environmental issues, you discover that they are all actually social justice issues. For example, if the environmental issue is pollution, it isn’t just affecting the environment, but also the communities of people that live within and depend on that environment.
I really like this perspective, because it allows us to view things in a more holistic sense. My initial introduction to environmental issues was through my education in Interior Design, as it related to the relatively new phenomenon of “green building.” However, BGI is allowing me to view the world from more of a Social Justice Lens. I no longer think about things in terms of their environmental impact alone, but now consider social justice impacts as well.
One of the more recent ways that I have personally changed in this regard has been my changed perspective on charitable giving. I used to give money to environmentally focused charities because I thought that they were having a positive impact. However, one of the things that this quarter in Social Justice has taught me is that the amount of money I give to environmental causes is nothing in comparison to the demands that industrialized nations put onto to third-world countries that encourage them to continue degrading their local environment in order to make money to pay off international loans. Rather than put my dollars towards organizations doing environmental reconstruction work, I now am providing funds to third world countries in, what I believe to be, a much more effective way.
I have been taking part in micro lending through Vittana.org, a local, Seattle-based, micro-lending organization that provides student loans so that students who may not be able to afford an education otherwise can do so. I personally view education as one of the largest social justice issues that we must overcome in the next few decades. By providing others the opportunity to get a quality college education, we as a global society become smarter and will be able overcome more and more of the challenges that we face in the future. By keeping poorer nations in poverty, the industrialized nations may be ensuring their place as global leaders, but they do so at the extremely high cost of the loss of more global innovation and technological advances.
This film was a great example of how the power of community thinking can lead to a number of solutions when a country is in crisis.
Starting off with a history of what Peak Oil is, there was an interesting graph showing the three highest uses of oil, in barrels per person in the U.S., per year. It turns out that food (through production and distribution) actually requires more oil at ten barrels per person, than do cars at nine barrels and houses at seven barrels. This was followed up by a statement that was a little surprising to me. The film stated that we (the world) are consuming five barrels of oil for every one that is discovered. While I knew that we were using more than we were finding, I didn’t realize that the difference was this high. It makes me more concerned about our ability to implement other energy solutions fast enough.
The film focused a lot on how things were actually accomplished, for example their farming techniques and how the government divided up land to farmers. One of the things that was lacking, in my opinion, was more of a focus on how the community was involved, especially given the title off the film. I felt that the film expressed that local communities were important, and that they helped support the movement to agriculture, but didn’t really get beyond just stating that fact. There was no analysis into how exactly the community got involved, no real examples of specific communities and how they handled “The Special Period,” and no analysis of how an integrated community made the outcome any different than it might have been otherwise. It seems like the message of the film was less about community, and more about the process of changing the way people think; how the government made smart choices and gave people the freedom and land they needed to develop their own food sources.
There were, however, some great mentions of the process of societal change, and how it came about. One of the biggest examples of this was that they realized that not everyone knew how to farm. They took knowledgeable, experienced farmers and led local workshops with everyone in the community to provide the skills needed for a mass of people to be able to successfully run their own miniature farms and gardens. This level of community interaction of free education and sharing of trades was an integral piece of their success in my mind. They taught the rule that “you hire nature to work for you; you don’t work against nature.”
“It was necessary, and result of a change of mind, a change of scale. And it was a big effort. But how much money they saved… you have to realize, they did it because they had to, but from a few years point of view, there were so many benefits.”
My favorite quote of the whole film, comes very near to the end. Roberto Perez, of the Foundation for Nature and Humanity states:
There are infinite small solutions… you fix one little problem here, one little problem there, and life gets better. You think globally, you act locally. This is very important.”
I would recommend this film, as a short documentary that can show the outcome when a society chooses to change. However, I think what is missing is a deeper look into how communities were such an integral part of this change. It does provide a sense of hope that change is possible, but given that a majority of the change was made possible by the government allowing people to use land free of charge, and free of taxes, I am doubtful that such a solution would ever be possible in an industrialized nation such as our own, where corporations and other other entities would never let such an opportunity to make money pass by for free, even when faced with no other options.
It is great that BGI has scheduled Microeconomics at the same time as Social Justice. I was pleased to find out how well these two subjects go together. During our reading discussion group tonight, a number of topics were discussed and weaved in and out of both subjects, with references both to our Social Justice readings and the Economics text book.
One of these discussions revolved around Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and how sometimes they can be somewhat like “greenwashing.” If you aren’t familiar with this term, here are a few fun Greenwashing websites:
Companies may make environmental and social claims, even if they are in the business of being socially irresponsible. The example that started the conversation was a about a particular cigarette company that produces a CSR report touting their good deeds, when they are ultimately in the business of addicting and slowly killing people. How can an industry that produces the majority of the worlds litter (in the form of cigarette butts) and kills the largest number of people be in any way environmentally or socially responsible? More about the environmental impacts of cigarettes on TreeHugger.
To which I responded with an interesting paradox: how “green” is good enough? I currently work for a retailer of sustainable building supplies and have had that same exact question come up. One of the projects that my company participated in was the 2007 Seattle Street of Dreams. We placed a lot of material into a beautiful, national award winning, 5-star certified Built Green home know as the Urban Lodge. While this home was built to the highest standards, used entirely sustainably produced materials, it was 4,591 square feet, including a 588sf studio, a 4-car garage, 700sf of outdoor patio living space, 4 bedrooms, and 5 bathrooms. The size of this home is anything but modest or sustainable. It has a considerable footprint and to top it all off was built on a wetland. The Street of Dreams development created quite a controversy that year, most notably when the Urban Lodge was burnt to the ground by environmentalist group ELF. You can read about the fire and see images via the Seattle Times here.
These homes would have been built anyway, so wasn’t it better that they used sustainable building materials as opposed to traditional building materials that would have had a much greater impact on the environment? It’s an interesting paradox, that I think will become more and more relevant as we as a society try to become more environmentally and socially aware. To bring it back to Social Justice, I had a similar reaction to something I read in the ISO/DIS 26000 – Guidance on Social Responsibility. Following the section about child labor, Table 3 in this document is the ILO Standards on Minimum Age for Admission to Employment or Work:
|Developed Countries||Developing Countries|
|Regular Work||15 years||14 years|
|Hazardous Work||18 years||18 years|
|Light Work||13 years||12 years|
I was appalled that it was acceptable for children as young as 12 years be deemed old enough for employment. But coming back to the previous question, how old is old enough? Certainly if children are going to be employed, 12 years as a minimum age is definitely better than 8 years old. Granted, there are a number of cases where children and teenagers may be the only one able to work and support their family, so I do recognize that there are other forces, especially different cultural norms, that play into this particular situation.
So I guess it is easy to say that there is still much progress to be done, but should we discount certain advances? For example, if a tobacco company is producing a CSR report and showing that they have been making progress on reducing the environmental impact of growing tobacco, are working with their supplies to ensure proper working conditions, etc. is that good progress? Does it matter that they are ultimately producing a product that kills people? I don’t necessarily have an answer to this question.
However, I do believe that any advances in environmental sustainability and social responsibility should count for something. We can certainly take them with a grain of salt, but as it is often said at BGI, “it’s all good work.” If you do something to reduce your impact, even if it is as little as changing one light bulb, you are making a difference.