6 10 2006

William McDonough, the renowned advocate of sustainable development, paid a visit to Nashville recently. I wish I’d been there, but I’m having to settle for a friend’s account of what he said—many Nashville publications announced his talk, but none of them reported on the talk itself. My friend said he does his best to stay technical and avoid any kind of politics—he mentioned that for a mere four billion dollars (which we’re burning up in a blink of an eye in Iraq) China could be set up to manufacture solar panels at a rate and price that would make them highly attractive to U.S. buyers, creating four jobs installing and maintaining solar panels in the U.S. for every job making solar panels in China. He didn’t address the question of what we’re going to use for money to buy solar panels from China or to hire Americans to install them after we totally blow our wad on Iraq.

He pointed out that China’s growth rate is going to demand housing for another four hundred million people—more than the entire population of the United States—in just the next seven years, and that’s why forests all over the world are going bye-bye. That question was of serious concern to him, and he is attempting to address it.

Mr. McDonough is trying to do what he can to make China’s expansion sustainable. Technological sustainability is his thing, and I agree that it’s very important. He not only believes that everything should be recycled, he finds ways to change manufacturing processes and ingredients so it can happen. This is a good thing. But I think he’s leaving an important component of sustainability out of the equation—the human element.

A reporter from the Sydney, Australia, Morning Herald visited the Chinese “model village” McDonough has helped create, and found a great deal lacking in the execution of McDonough’s wonderful plan. Home building was being done by a private contractor who had changed the construction material from straw bale to cinder blocks made from coal dust, which may create indoor air pollution. The contractor was building the houses without solar orientation, solar panels, or insulation, all of which McDonough had called for, and they all lacked the garden space that Chinese peasants traditionally appreciate having around their dwellings. Beats a run to the supermarket, y’know? Speaking of runs to the supermarket, the homes were all equipped with attached garages, although nobody in the village owns, or can afford, an automobile, and the homes were priced well out of reach of the local villagers, who all complained that the houses were not appropriate for their lifestyle and that nobody involved with the project had consulted them about their needs and wishes.

The contracor’s response to the local community’s criticism of his project, and lack of investment in it, has been, according to the Herald, to start lobbying local authorities to force the villagers to move into the houses he’s building. Hey, that’s how they do things in China. Mr. McDonough’s projects here in the states seem to have worked a little better than this Chinese boondoggle, but his work over here involves only the wealthy and the willing, so far.

Mr. McDonough said in an interview that his goal is to create, “a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy, and just world, with clean air, soil, water, and power — economically, equitably, ecologically, and elegantly enjoyed, period. What’s not to like?” Well, from the way the China project is going, a little more justice and a healthy helping of democracy wouldn’t hurt—and, by the way, in all the research I did on him, this was the only time I heard him mention the word “justice”–and it was in Business Week Magazine.

Speaking of democracy, it’s also the element lacking in the continuing Walmart makeover, which is leading the company to do everything from cutting the amount of packaging it uses to selling only sustainably harvested fish to offering low-cost prescription drugs in its pharmacies—which will pull business away from its competitors and make life a little easier for Walmart employees who need prescription medication, since the company’s health plan has a pretty high deductible.

Meanwhile, Walmart continues to treat its employees unfairly just about any way it can, and has decided to increase its percentage of part-time employees so it won’t have to offer benefits to so many people—gee, Scrooge is going green, but he’s still Scrooge. He’s just looking out for his bottom line.

We like to say that we live in a democracy in this country, but democracy ends at the workplace door for most of us. Employers are the moral equivalent of kings—you can only argue with them very gingerly. Your job, your wages, your hours, your working conditions, benefits, vacations—all of that is at their discretion, and we all accept that as a given, unless we are in a union, in which case our union, which is at least theoretically a democracy, has standing to negotiate with the boss. Thus we see that those who advocate against unions are, essentially, advocating feudalism, which is the status quo for the 7/8ths of the American workforce that is not unionised at this point.

Of course, Walmart is not alone in their cavalier treatment of their employees and the communities they invade. They’re just the biggest player in the game. Many environmentalists are excited by Walmart’s move toward green technology because whatever the biggest player in the game does tends to set the standard for how the game gets played. Maybe Walmart’s awakening will extend to respectful relations with its workforce and the communities in which it does business. Sustainable technology without workplace democracy just creates green prisons. W here’s Lech Walesa when we need him?

Music: Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, “When the Lie’s So Big



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