April 22, 2009
Earth Day amidst Economic Contraction
Today is Earth Day. The concept of putting aside a day to think about the Earth is not as oxymoronic as it seems at first glance though a true win for ecologists would have every day considered Earth Day. Taking any time to think about the impact our society has on the planet is a good thing, especially considering the exponentially enormous impact of humans on what was once considered the natural environment. For most of us under the age of 40, this is a particularly poignant Earth Day as it is marked during the first full year of a severe and sustained economic downturn, the first most of us have faced in our professional lives. Perhaps it is a good day to think about the inevitable economic recovery and how we will behave as consumers and as business leaders, if only to stave off what appears to be another set of inevitable circumstances, localized and widespread ecological collapse. The world, as we know it, is in trouble. It doesn't matter if you subscribe to the urgency of former Vice President Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth or if you believe the corporate marketing myth of clean coal, the fact that human activity is increasingly disrupting global ecosystems is irrefutable in all but the most ignorant circles. Collectively, we are responsible for the future and collectively, we have a number of very difficult but very necessary choices to make. Ironically, many of these choices will actually save us a lot of money in the long run though they come at the expense of our false sense of entitlement and the false security of convenience. The first choice we have to make is one of identity. Here in North America, we have grown fat (in both our heads and our stomachs) on the ideal that our individual right to do whatever we please supersedes our responsibility to our neighbors both near and far away. We no longer see ourselves as parts of a much greater whole and tend to act as singular republics of one. This is reflected in our overall lifestyles as exemplified by consumer choices, living arrangements and transportation options. It is perhaps best reflected in our unwillingness to help others (and ultimately ourselves) through taxation and the equanimity that comes with a sense of equality. In short, we have to stop acting as if we are the only ones that matter. All life is precious, everything is connected and all life is equal. If we don't wrap our heads around that simple set of ideas today, our grandchildren will not enjoy the diversity of life on Earth tomorrow. It really is that simple. If we can accept that we are, in fact, parts of a much larger collective, we can begin to make reasonable and wiser choices as individual consumers and as business leaders. Perhaps the most important change we can make on an individual and business level is the rejection of plastics in packaging. Plastic never goes away. Even when it breaks down, its molecular structure stays intact. The oceans are awash with plastic and that plastic is working its way back into our own bodies as it moves up the food chain from plankton to fish to bird, bear and human. We even use plastics in the delivery of the most basic of human needs, water. As the plastics in the bottle leach into the water, often making that water less healthy, tap water is known to be far healthier (read, less contaminated) than bottled water. As business leaders, perhaps we can reconsider our use of plastics in over-packaging the products we offer consumers. Perhaps we can insist our staff drink the perfectly safe tap water (the safety of which we all pay for through civic and state taxes), instead of paying good money for potentially bad bottled water. The culture of disposable convenience needs to change and that change starts with individual choices, most of which are very real cost savers. Another set of choice changes we can make as business leaders and as individual consumers involves transportation. Do a quick mental survey. How many people in your work environment drive themselves to a central office each day? Are there other options such as telecommuting or car pooling that could be explored and rewarded? If not, could the length of their trips and gasoline consumption be cut through time-shifting? Are there public transit options that could be pursued? Each option is safer, less wasteful and ultimately less expensive for both businesses and workers. Another major issue in transportation is the environmental impact of long-distance travel. In 2008, I personally spent over 2.5weeks of my life in airports or on airplanes moving across North America to cover over a dozen conferences or to attend dozens of meetings. Most of the conferences I attended had 500 or more other attendees. The only major conferences I went to that did not involve air travel were ones near my home and the eComXpo show which takes place over the Internet. While I can not reasonably suggest business leaders stop attending conferences as there is great value in meeting face to face, there are a few ways to drastically cut the environmental impact of air travel. The first is simple. Make sure your flights are direct and do not involve multiple stop-overs. Next, try to travel as a team to reduce the chances of multiple flights. Thirdly, book travel in such a way that one avoids unnecessary flights by moving to two or three cities between conferences (which are often booked back-to-back) instead of flying back home to touch base with the office before heading back on the road to the next town. Lastly, as webmasters and IT businesses, there is a lot we can do to save energy in our daily operations. One simple way is the use of the ROBOTS.TXT file. Have you ever considered how much energy Google, Yahoo or Microsoft use to crawl the web? If every webmaster used ROBOTS.TXT files to direct bots through their sites, the cumulative effect would be equivalent to the recent Earth Hour exercise. Another way webmasters can help save energy is to minimize the use of extraneous servers as much as possible. A third way is the simplest of all. Unplug stuff that is not being used such as the cell phone charger that is constantly plugged in even when the phone is fully charged and unattached to the cord. Today is Earth Day. Its not getting as much publicity as it did in previous years, mainly because we have a more immediate problem to deal with, an economy that appears to be teetering on collapse. The truth of the matter is, economy is a human construct. The environment is not. Our choices and actions effect both but ultimately, the economic cost of environmental collapse will make this period look like a picnic. Let's be sure we don't die of over consumption or the only living beings left to enjoy the picnic will be ants and other insects. Though the choices might be hard, the consequences of avoidance will be a far harder reality.