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The Heroic Works of Jerry Mander

by Rob Dietz

When I was a rookie economic activist in the fall of 2008, having become the director of CASSE only a year prior, I met Jerry Mander.  At the time I had no idea how many heroic things he had done to both conserve natural areas and support the transition to a better economy.

As a card-carrying introvert, I’m not much of a networker, but I came to know Jerry through one successful episode of networking. Right around the time I began my job of promoting the steady state economy as a positive alternative to the pursuit of perpetual growth, Annie Leonard released her runaway hit film The Story of Stuff. I thought it was outstanding, and I wanted to know how she had made it. So I gave her a call, and we had a friendly and educational (for me) discussion. I was going to be in the San Francisco Bay area where she was based, and I asked her if she would meet me to continue our discussion in person. She agreed and said that I also ought to meet Jerry Mander, so we set a time to get together for Indian food.

I didn’t know much about Jerry, other than he had founded the International Forum on Globalization (IFG) and was serving as its leader (I later learned that he and IFG had played an important role in organizing the Seattle protests against the policies of the World Trade Organization). Upon meeting him, I could see that he had a style all his own. Dressed like a professor in a tweed sports jacket, it was impossible not to notice his gray curls, which could fairly be described as “Einsteinian.” His charisma drew me in right away.

He was organizing a meeting of intellectuals and activists to discuss the downsides of capitalism and to consider alternative economic models. I was honored to receive an invitation, especially when I learned what an amazing roster of people he was convening — it was a great opportunity to learn the ins and outs of economic activism! The meeting was all the more interesting because of its timing in October 2008, when the financial meltdown was in full swing. Wall Street titans, Beltway power players, and a good chunk of the Western world seemed to be in complete panic mode.  It was the perfect moment to be questioning the economic status quo.

All sorts of scenes still occupy my memory from Jerry’s meeting. David Korten and Josh Farley proposed a new way to structure the banking industry, which would entirely change the way money works. John Fullerton explained the complexities of derivatives and the power of “big capital” in driving critical economic decisions. Richard Heinberg described the financial collapse as a sign of the end of economic growth, which became the core idea of his next book project. Annie Leonard provided details on the making of The Story of Stuff, and the view from the conference room, which overlooked San Francisco Bay, provided a fun bit of irony as she discussed her movie about the downsides of the cheap-goods economy. Behemoth cargo ships piled high with colorful shipping containers motored into and out of the bay to pick up and drop off their wares. The meeting was an incredible collection of sustainability superstars, and Jerry facilitated it with skill and grace, his flair for leadership apparent.

If Jerry’s accomplishments were limited to founding and directing IFG and running significant meetings in the process, that would be admirable enough. But on a subsequent trip to San Francisco, I had a great time uncovering one amazing fact after another about his career.

Jerry agreed to meet with me again to discuss how CASSE and IFG could collaborate. On the day of our get-together, I had some time to kill, so before traipsing through the tower-lined avenues of the financial district where we had arranged to rendezvous at a coffee shop, I walked to the public library to see what sort of facts I could dig up on Jerry.

Early in his career, he was an ad-man. But somewhere along the way, he formed an alliance with Sierra Club icon, David Brower, and he put his skills to great use. As told by Marc Reisner in his book Cadillac Desert, Brower considered Jerry to be a genius — the full-page ads he designed for the New York Times, Washington Post, and other major newspapers were largely responsible for shifting public opinion about dams in the Grand Canyon and thwarting the Bureau of Reclamation’s plans to flood some of the most picturesque lands on the North American continent.

Jerry’s role in protecting the Grand Canyon cemented his place in my Hall of Heroes. But I knew he had also written some books, so I looked in the library’s catalog and found some of them. The library had a copy of his most famous book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. It was originally published when I was a first-grader, and I wish our society had taken his arguments to heart. I was part of the TV generation. In fact, I think I can honestly call myself a recovering TV addict. I’m sad to report that a sizable percentage of my brain capacity has been taken up by the cheesy dialogue and over-the-top action sequences of 80s movies and TV shows.

But it wasn’t Four Arguments that made me do a double take. It was actually Jerry’s first book that had me rummaging through the bookshelves: The Great International Paper Airplane Book. I used to check this book out from my elementary school library all the time — even more often than books on UFOs, ghosts, and the Loch Ness Monster! Not only had Jerry Mander played a pivotal role in saving the Grand Canyon, not only had he orchestrated an incredible career switch from advertiser to crusader for the public good, but he had also fired the imagination of at least one child.

When I met up with him for coffee, our conversation quickly turned from the state of the economy to something more poignant — the loss of connection to nature that has afflicted modern society. We discussed it as a root cause of many of the most profound problems of the day, and we shared stories about relationships we had built and good times we had had in our lives while exploring wild places. This loss of connection blinds people to the fact that continuous economic growth also means continuous transformation of natural resources into salad shooters, remote-controlled rotating tie racks, twelve-lane highway interchanges, and other manufactured capital and products. It was clear that a love of nature had colored Jerry’s worldview and driven many important choices in his life.

I’m planning to visit him this week, and I’m excited to catch up with my friend and have another chance to say thank you. The world is a better place for having had certain people in it. If you’re lucky, you might cross paths with such a person every once in a while. Luck was smiling on me when I crossed paths with Jerry Mander.

The Titanic Code

by Dave Gardner

One hundred years ago April 15, the Titanic disappeared beneath the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Several have marked this anniversary by noting the similarities between the Titanic and human civilization. In Titanic: The Final Word with James Cameron, on the National Geographic channel, James Cameron, director of the blockbuster film, Titanic, aptly turned the event into metaphor:

Part of the Titanic parable is of arrogance, of hubris, of the sense that we’re too big to fail. There was this big machine, this human system, that was pushing forward with so much momentum that it couldn’t turn, it couldn’t stop in time to avert a disaster. And that’s what we have right now.  We can’t turn because of the momentum of the system, the political momentum, the business momentum.*

The metaphor is remarkably apt, as the size of the Titanic meant it was not nimble. It could not stop or turn on a dime. The captain needed to look far ahead on the horizon and plan ahead. Doesn’t that sound like the predicament in which civilization finds itself? We have built up an increasingly complex system, and it is a ginormous one (7 billion served), touching all corners of the planet. It’s impossible to change overnight. And looking ahead with only a short time-horizon serves it very poorly.

There’s something else keeping us from changing course, however. It is lack of desire. Our culture is not interested in a course correction because we’re distracted. We don’t see the iceberg ahead because we’re fixated on a cultural story that defines progress as growth, and growth as progress. This worldview has led us to develop a system that depends on everlasting growth.

Fortunately, when Mother Nature says, “enough,” key parts of the system begin to fail. I say fortunately because it’s hard to argue with success. As long as this system appears to be serving most of us well, we are not likely to throw it out. The failure of the system, which we’ve begun to experience, is our best hope for motivation to get moving toward a more enlightened arrangement.

“We’ve written a narrative that was fine in the nineteenth century.  It served us well through much of the twentieth century… but it’s outdated.  And we now need a new cultural narrative.”

— William Rees, ecological economist, in GrowthBusters

In the documentary, GrowthBusters, I refer to perpetual growth as our “operating system,” comparing it to Windows or Mac OS. The belief, the dependence on, and the pursuit of growth are what we’re all about. It’s the computer code that manages everything we do. Many call it our cultural narrative. If we were on the bridge of the Titanic, it would be in our charts, affecting our compass, on our radar. It informs (or misinforms) everything we do.

Without a doubt there are economists, sociologists and activists developing patches for this growth-based operating system. There are also scientists and activists developing apps that help us lighten our load on the planet. Renewable energy, water and land conservation, permaculture, and transit-oriented development are all examples of what I would call improved software applications, but they are still written to run on our old, growth-based operating system. With a system committed to everlasting growth, they will not keep our civilization from running off a cliff.

This is not to disparage them; it is to keep us from relaxing, thinking they will enable our civilization to become sustainable. They can be meaningful parts of a completely new system. But we do have to throw out the old system and start with fresh computer code. Upgrading from Windows 7 to Windows 2013 won’t do — Windows has to go.

“Only the prospect of worldwide mind-change gives me hope for the future.”

— Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael

Changing our cultural narrative is a tall order. In my film, Paul Ehrlich says, “We’re faced with a gigantic challenge that we haven’t been prepared for, either in our genetic evolution, or more importantly, in our cultural evolution.” I believe it’s the biggest challenge our civilization has ever faced. Who can we call? I’d love to say, just call GrowthBusters. After all, the film is my biggest contribution to the change we need to make.

But this challenge is too big. The film takes only the first step, which is to raise awareness that we have a culture that worships growth everlasting, and to help audiences realize it’s not delivering on its promise. I see the role of storytellers like Daniel Quinn, Dave Foreman, Richard Heinberg and myself as one of preparing our fellow human beings to be receptive to the completely new computer code that steady staters, transitioners, de-growthers and others are developing.

The time is now. The pieces are falling into place. The old system is crashing. We’re not able to reboot and get back to the business of robust growth. It will be key that we don’t rush in with patches or rely only on new apps. We must be relentless in our insistence on adopting a new operating system.

*Thanks to Joe Romm of ThinkProgress for alerting me to Cameron’s words.

Dave Gardner is the director of the non-profit documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth, currently screening around the world. CASSE executive board members Brian Czech, Herman Daly and Peter Victor appear in the film. This commentary was published simultaneously here, as part of a series honoring the 40th anniversary of The Limits to Growth. Dave asks that you take his Pledge to Think Small to help speed adoption of a new operating system.

¡Buenas noticias! ¡La recuperación económica se frena!

Publicado por Dave Gardner, director del documental de próximo estreno GrowthBusters

Artículo original traducido del Inglés al Español por Bosco Gámiz.

Las noticias económicas del pasado viernes fueron bastante positivas. El crecimiento anual del PIB de EE.UU. fue inferior al uno por ciento en el primer semestre de 2011.

Sin embargo, me atrevería a decir que …ehmm, un 99,9 por ciento de todo el mundo considera esto una mala noticia. El New York Times [1] lo calificó como “paso de tortuga”. Periodistas y comentaristas de todo el mundo con toda probabilidad están escribiendo palabras como debilidad, anemia, malestar general, sombrío, triste, abatimiento, y el estancamiento.

Entonces ¿qué tiene de bueno? ¿Acaso me produce un placer perverso y morboso ver a mis compañeros humanos desempleados, ahogados en sus hipotecas, o comiendo en comedores de beneficencia? No, no me lo produce. Las consecuencias de la recesión son reales; es doloroso, y es triste. Sin embargo, que el PIB sea constante o que baje un poco, no es una mala noticia. Tampoco es la caída en el gasto de los consumidores [2] que se dio a conocer el martes.

Aunque muchos de los impactos de la recesión son trágicos, son la cara negativa de adaptación a una nueva realidad: el fin del crecimiento. Son una parte necesaria de una fase temporal. Podríamos llamarlo la fase de crisálida, hasta que nos transformamos en algo más bello.

Considere estos titulares de los últimos dos años. ¿Son buenas o malas noticias?

  • La recesión pone a los bebés en espera
  • Movimiento por casas pequeñas prospera en medio de crisis inmobiliaria
  • Se construyen menos casas durante el frenazo de la economía
  • El uso mundial de carbón se estanca a pesar del creciente mercado chino e indio
  • Total Municipal Waste Generation Dropped
  • Caída de la generación residuos en el municipio
  • La contaminación por carbono de la UE cae
  • GM cierra la fábrica donde se producen los Hummer
  • Gasoline Spike Fuels Surge in U.S. Bicycle Sales
  • La subida de gasolina en EE.UU. aumenta las ventas de bicicletas
  • El tamaño medio las casas en EEUU se estanca tras 30 años de continuo crecimiento
  • El gasto en publicidad disminuye
  • Las aerolíneas dejan en tierra más del 11% de sus aviones
  • Los implantes mamarios se desinflan junto con la economía
  • Más de 400 de congresos cancelados en Las Vegas
  • El mercado de segunda vivienda cae un 30%

Si leemos estos titulares a través de una lente arcaica – la visión del mundo propia del siglo pasado en el que el crecimiento es el Santo Grial – estas historias parecen malas noticias. Pero a través de una lente más moderna, del siglo 21, que valora la verdadera sostenibilidad, son el anuncio de un mundo que se ralentiza hacia un nivel responsable de actividad humana.

Piensen en ello. Casas más pequeñas significa menos deforestación, menos hábitat partido en subdivisiones, menos hormigón (cuya producción emite mucho CO2, y menos espacios vitales que calentar o enfriar (una vez más, reducción de emisiones de CO2). Un menor uso del carbón es una buena noticia en el aprtado de gases de efecto invernadero – como lo son los aviones en tierra, no más Hummers y el cambio a favor de las bicicletas. Curiosamente no vemos señales de que los políticos, los expertos y los periodistas estén pensando tan en serio acerca de los temas.

No soy el primero en reconocer la recesión como una oportunidad. Grandes mentes como Gus Speth y David Korten están haciendo todo lo posible para convertir esta recesión en una corrección del rumbo. “¿Por qué esta crisis puede ser nuestra mejor oportunidad para construir una nueva economía” de Korten [3], y “Hacia una nueva economía y una nueva política” de Speth [4] son buenos ejemplos de esto. Incluso Jay Leno se ha apuntado, felicitando al Presidente George W. Bush por frenar la economía en 2008 y por tanto hacer más a favor de la lucha contra el cambio climático que Al Gore. Por supuesto que los impactos del crecimiento económico afectan a mucho más que el clima. Nuestra actividad económica en aumento está causando la destrucción del hábitat, la extinción de especies y contaminación [5], y está liquidando recursos críticos como el suelo fértil.

No conozco a ningún periodista que buscase a Speth, a Korten, a Daly, a Czech, a Victor o a Heinberg para contrastar una visión alternativa de las noticias del viernes. Una historia sobre la fusión de los hielos incluiría comentarios de parte de auténticos científicos del clima y de parte de negacionistas del cambio climático. Pero en la historia que conocemos sobre el PIB no hay discusiones en las redacciones para garantizar todos los puntos de vista – nadie que dijera lo buena noticia que es que el producto interior bruto se pueda estar acercando a un estado estacionario. Se supone que crecimiento del PIB es una buena noticia y la contracción económica es una mala noticia – para todo el mundo. Ni siquiera se les ocurre cuestionar esa suposición. La fe ciega en la antigua visión del mundo todavía tiene un férreo agarre sobre los periodistas y editores. Esto tiene que cambiar.

¡Quiero ver la mariposa!

Dave Gardner es el realizador del documental, GrowthBusters, que se estrena a finales de octubre. La campaña de esta película sin ánimo de lucro en Kickstarter [6] para recaudar fondos se encuentra en su última semana. Para más información sobre la película o para organizar una proyección, visite www.growthbusters.org [7]. David puede ser contactado en dave@growthbusters.org.

Enlaces:

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/30/business/economy/us-economy-worse-than-expected-in-second-quarter.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=tha2

[2] https://steadystate.orgdrop in consumer spending

[3] http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/the-new-economy/why-this-crisis-may-be-our-best-chance-to-build-a-new-economy

[4] http://www.thesolutionsjournal.com/node/619

[5] http://www.worldwildlife.org/sites/living-planet-report/

[6] http://tinyurl.com/kickstartGbusters

[7] www.growthbusters.org: http://www.growthbusters.org/

 

Good News: Economic Recovery Stalls!

by Dave Gardner, director of the upcoming documentary GrowthBusters

Economic news last Friday was quite positive. Annualized U.S. GDP growth was less than one percent in the first half of 2011.

However, I would hazard a guess that, oh, some 99.9 percent of the world considered this bad news. It was characterized in the New York Times as a “snail’s pace.” Journalists and commentators around the world are predictably typing out words like weak, anemic, malaise, gloomy, bleak, doldrums and stagnation.

So why would I celebrate? Do I get perverse, morbid pleasure at seeing my fellow humans unemployed, upside down in their mortgages, or dining at soup kitchens? I do not. The fallout of the recession is real, it’s painful, and it’s sad. But steady or declining GDP is not bad news. Nor is the drop in consumer spending reported Tuesday.

While many impacts of the recession are tragic, these are the pains of adjusting to a new reality: the end of growth. They are a necessary part of a temporary phase. We might call it the cocoon phase, as we metamorphose into something more beautiful.

Consider these headlines from the past two years. Are they good news or bad?

  • Recession Puts Babies on Hold
  • Tiny House Movement Thrives Amid Real Estate Bust
  • Home Production Falls as Economy Languishes
  • Global Coal Use Stagnates Despite Growing Chinese and Indian Markets
  • Total Municipal Waste Generation Dropped
  • Home Depot Calls a Halt to Rapid Expansion
  • European Union Carbon Pollution Drops
  • GM to Close Hummer
  • Gasoline Spike Fuels Surge in U.S. Bicycle Sales
  • Bottled Water Consumption Growth Slows
  • 30-Year Growth Spurt Ends for Average American House Size
  • Ad Spending Down
  • Airlines Ground More Than 11% of Their Jets
  • Breast Implants are Deflating Along With the Economy
  • More Than 400 Meetings in Las Vegas Recently Cancelled
  • 2nd Home Market Declined 30%

Looking at these headlines through an archaic lens, last century’s worldview that growth is the Holy Grail, these stories seemed like bad news. But through a more modern, 21st century lens that values true sustainability, they herald a world slowing down toward a responsible level of human activity.

Think about it. Smaller houses mean less deforestation, less habitat converted to subdivisions, less concrete (production of which emits significant CO2), and less living space to heat or cool (again reducing CO2 emissions). Less coal use is also good news in the greenhouse gas department — as are grounded jets, no more Hummers and a switch to bicycles. Strangely we see no signs that politicians, pundits or journalists are thinking this deeply about the subjects.

I’m not the first to recognize this recession as an opportunity. Great minds like Gus Speth and David Korten are doing their best to turn this recession into a course correction. Korten’s Why This Crisis May Be Our Best Chance to Build a New Economy, and Speth’s Towards a New Economy and a New Politics are good examples of this. Even Jay Leno got into the act, congratulating President George W. Bush in 2008 for doing more to fight climate change than Al Gore — by slowing the economy. Of course the impacts of economic growth reach far beyond the climate. Our increasing economic activity is causing habitat destruction, species extinction and pollution; and it is liquidating critical resources like fertile soil.

I’m aware of no journalist who sought out Speth, Korten, Daly, Czech, Victor or Heinberg for an alternative view on Friday’s news. A story about ice melting would include comments from both real climate scientists and climate change deniers. But for this GDP story there was no discussion in the newsrooms about getting the other side — a quote about how terrific it is that gross domestic product may be settling toward a steady state. They assume GDP growth is good news and economic contraction is bad news — for everyone. It doesn’t even occur to them to question that assumption. Blind faith in the old worldview still has a tight grip on the reporters and editors. This needs to change.

I look forward to seeing the butterfly!

Dave Gardner is the filmmaker behind the documentary, GrowthBusters, which premieres in late October. The nonprofit film’s final fundraising campaign on Kickstarter is in its last week. For more information about the film or to organize a screening, visit www.growthbusters.org. Dave can be reached at dave@growthbusters.org.