The end of consumer culture as we know it?

ErikI wanted to eat insects with Erik Assadourian. Erik is a senior fellow at the Worldwatch Institute who directs its Transforming Cultures project, and he believes that we need to think differently about everything we consume, including our food. We’d first hoped to cook up some cicadas, but the much-anticipated bugs never made it to my neighborhood in Bethesda, Md. The Dutch Embassy served crickets and mealworms at a dinner last month to talk about the future of food, but I had a prior engagement. (Really.) Then we’d hoped to sample an appetizer called Cazuela de Chapulines, i.e., grasshoppers, at Casa Oaxaca, a Mexican restaurant, but they were closed for lunch. Bummer.

So we settled on Thai food, no bugs and a conversation about why western consumer culture as we know it has to come to end, at least in Erik’s view. He tells me that consumer culture could end more-or-less happily because we choose to make the transformative changes needed to adapt to a world of finite resources. Or it could end badly.

In the 2013 edition of  the Worldwatch Institute’s annual state of the world review, titled Is Sustainability Still Possible?, Erik writes:

…given that consumerism and the consumption patterns that it fuels are not compatible with the flourishing of a living planetary system, either we find ways to wrestle our cultural patterns out of the grip of those with a vested interest in maintaining consumerism or Earth’s ecosystems decline and bring down the consumer culture for the vast majority of humanity in a much crueler way.

Erik, who is 36, is not your typical environmentalist. He studied anthropology and religion at Dartmouth, and he’s as interested in economic “de-growth,” pet care and burial rituals as he is in Washington politics or electric vehicles. He’d like to see a broader and deeper environmental movement, one that helps people find their purpose in life. [click to continue…]


Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.

I’m grateful for countless things, including the time that you spend with my blog.

At our Thanksgiving table, we read the following words from Albert Einstein’s Living Philosophies:

Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose.

From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that man is here for the sake of other men—above all for those upon whose smile and well-being our own happiness depends, and also for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy. Many times a day I realize how much my own outer and inner life is built upon the labors of my fellowmen, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received.

Interestingly–particularly in light of the season of shopping that is now upon us–Einstein goes on to say:

The ideals which have always shone before me and filled me with the joy of living are goodness, beauty, and truth. To make a goal of comfort or happiness has never appealed to me; a system of ethics built on this basis would be sufficient only for a herd of cattle.

Possessions, outward success, publicity, luxury—to me these have always been contemptible. I believe that a simple and unassuming manner of life is best for everyone, best both for the body and the mind.

Smart guy.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Do green groups need to get religion?

Peter Lehner

“Americans actually do care about their health. They don’t want their kids have to be poisoned in order for them to get a job. They value their natural heritage.”

“One should not read what’s going on the House of Representatives as an indication of where America wants to be.”

That’s Peter Lehner talking. Peter, a 52-year-old environmental lawyer, is executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of America’s most important environmental groups. The NRDC has a $95 million budget, about 400 employees and about 1.3 million members. They’re big and they represent a lot of people.

And yet the NRDC and its allies are getting nowhere in Washington.

They’re struggling to protect the EPA against unrelenting Republican attacks.

And, as Elizabeth Rosenthal wrote the other day in the Times, climate change–arguably the biggest problem facing mankind–has devolved into a non-issue. The “fading of global warming from the political agenda is a mostly American phenomenon,” she wrote.


That was the question on my mind when I met recently with Peter, who is thoughtful and smart, to talk about the politics of climate. That’s not my  specialty, but I came with an idea: The green groups that try to persuade Americans that environmental protection is good for their jobs and pocketbooks–that is, that green is in our self-interest–have missed opportunities to frame the environment and especially climate as moral issues, in ways that would appeal to our higher and better selves. Put another way, the big NGOs that focus on policy are not as comfortable talking about culture and religion.

So I wondered what the NRDC had learned from the failure of cap-and-trade—the scheme to regulate greenhouse gas emissions that was rejected by Congress—and whether its leaders are rethinking their message.

[click to continue…]

Chocolate that’s divine in every way

I hope my valentine is reading this blogpost because I’ve decided what I want for Valentine’s Day: a bar or two of Divine Chocolate.

Divine Chocolate says it is the first farmer-owned Fair Trade chocolate brand. About 35% of the shares in the U.S. company that produces, markets and distributes Divine Chocolate are owned by the Kuapa Kokoo farmers’ cooperative in Ghana, an association of  45,000 small-scale cocoa farmers. The coop also owns about 45% of  Divine Chocolate UK.

Kuapa Kokoo, the cooperative, has been around for nearly 20 years; it launched the Divine brand in the UK in 1998. A US affiliate brought Divine to this country three years ago; along with the farmers, owners include Lutheran World Relief, Oiko Credit, a Dutch fund that invests in microfinance and development efforts, and the UK Divine Chocolate company. [click to continue…]

Ancient wisdom on sustainability

Today’s guest post comes from Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Md.

Fred is my rabbi, and he’s a great guy; he was “green” before green was cool. In 19990, during his  junior year at Brandeis, Fred set off on a 3,300-mile walk from Los Angeles to New York as part of a project called the Global Walk for a Livable World. Today, he serves on the national boards of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) and as Chair of Greater Washington Interfaith Power & Light. Fred believes, as I do, that clergy of all faiths can and should play a greater role when it comes to teaching people about the environment, and the impact of their consumption.

This is a letter that Fred wrote last spring in the Adat Shalom newsletter under the headline “You Can’t Take It With You”:

Recently, while wrapping up the Book of Leviticus, we read Parashat Behar. This Torah portion is basically one chapter, Lev. 25 — and it’s at the very top of my list of favorite biblical passages. Behar outlines the every-seven-year Sabbatical (Shmita) during which the fields lie fallow, and the every-fiftieth-year Jubilee (Yovel) when debts are forgiven, slaves are freed, and land is returned to its original owner. It’s the Jewish source for the notion that “you can’t take it with you”.

Leaving aside the scholarly debate over how thoroughly these teachings were practiced and enforced during Temple times, as a values statement there are many vital messages for us today in this teaching, from the political to the personal. Four short examples: [click to continue…]

Sustainability and your brain

Yesterday was my last full day before taking off on vacation. It was a busy day, as usual. I wrapped up a story for FORTUNE, hosted a webinar for Greenbiz, wrote a blogpost, pushed through my email, which now arrives at a rate of 100-200 a day, and ran a couple of errands.

In between, by coincidence–or perhaps not–I stumbled across a couple of NPR interviews. Diane Rehm talked with Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School about his new book, Relaxation Revolution, and Terry Gross of Fresh Air interviewed Matt Richtel of The New York Times about his excellent series of stories, called Your Brain on Computers, which explores how digital media is changing our lives, our culture and, yes, our brains. The interviews were so compelling, and so timely, that I listened to both programs, in full, this morning. (They’re available on iTunes.)

Both were, in a way, about the same thing: how stressing the brain affects health. And while many things are more stressful than being “always on,” facing  tight deadlines and being nagged by that feeling that you haven’t checked your email, oh, in the last 45 minutes,  most of us will never go to war or perform surgery, so these are the of stresses that touch us every day. They can literally be deadly–Richtel won a Pulitzer Prize this year for his terrific series of stories, Driven to Distraction, about the risks of talking and texting behind the wheel. (One of my very top pet peeves is people who talk on the phone while driving.) [click to continue…]

Sustainable consumption: Opportunity or oxymoron?

Imagine that you’re the chief sustainability officer of a FORTUNE 500 company. During a meeting with your CEO, you say: “We need to talk to consumers about using less.”

Improbable? Sure.

Impossible? Perhaps not.

An important conversation to start? Absolutely.

So, at least, says Aron Cramer, the CEO of Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), a nonprofit association of companies, whose mission is to promote a just and sustainable world.

“The American model of consumption cannot be extended to the entire world, and won’t be, because the planet simply can’t support it,” Aron told me, when we spoke by phone the other day. Yet billions of people around the world want to improve their standard of living. Figuring out how they can enjoy a better life, without destroying the environment, “is the mother of all innovation challenges,” Aron says,

Last month, BSR published a 26-page report called The New Frontier in Sustainability: The Business Opportunity in Tackling Sustainable Consumption [PDF, free download). It’s an attempt to get business leaders to think about what sustainable consumption might look like.

The topic “has been the third rail of sustainability politics,” Aron told me, but he added, with his usual optimism, that “more companies are ready to have this discussion.”

If nothing else, the report makes clear the urgency of the issue. Citing a WWF report [PDF], it says:

By recent estimates, our global footprint now exceeds the world’s capacity to regenerate by about 30 percent, and if our current demands continue, by 2030 we will need the equivalent of two planets to maintain our lifestyles.

And yet:

…countless people have insufficient access to basic needs like food, clean water, and adequate shelter, and they also lack access to the resources they need to improve their lives. In 2006, the 1.2 billion people in the OECD countries had an average annual income per capita of US$30,580, while the 5.4 billion people in the rest of the world earned an average of US$3,130. Of those, 19 percent suffer from hunger, 28 percent are drinking polluted water, and 29 percent are illiterate.7 More than 2 billion people continue to rely on less than US$2 per day to meet their needs.

The question is, what business opportunities, if any,  await companies that figure out how to give poor and middle class people what they want in a sustainable way? [click to continue…]

Edgar Gunther, RIP

This blog has been quiet for a few days because my father, Edgar Gunther, died last Saturday morning. My dad was 88 years old. He’d suffered since last fall from an irreversible heart ailment that left him increasingly frail; his death was peaceful and not unexpected. But you are never quite prepared for the loss of a parent. I’m writing about him today because, despite an often-difficult relationship, his experiences inevitably helped shape my thinking on a number of topics relevant to this blog…immigration, globalization and religion, among them.

Immigration: My dad had lived in Greenwich Village since the late 1990s.  This week, as I’ve wandered around New York, making funeral arrangements, seeing family and thinking about his life. I couldn’t help noticing: The waiters, the cab drivers, the doormen—they’re all immigrants. So were the health care workers who cared for my dad during the last six months, in particular a wonderful Filipino woman who lived with him for the past month or so and offered her love and care.

My dad’s is a classic immigrant story. A Jew born in the Saar region of Germany in 1921, he escaped to New York with his family as a teenager in the late 1930s, fleeing Nazi persecution. Powered by his ambition, energy and intelligence, he created a rich and [click to continue…]

Obama, Rick Warren and me

Rick Warren is one the most likable people I’ve ever met. We traveled to Rwanda together back in 2005, and spent time at Saddleback Church. I came away impressed with his big heart, his passion, his smarts and his long-running effort to broaden the political agenda of evangelical Christians to include the issues of global poverty, AIDS and the environment.

But Barack Obama made a mistake by selecting Warren, the nation’s most influential religious leader, to give the invocation at his inaugural. The choice has rightfully angered gay and lesbian Americans. People who care deeply about abortion rights are pleased either.

As it happens, I don’t think Rick’s views on abortion should disqualify him from speaking at the inaugural. As Obama said, while defending the choice at a press conference earlier today, “it is important for America to come together, even though we may have disagreements on certain social issues.” Fair enough—we can agree to disagree respectfully about abortion, as much as our views are strongly held. (You can read Obama’s full answer here.)

The gay rights issue is different. Having Rick Warren give the invocation, at an event that should be a celebration for all Americans, is an insult to tens of millions of LGBT people. I don’t believe that Rick is a bigot, or that he holds any personal animus towards gay people. But his interpretation of the Bible, which he believes to be the word of God, has led him to believe that gay and lesbian relationships are fundamentally wrong.

I quoted him to that effect in my FORTUNE story, Will Success Spoil Rick Warren?, as John Cloud of TIME noted in an excellent column published today:

About three years ago, a reporter at Fortune asked Rick Warren — the successful pastor whom the President-elect has asked to pray at his inauguration — about homosexuality. “I’m no homophobic guy,” Warren said. His proof? He had dined with gays; he has a church “full of people who are caring for gays who are dying of AIDS”; he believes that “in the hierarchy of evil… homosexuality is not the worst sin.” So gays get to eat — sometimes even with Rick Warren! Then they get to die of AIDS — possibly under the care of Rick Warren’s congregants. And when they go to hell, they won’t be quite as far down in Satan’s pit as other evildoers.

But Warren did have a message of hope for gays: they can magically become heterosexuals. (He didn’t explain how, but I suspect he thinks praying really hard would do it, as though most of us who grew up gay and evangelical hadn’t tried that every night as teenagers.) Homosexuality, Pastor Warren explained in the virtually content-free language of the dogmatist, is “not the natural way.” And then he went right for the ick factor, the way middle-school boys do: “Certain body parts are meant to fit together.”

When Rick and I discussed the issue—always at my request—I never felt he was mean-spirited. But I told him that his position provided cover for bigots, even for those commit acts of violence against gays. He replied by reminding me, accurately, that he has argued for years that evangelical Christians should talk a lot less about the hot-button social issues and a lot more about problems around which all Americans can unite, like poverty or the environment. “I’m a bridge builder, not a divider,” he likes to say.

The trouble is, religious differences can’t easily be bridged. The world’s religions “totally contradict each other” and are “mutually exclusive” is how Rick put it to me back then. When we explored this further, he told me, cheerfully, that he thinks I’m going to hell because I haven’t accepted Jesus Christ as my savior (I’m Jewish), but that doesn’t mean we can’t be friends. Trust me that he’s a hard guy not to like.

The controversy over Obama’s choice got me wondering: Is there any religious figure in America today who could give the invocation at an inaugural without making some people unhappy? I called my friend Donna Schaper to ask her. Donna’s the senior minister of Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, a liberal Protestant, progressive in her politics, and a gifted writer, speaker, gardener and mother. (I know this because she’s married to my friend and college roommate, Warren Goldstein, a historian and the biographer of the Rev. William Sloane Coffin.) Donna said that it’s possible to construct an ecumenical invocation, but very hard to find a single person to deliver the prayer who could appeal to all Americans.

When Donna leads prayers at public occasions, she talks about

God, whose name we do not and cannot know, whom some call Allah and some Spirit, whom some call Ruach and others Yahweh or Adonai, some call Jesus and some call Christ, others know only as Breath or Ruach, still others understand as energy or force, Thou who are nameless and properly so, draw near….

Rick, if you’re reading this, there’s an approach for you.

Donna has also been to events where four religious leaders—Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim– deliver prayers. “Then, of course, the Buddhists and Sikhs and others would be left out,” she says.

Because she’s an Obama fan, I asked Donna what she thought of the choice of Rick Warren. She admitted disappointment. “I’m still very pro-Obama, and he must have his reasons, but in addition to insulting women and gays, he missed a big opportunity,” she told me. “He lost the chance to do something positive, and imaginative.”

I agree. It’s fine for Obama to invite Rick Warren to the White House, to enlist his help dealing with AIDS and to honor his work in Africa. Just don’t put him on the podium on Jan. 20, a day that is supposed to belong to all Americans.

Marriott and Milk

Last month’s passage of California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage, unleashed anger among gay and lesbian Americans. One target: Marriott Corp., mostly because the company’s founding family and current CEO, Bill Marriott, are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Days Saints. See this and this and this.

Mormons, of course, played a crucial role in passing Prop 8. News reports say that half of the $40 million spent to support Prop 8 came from LDS members, who also canvassed neighborhoods and staffed phone banks. This is ironic, at the very least, as Hendrik Hertzberg noted in The New Yorker:

You might think that an organization that for most of the first of its not yet two centuries of existence was the world’s most notorious proponent of startlingly unconventional forms of wedded bliss would be a little reticent about issuing orders to the rest of humanity specifying exactly who should be legally entitled to marry whom But no.

But why go after Marriott? According to my friend Bob Witeck, who runs a consulting firm called Witeck-Combs that specializes in gay issues and advises Marriott, neither Bill Marriott nor members of his immediate family donated to the campaign on behalf of Prop 8. What’s more (and this is undisputed), Marriott as an employer has an exemplary record around diversity in general and LGBT employees in particular. It gets a 100% rating in the Corporate Equality Index (PDF), an annual survey of corporate practices done by the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT advocacy group. The HRC’s inaugural gala next month will be held at the Mayflower Hotel, a Marriott property in Washington. GLAAD, an activist group that focuses on the media portrayals of gays, has held its awards ceremony at Manhattan’s Marriott Marquis.

So it would appear that the Marriott Corp. is under fire only because the family belongs to the Mormon church. Bob Witeck says this is unfair. “Their policies and practices have been good for a long time,” he told me. “This notion of targeting people because of their faith is deeply troubling.”

At first, I agreed. Anti-Mormon bias is no less troubling that anti-gay bias. Then I saw Milk, the wonderful new movie about the life of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in America. Part of it is about a notorious California ballot proposal to ban gay teachers from schools that was defeated in the 1970s. Milk argues, persuasively, that singling out gays and lesbians for discrimination in any way, shape or form is simply un-American.

The broad issue raised by the backlash against Marriott is this: What role should CEOS and big companies play when confronted with controversial issues? Certainly they make themselves heard when it comes to the issues directly affecting them, like taxes, trade, labor and environmental laws, not to mention multibillion dollar bailouts. Ought they not take a stand on social issues, too? Indeed, some do—Microsoft endorsed a gay-rights measure in the state of Washington and Procter & Gamble donated money to a gay rights group to help defeat an anti-gay law in its hometown of Cincinnati, as I wrote in a FORTUNE story called Queer Inc. in 20006.

Bill Marriott responded to the boycott threats last month on his blog. “Neither I, nor the company, contributed to the campaign to pass Proposition 8,” he wrote. “We embrace all people as our customers, associates, owners and franchisees regardless of race, sex, gender identity or sexual orientation.” Later, he recorded a Thanksgiving message around the diversity theme, mentioning sexual orientation. Clearly the company is worried about the gay backlash.

My guess is that Bill Marriott, who is 76 and a political conservative, has come a long way on the issue of gay rights. But for all his talk about diversity, he has yet to take a position on gay marriage or Prop 8. He has no obligation to do so, but if you believe that gay marriage is a civil rights issue, just as interracial marriage was once a civil rights issue, silence or neutrality is unacceptable. On this point, Milk the movie and Milk the activist are unequivocal. Either you’re for us or against us, Harvey Milk would have said.

As one commenter to Bill Marriott’s blog wrote:

When it comes to gay issues, Marriott is conveniently a hotel chain that is welcoming and accepting of all travelers. When it comes to Mormon issues, Marriott is conveniently a company founded and led by members of the LDS church and fully supportive of church doctrine. Marriott can’t play it both ways. Through this posting, Bill Marriott is attempting to salvage Marriott’s reputation with a PR diversion. As Margaret Thatcher once said, “Standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous; you get knocked down by the traffic from both sides”.

Another disagreed:

It is amazing to me that in this great country, where we prize the precious freedoms of religion and speech, that a man can be criticized and attacked for his personal beliefs and religion. Mr. Marriott didn’t contribute to the Prop 8 campaign. His personal beliefs are irrelevant, because those are his PERSONAL beliefs… I’m just so saddened to see such hate and bigotry from a community who proclaims tolerance and love.

My own thoughts, which are subject to change: I’ve met Bill Marriott, who is an extraordinarily decent man, and I know from hearing from employees that Marriott is a gay-friendly company that values all of its workers. I know that it’s a lot to ask of the Marriott CEO to support gay marriage. But Prop 8 is a hateful and hurtful law, designed to take away the right of gay marriage granted by California courts. It was opposed by mainstream pols including President-elect Obama and Gov. Schwarzenegger.

Bill Marriot has the right to try to finesse the controversy. But gays and lesbians have the right to spend their money with companies that fully and openly support their cause.

A final thought: The future of the gay marriage issue could not be clearer—the younger you are, the more likely you are to support equality for gays in public and private life. Smart companies see where the world is going.