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Earth Day Voices: John Thackara
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It's All About Distribution
by John Thackara

William Gibson's take on the subject has become a classic modern aphorism: "The future is already here, it's just unevenly distributed." Most elements of a sustainable world exist. Some of those elements are technological solutions. Some are to be found in the natural world, thanks to millions of years of natural evolution. The majority, I suspect, are social practices - some of them very old ones - learned by other societies and in other times.

From this insight flows the idea of designers as global hunter-gatherers of models, processes, and ways of living that already exist. Or used to. Thanks to platforms like Worldchanging, a large community is learning, fast, to share information about pre-existing solutions that have been proven to work. Creative design practice these days is about adapting solutions found in one context for use in another.

The problem is that our collective knowledge footprint is still tiny in a global context, and is growing far too slowly relative to the time available for us to to turn things around. This is why we have to crack the distribution question: How do we ensure that knowledge about sustainable practices is available where and when it needed? As scavenger-innovators, our first response to the question should be to ask another: who has cracked a similar distribution question in the past? How might we learn from, or piggyback on, their success?

Three existing distribution channels strike me as being full of potential: grassroots activism; global business; and religion.

Grassroots activism: where do I join?
Paul Hawken wrote here in December about the "over one million non-profits and 100 million people who daily work for the preservation and restoration of life on earth." For Hawken, it's the single biggest movement on the planet.

It may be a big movement, but it lacks coherence. Yes, hundreds of millions of people now agree that something must be done to avert climate change. But when they - we - ask: "Where do I join?"- the answer, with a million organizations to choose from, is by no means obvious.

Starting local is a sensible first step. But even a commitment to join local does not always reduce the field to a manageable size. In Dott 07 for example, when our team of citizens and designers set out to reduce the carbon footprint of one single street in northeast England, we encountered 15 different organisations whose mission was to help people save energy.

The approach I advocate to designers is this: Don't start a new organization. Find a well-organized one with good local roots and join that one. Offer them your scavenger-innovator design skills. Help them become expert and choosing between the multiple solutions on offer, or that can be found - including adjacent organizations.

Global business
A second distribution system that already exists is global business. Some multinationals are moving much faster on measures to avoid climate change than most governments and all politicians. Patrick Cescau , for example, Group Chief Executive of Unilever, spoke recently of "seismic shifts in the world we do business in. A reality gap has opened up between where we are and where we know - both instinctively and intellectually - we need to be."

Cescau went on to commit his company to the application of "new design principles" that would "progressively drive down our usage of resources and move towards ever more sustainable consumption." Easy to say, of course; harder to do. I asked a couple of people in Unilever about this pledge. It sounds as if many of Cescau's 234,000 colleagues remain vague, to put it mildly, about what these “new design principles” are - let alone how they are to be implemented.

But that just means there's an opportunity here. Unilever trades in most countries of the world. If they are in the market for sustainable design principles, it seems to me we should provide them. Big companies also reach sites of economic activity that are beyond the reach of other distribution systems. In India, for example, the distribution systems of trading giant ITC reach most of the country's 700,000 villages. ITC has now developed a hybrid internet-real-world supply chain, called eChoupal, to tackle challenges posed by the unique features of Indian agriculture - fragmented farms, weak infrastructure, and the involvement of numerous intermediaries, among others.

Distribution systems like e-Choupal were developed to deliver traditional products to geographically dispersed local producers. But they also have the potential to exchange information, products and services that enhance sustainable farm productivity, too. ITC has the resources to run eChoupal in Hindi and other local languages, too; knowledge exchanges run by academic researchers, or NGOs, cannot emulate this.

World religions have practiced knowledge distribution for thousands of years. Not all of these churches' day-to-day behaviors were admirable, it's true. And some contemporary belief systems sit squarely in the enemy camp. Many devout people - by some estimates, 40 per cent of the world's population - believe fervently in apocalyptic "end of days" scenarios and await climate-induced catastrophe with eager anticipation.

But not all. A growing number of evangelical Christians is engaging with aspects of 'environmental ministry' in response to what some believe to be Biblical obligations. A story in Treehugger describes the emergence of an "evangelical vision of the environment and human beings' relationship to it" that's both complex and nuanced.

Some Christian organizations are downright militant on climate change. In the UK, Christian Aid has become a powerful advocate of science-based environmental policy and a critic of government dissembling. In a recent report called Coming Clean, Christian Aid excoriated Tony Blair for repeatedly claiming that “if we shut down all UK emissions tomorrow, growth in China will make up the difference in two years”. The charity, having analyzed a mountain of scientific and financial information, concluded that that emissions associated with the worldwide consumption of FTSE 100 companies amounts to 12-15% of the global total.

"Just as we have outsourced the labor intensive and dirty end of our industry to poorer countries, and invested in those countries to get them to produce for us, so we have outsourced our C02 emissions," concluded the Christian Aid report.

Churches can also be great organizers. On my last book promotion tour, in 2005, I had to deal psychologically with reminders, from half the booksellers I met, that Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life had sold 500,000 copies a month during its first two years, and was projected to reach 100 million by the time my tour was over. My own book, I had to accept, was unlikely to sell quite so well.

What struck me then, and still does, is the brilliant way Rick Warren organizes his operation. As Malcolm Gladwell explained in a fabulous piece for the New Yorker, Gladwell has built a 'Cellular Church,' based on small groups, for whom his book is a kind of primer. Rick's small groups 'focus on practical applications of spirituality...not on abstract knowledge, nor even on ideas for the sake of ideas themselves.'

Before Warren wrote The Purpose-Driven Life, he wrote The Purpose-Driven Church, which Gladwell describes as "a how-to guide for church builders". The real job of running Warren's church, in Gladwell's account, is the recruitment, training and retention of the thousands of volunteer leaders for all the small groups it has. He's run hundreds of training seminars around the world for ministers of small to medium-sized churches.

NGOs? Multinational business? Churches? They sound like unlikely bedfellows. But these are unlikely times.

John Thackara

Photo Credit: NASA

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The emerging church movement is a rich source of ideas and insights for community organizers and change makers of all sorts. If you were to replace all of the references to religion with references to your particular political issue or cause, you'd be headed in the right direction. Learn from everywhere!

Posted by: Heath Row on 19 Apr 07

I don't see what is new in any of this. After all isn't it capitalism and Protestantism that got us all into this mess?

Posted by: Colin Wright on 19 Apr 07

India - both in terms of its religions, which is also a way of life at the grassroots, even today, is a repository of traditional environment-friendly, energy-efficient practices such as village's protection of forests and wildlife, integrated livestock-organic farming systems, localised canal systems, vegetarianism, use of jute carry-bags to fetch vegetables and other daily supplies, cycling and improvised mud-houses, to name a few. Unfortunately, much of its traditional competencies and knowledge are being uprooted by "mindless" economic growth yardsticks adopted by the Indian govt. and many economists, which in most case ape the "carbon-intensive" lifestyle - such as automobile and electric air-conditioner dependency - and growth patterns in the west. My article in a journal published by the Center for Science and Environment in India (Link: Title: India must Combat Climate Change.)sheds light on the much harped upon argument that India has very low per capita emissions and the West must take all the blame for the climate change crisis. The big hole in this argument, as the article points out, is that those who can afford to (with due exceptions), in India, are amongst the worst polluters per capita. Instead, it urges India to focus its energies to catch up on research and innovation into clean technologies, as also revive many of its traditional energy-efficient practices. Else, it will be forced to pay the price for waiting to be "spoonfed" on clean tech which have billions of Western govt. and VC money behind them. This is an aspect that Indian business has been slow to catch up to, even as many of the big name business have been too busy getting "fat" on the global asymmetry on labor prices and the purchasing power of national currencies and ignoring innovation-led growth.

Posted by: Chandra Vikash on 21 Apr 07



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