Friday, November 25, 2011

A New Kind of Corporate Model

I hate Black Friday. I hate how it turns our holiday season into an excuse for conspicuous consumption. I hate the kind of people who would spend all night hanging out at some stupid mall in the hopes of getting a sale on some idiotic item that they probably didn't need anyway. But most of all I hate what the consumeristic mindset represented by this day has done to our planet--a planet, basically, that we are destroying in our never-ending lust to acquire more and more stuff.

That's why I was so delighted to wake up this morning and find this ad from Patagonia staring me right in the face.

Patagonia, in case you don't know, is a fairly high-end American outdoorsy clothing store, that probably has been doing fairly well during the recent economic crisis, because its clothing items appeal to the kinds of affluent individuals who can easily afford to buy them. They didn't need to run this ad, but they did it anyway, and, for that, I think they deserve no small amount of credit.

The "Don't Buy This Jacket" ad is part of Patagonia's Common Threads Initiative that encourages consumers not to buy things they don't need, to keep the items they buy for as long as possible, to repair them when they are are broken, and to recycle items that are hopelessly worn out, rather than just throwing them out.

Why is Patagonia going through all this bother when a campaign like this probably won't increase their sales in the short-term significantly? I'm going to give the company the benefit of the doubt and assume that, unlike at most American companies, the people who run Patagonia actually give a damn about the future of the planet. Maybe they have children or grandchildren and don't like the idea of bequeathing them a planet that will be much less hospitable than the one we are already inhabiting.

I'd also like to think that maybe Patagonia is on to something that other American and multinational companies just don't get--namely, that the pursuit of short-term profits at all costs is not a sustainable business model. In a time when many people, including those who make a decent living, can no longer afford to squander their resources on crap they really don't need, it may be time for companies to start producing items that are so well-made that they can be used year-in and year-out without replacement, and to charge prices that reflect the high-quality of this craftsmanship.

Ultimately, this sort of business model would be good for the consumer (less money spent over the long-haul), good for businesses (they still would make a decent profit from selling fewer items at a higher cost), and good for the planet (less crap in our landfills).

Of course, a consumption tax would also have the same benefits, but without insuring that the items produced would ultimately be of a high quality. Besides, no one in government today has balls to propose anything even remotely like a consumption tax. So until we have a third party that actually is beholden to the interests of the American public, we need to speak as consumers with every purchase that we make, rewarding businesses like Patagonia that try to do the right thing for the planet and punishing those that don't.

I don't need to buy a winter coat any time soon: the two I have are about 10 years old and doing just fine, thank you. But when I finally break down and decide to buy a new coat, you can be well-assured that I will check out what Patagonia has to offer...specifically because of this campaign.

Perhaps you should consider doing the same.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Ultimate Invasive Species

Imagine a species that is so fecund that it spreads to every habitable corner of its ecosystem. Then imagine that same species as it voraciously consumes all of the natural resources within its own ecosystem to the point where many of these resources are in danger of immanent collapse.

Then go one step further: imagine this same species—the ultimate carnivore—as it preys on all the other inhabitants of its ecosystem, threatening the very extinction of many of these species.

If such a predator was, let’s say, the Asian carp, there would be no end to discussion about how to limit its spread and manage the harm that it is causing to the Mississippi and potentially to the Great Lakes region. In fact, we would declare war on the Asian carp, calling it an invasive species, and investing as many resources as necessary to reducing its numbers. We’d have a national program of carp birth control with the sole aim of correcting some of the damage that this insidious predator has already inflicted upon the fragile ecosystem of the Mississippi.

In fact, we already have such a plan to deal with the Asian carp, and there is very little outcry about it, because we all recognize this creature for what it is—an obnoxious invasive predator that must be stopped at all costs.

But there’s another invasive species that’s even more obnoxious than the Asian carp, because it threatens, not just a specific habitat, but the continued existence of all life on this planet. If you haven’t guessed by now, the species that I’m talking about is none other than our own human species.

And our species has just reached a dubious milestone. This week the United Nations estimates that humans will reach the seven billion mark. And what does this landmark mean for the planet, you might ask? As the Center for Biological Diversity writes, "The human race is not only the most populous large mammal on Earth but the most populous large mammal that has ever existed. Providing for the needs and wants of this many people — especially those in high-consumption, developed countries — has pushed homo sapiens to absorb 50 percent of the planet’s freshwater and develop 50 percent of its landmass. As a result, other species are running out of places to live.”

Human population in fact has doubled during the last 50 years, leaping from three billion in 1950 to six billion today. The problem gets even worse when one considers that by the end of the century, the human race is predicted to add two billion more members to it’s ranks. That’s nine billion people on a planet that can barely sustain the seven billion inhabitants we already have.

And what does this projection mean for the future of our planet? It means more ecological stress, more deforestation, more mass species extinctions, more global warming, more pollution, more disease, and more famine. Life
, in short, by the end of this century, will not only be far less habitable for other species, it will become far less hospitable for our own as well. It’s already estimated that approximately 900 million people around the world experience food insecurity or chronic malnourishment. That number will only get worse as our human population increases.

So what do we do to solve this problem—if, indeed, it can be solved at all at this point? Economic development and the education of women have already done a considerable amount to reduce population rates in the developed world, and there’s some evidence that programs like these are having some positive effects in the developing world as well. But that’s simply not good enough at this point.

Along with economic development and education, therefore, we also need a global population control program that includes access to birth control and support services for women around the world. And more than that, we need a cultural shift whereby we begin to see the wanton procreation of our species as the ultimate sin.

“More trees, fewer people,” should be our new mantra. And those who opt not to have children at all, for whatever, reason, should be celebrated and become role models for the rest of us. We might even consider giving tax breaks to those noble souls who are helping to solve this problem of overpopulation by refraining from spawning offspring—gays and lesbians, clergy, and young couples who simply opt not to have kids.

This may sound a bit extreme, but is it any more extreme than simply standing by while our species destroys what is left of the planet? Is it any more extreme than condemning future generations to a continually declining level of existence in which there will likely be global wars fought to control things we now take for granted, like water?

The Center for Biological Diversity is trying to do its part through a condom campaign aimed at making people aware of the ultimate costs of our profligate population growth. I think this campaign should be supported morally and economically. The Pope may not approve of this kind of campaign, but, in fact, he’s already doing his part at population control. Now, the rest of us need to start doing ours.

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