Dialog with Sustainable Business Students

I just gave a talk on sustainable well-being to Tom Eggert’s class, Topics in Sustainable Business Practice, at UW-Madison. I’ve given a talk every year for the last 5 or so and every time it’s very rewarding, stimulating, and encouraging to hear thoughtful students engaging with this fascinating subject.

In the past, I’ve spent more time on all the problems we are facing from climate change to peak oil to salinization of soil, etc. This year I resolved to focus more on solutions. As a result I went into more depth in introducing the ideas of co-housing, ecovillages, and permaculture on the “hardware” side of things and mindfulness, skillful communication, facilitation, and group/community forms on the “software” side of things.

Right now, I am personally exploring ways of building a community that can grapple with the dark and light sides of transition with a realistic, strategic, and hopeful engagement with solutions such as the establishment (or joining with) a land laboratory in which all or some of the things mentioned above can be practiced, honed, evolved, and shared. The idea is to start with the people now and perhaps work some land with a subset of these people if and when that subset emerges with the enthusiasm and resources to make that happen.

One difficult question for me is location. How close to a city would such land be located? Advantages of close proximity include low fossil fuel costs to transport products (from food to workshops to retreats) to and from the city to the land. Disadvantages have to do with land price but also potential security issues if transition is abrupt.

Anyway, some of the students represented what I think might be a popular reaction to the idea of locating further away from a city with a group of people with similar interests. These students had various reactions ranging from the idea that such a plan is not realistic, not truly sustainable because it may depend to some degree on outside products and interactions, and unethical, both because everyone cannot afford to live that way (i.e., it’s a plan for elites) and because it has an us vs. them, we’ve-got-our-lifeboat-sorry-you-don’t-have-yours perspective.

I find these reactions fascinating from many different angles, not the least of which because there is some truth in all of them. These views are examples, in my view, of generative diversity, and demonstrate that regardless of what any of us do, there is likely to be incredible diversity in responses to issues of transition…which is all to the good. We need to place many bets on many different approaches, learning and failing and evolving rapidly. Wonderful that this is what we will naturally do.

In terms of a specific response to the students’ concerns, I’ll keep it short for now and perhaps address them in a later blog(s) in more depth.

First, our current way of life is unrealistic. That we have very good information about. What we lack is similarly good information about redesigning a life that works. Nobody knows for sure what this will look like. So, of course, I’m not at all sure about my current ideas on solutions, but I believe they are (a) better than status quo, and (b) provide some good experiments to apply our energies to.

Second, I think it’s very important to re-design a way of life that works for people with diverse economic backgrounds. This is true for many reasons, but one of the most practical reasons is that many people with critical skills needed for the future have not been  monetarily rewarded for those skills precisely because they do not rely on various aspects of mining our current resources.

Third, the idea that a community at some range of distances from a city may not be independently self-sufficient does not seem like the immediate point to me. We do the best we can, growing in the direction we want to place our bets on. My own desire is for a world that continues with some degree of social complexity so that we continue benefiting from the diverse talents and skills such complexity gives us (and that we can all take for granted now). In that world, the goal may not be independent self-sufficiency at all but rather local networks that are resilient because of their interdependence.

Fourth, the idea that it’s us-vs.-them to gain experience with a subgroup some distance from a city, is an interesting one. My own perspective is (1) I want to teach everyone how to live a life that works, (2) but I should be able to speak from experience if possible which means I need to gain that experience, (3) only a (small) subset of people will be interested in my own particular bent on this issue no matter what I try to do anyway, and (4) that I don’t need to talk to everyone because there are thousands of other people talking to their own subgroups and they are the effective ones to be doing that talking. Having said that, I do think that providing a model and being able to speak from experience and then trying to share the model and experience with as many people as possible is right up my alley and I’m going to give it my best shot. My hope is that everyone listens and that a dialog like the one I had with the students (and they had with each other) tonight continues to help refine and improve all our approaches to a life that works.

As a separate point, I want to thank the student who recommended the documentary, “Rebecca’s Wild Farm”. What a beautiful and elegant film. I think it’s one of the best I’ve seen (and only 50 minutes). You can watch it online here. A review and all 5 parts have been made available through the generosity of Jessica Crabtree’s blog on Native American Portraits and Wildlife.

Finally, in this post, I recorded a 3 minute story about a canary who tries to warn a family that their house is burning down and then all the ways the man who answers the door decides to stay inside watching Seinfeld. The key question for all of us is whether or not we are ignoring a canary delivering critical information or whether the canary, itself, is distorted in important ways. One approach to discerning which is the case is to cultivate awareness of our emotional reactions so we may notice when they are driving distorted beliefs.

This is one reason why it is difficult to know where to place our bets and also why it is important to continue to have honest dialog as we stumble through considerations of transition. Thank you for being part of that dialog (perhaps it will continue through comments).


9 thoughts on “Dialog with Sustainable Business Students”

  1. Thanks for coming to our class, you gave a great and very engaging presentation. Loved the musical canary story. I think another point to make is that eco-villages are not going to be a solution for everyone, but they can be a solution (at least a work-in-progress solution) to people who are interested in trying them out. In my opinion, there is no way that everyone is ever going to agree on one solution. The beauty of it is- we don’t have to. There can be (and I think there will have to be) many, many solutions. Some people will want to stay in cities- we can work on making cities self sufficient through urban gardening, denser living, and making them super biker and walker friendly, and using renewable energy to provide public transportation. Other people will not want to live in cities, and they don’t have to. They can live in eco-communities, or off on their own farm if they so desire. So I think the debate should be less about which solution to work towards, because different people will prefer different solutions, and that is great, because we will need all of them. We can each focus our energy where we want to, and all will have something to contribute ! :)

    1. Thanks for the comment Ariel. I agree with you about multiple solutions and that we should be supporting each other in these solutions. We need all hands on deck. : )

  2. Another student shared via email a perspective on urban settings and an article with some cool ideas for urban neighborhoods (linked in blogroll) and also found here.

    Of interest from my perspective is the wonderful energy savings and synergies that are possible but that do require higher levels of cooperation, new structures and forms (from legal forms to more mundane forms for meetings), and probably pretty good communication skills, themes that start to emerge across numerous articles and points-of-view.

    1. There is a Facebook “like” button on some of the sites pages, but now that you mention it, they are not available on individual blog pages. Thanks for the heads-up! I’ll try to see why that is…I figured it out, thanks again!

  3. Thanks Donal for your presentation. It was very enjoyable. I was the guy who asked the first question about the eco-villages and their dependence on outside support. There was a comment that I wanted to make towards the very end of the discussion – after I had heard the direction which the class took…

    It seemed like there was an emphasis in the questioning about the degree of separation for such communities. I felt like there was a misinterpretation of the goal of an eco-community. I didn’t feel that you were presenting the idea of a group of survivalists running away from society to build their own life-boat. I see these communities as testing grounds or laboratories for the ideas which the greater society would be able to employ. Your point seemed to be that the most challenging aspect in confronting a changing environment and human ecology was individuals’ inability to accept change.

    So, my story is this: I am an interior designer – I see design everywhere I go. My sister is Swedish citizen. I spent one month in Sweden and Denmark. I did much more than a tourist – grocery shopping, housework, individual factory tours, dropping the kids off at daycare, etc. My sister and her husband both have good jobs and they each make over 100k yr. They live in a very nice neighborhood – comparable to any nice suburb here. Their house is a whopping 1500 sq. ft. If you are not familiar with these measurements – 1500 sq ft was the average American home in 1950. A comparable house in a comparable neighborhood here and now is 6000 sq ft. They are certainly living with a lot less including no air conditioning, no two car garage, no giant grassy back yard – bedrooms that only facilitate sleeping etc.

    This house is a newly built in a newly plotted subdivision. Its an amazing house. I noticed that the stairs to the 2nd floor hug the inside of exterior walls. This is something small – something my sister never noticed – but it is very different than how stairs are built here. This configuration maximizes the use of floor space. There is a wood burning stove next to the tv area. This stove acts as a freestanding fireplace. It can be turned to face in different directions, it has a stone top that with the flip of a switch can be allowed to heat up and is used for cooking. Everything in this house is multi-functional. I will spare you any further detailed observations.

    This is the thing – these Swedish neighborhoods are good, there is a feeling of community, and the houses are great, sturdy, private, and luxurious. These are places you want to live. But they are 1/6th the size of our average house. And, it comes down to design. Our houses are not designed – they are planned and value engineered – but they are not designed. And that makes all of the difference.

    To the point – You have to see this to believe it. I have heard about this great Swedish society and all of their high taxes and socialist give-aways. But, I had to see this to believe it. I had to ride a subway through a downtrodden Copenhagen neighborhood and realize that nobody around me felt afraid, felt paranoid, felt angry, felt oppressed. At first I thought that I was just having culture shock and that I was projecting my good feelings because I was on vacation. But, it just didn’t stop – everywhere I went people felt differently than they do here. In order to realize that there are alternatives to the way we live – and that these alternatives can be much better – you have to see it, you have to live it, you have to be there.

    So, I submit to the class. These new communities that are emerging in the US are places where we can go and see and live and believe. That is a very important role. I have trouble believing in a car free neighborhood, but if I could live in a car free neighborhood for a month – I bet I would think it was ok. We can discuss our design ideas as much as we want – but until we build these things and prove they work no one will believe.

    1. Wonderful Kenneth! Thank you for your thoughtful comment and sharing your observations of your sister’s neighborhood. I agree that the separateness thing seemed to get over-emphasized. I also agree that we need lots of real models for people to soak up in the ways you suggest…best way to feel how they are.

      I do not think large cities are likely to be viable in the future and that seems like another thing that’s hard for people to swallow…whether that’s due to our inability to accept change or due to some hope that will prove correct, I do not know. And, the reality is that people will bet on their vision whether it’s realistic or not and some of those bets will hopefully pay off. I am committed to speaking my truth but also want to be committed to hearing others’ truths and would like to be part of a big tent that welcomes all different visions, a form of welcoming that includes well-intentioned challenging as well.

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