The “Ability” of Sustainability
March 12, 2004
I’m honored to be a speaker at the sustainability conference again this year. Most of my public speaking has been on simpler topics like recycling or organizing volunteer groups so forgive me for being such a simpleton on this topic. I’ve been so impressed with the morning speakers and the level of audience participation in this gathering of concerned citizens. I really feel like this audience is the crowd I have been waiting for…a room full of my peeps. I think most of this audience is just crazy enough to believe we can do this. The Jesuit philosopher Baltazar Gracian once said, “Better mad with the world than wise alone”. I’m also pleased to be on the OU campus. I’ve often felt like the Norman campus was an overlooked jewel in Oklahoma.
When they asked me to speak at lunch – I knew that our day would be half over – with more to come — so, think of this speech as the half time locker room speech or the super bowl halftime show without the marching band … I’ll try to not to have any Janet Jackson like wardrobe malfunctions.
The keynote speaker, Mathis Wackernagel was so good this morning. I spoke at a conference that featured Mathis a couple of years ago at the OKAEE Conference In Tulsa put on by Susie Shields and her army. After his speech, he came and listened to my silly stories of over-consumption, which included personal tales of my wife’s shopping habits and my paranoid fears of consumer marketing tricks. I just love Mathis Wackernagel, but his speeches always make me conscious of my big size 15 feet. One of the examples from that speech is the incredibly effective way consumers are marketed to – I quoted a fact that said that hair shampoo sales went up dramatically, over 25%, the year after the shampoo companies added the word “repeat” to their shampooing instructions on the back of the bottle.
I also spoke at the first two Oklahoma sustainable conferences. The first year, I quoted Jimmy Swaggart and confessed my sins of leading a life that had been opposite of what was now being taught about sustainable living. That year, I struggled with the whole word “sustainability” and spoke of it as if it were a buzzword or a catch phrase like a new millennium version of “where’s the beef”… That first year, I was so amazed at the level of audience interest.
Last year in 2003, rather than focus on the whole word “sustainability”, I gave a speech in which I tried to breakdown the word “sustainability” and picked the middle syllable “stain”. I spoke of the coffee in the room; how coffee beans have real sustainable issues like shade grown, fair trade and organic. I wore a shirt that was dyed in coffee to match the coffee stain that someone had spilled on me rather than discard it. I think back and realize how my speeches have really shown my struggle with the word sustainability and trying to grasp its usage and meaning.
This year, I want to focus on the final four syllables of sustainability – the word “ability.” In sustainability, ability is a suffix. The term suffix comes from Latin – it means to fix or to fasten. A more complete derivative is “to fasten underneath”. A suffix is something added to the end of the word that conditions its meaning. Ability is also a suffix in other common words, words like disability, culpability and responsibility. When we add “ability” to the end of a word it is really an attempt to fasten underneath this ability to ourselves… under our own feet – here, where we live and work.
Ability also reflects the condition of sustainability. Are we able to sustain our quality of live without sacrificing the opportunity of our children’s quality of life? And another question, do the people in this room have the ability to make this more than a buzzword or catch phrase? Does this audience see itself as believers or students in sustainability or as a movement toward changing the lives of all we touch? The message I get today is the choice of a movement, one where we have grown and learned the skills to make sustainable communities in Oklahoma. That makes me happy.
Mahatma Gandhi said, “happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” There is also a Chinese proverb that states “the foolish man seeks happiness in the distance, the wise grows under his feet.” So that’s what I want to talk about today…. how we in this room have the ability for a sustainable movement and can grow happiness.
This Conference… philosophy of sustainability
I like how this conference is divided into four tracks: tracks for community, business, design, and personal action. This is an inspiring way to bring in the many different aspects that bring us together today. I applaud the organizers.
The first block toward sustainability for me is also sustainable community. The morning speaker on conservation easements understood the importance of designing a community with green space. Where I live in Tulsa the one thing that links my neighbors to each other is our neighborhood park. The same park where I grew up and now rewards my son (who is named after it) completes and adds so much to my community. Green space is much more than making than just making choices in development. It is insisting that development be directed to public good as well as investor profit. A great Oklahoma example is one of the afternoon’s presentations, the Cross Timbers development. When finished, I believe it will be one of Oklahoma’s premier recreation & residential developments. There are other concerns with a sustainable community. Concerns like the effects of sprawl on transit systems and the dissolution of farmland that served as green space in an ecosystem.
At last week’s, Resource Management Conference in Tulsa, there was a spirited debate concerning the public and the regulatory role in controlling urban sprawl. The audience was fascinated when one homebuilder was fighting for density in urban growth and a walkable community and a developer/suburban city councilor said that their community would welcome growth as an expanded tax base. The sparring wasn’t as simple as fix up versus grow out. It truly became a debate of which is the right priority and whose rights were greater, the individual landowner or the community.
A sustainable community needs much more than simply a plan for new homes and businesses. A sustainable community needs a reason for the young people to stay, raise their children and start their businesses. It is vitally important for Oklahoma communities to realize that our young people are moving away upon graduation because we don’t offer enough entertainment or employment.
A sustainable community also must make a real investment in education. Each of us must be willing to pay the price to educate the children of Oklahoma and we should all be willing to support public institutions from the smallest kindergarten to the mighty and beautiful OU campus under our feet today. A sustainable community must continue to make sure that the children of today and tomorrow understand how we lived and that their job is to do it better. I don’t want them to think that their job is to pay off the debt of mine and my parent’s lifestyle and that their inheritance is one of clean up rather than build up. Our children might have to be smarter than us to live a quality of life similar to ours.
A sustainable community must also invest in culture. The arts offer inspiration in a community as an investment in quality. I hope that the arts and art education remain in our schools in their future.
The second building block of a sustainable life for me is a sustainable economy. I’m fascinated when I see how communities grow – Central Oklahoma was generally built on trade – after the Civil War, cattle were herded through Oklahoma from Texas; their journey went though this area up to the point where the cattle could board boats on the Missouri River to go back east. The large population centers wanted the cattle and Texas ranchers were looking for buyers. I think the reason that there were so many gunfights were that all that beef made them cranky, ask anyone on the Atkins diet.
My hometown of Tulsa grew differently – it was built not through trade but through banks. The oilman and tribes (at least the ones that had mineral rights) kept their money in Tulsa’s banks to allow for continual reinvestment into the community. Tulsa grew by the rich oilmen and businessmen who built quality buildings that have now lasted for 3 and 4 or 5 generations. 75 years ago this year was the completion of some of the tallest buildings in Oklahoma, buildings in Tulsa like the Philtower and the First National Bank building.
Fair wages have to be part of a sustainable economy. If we have a minimum wage that doesn’t allow workers to invest in their future, we will fail. I don’t believe that America has a sustainable economy right now. I think that maybe tried and true economic models don’t seem to be working now. The three times the minimum wage was raised in the 90’s led to the best economy in decades and the three tax cuts for the wealthiest have led to the biggest deficits in our countries history. I think the rich are not creating jobs like they used to with their extra income. “Trickle down economics” have turned into “tinkle on economics.” I was pleased to see Craig Knutson here today. He is Oklahoma’s best economist and certainly the most quoted. I hope the organizers include him next year.
It is essential that we understand the impact that every dollar we spend has on a sustainable economy. The sustainable agriculture panel this afternoon has some of the most respected authorities on the importance of sustainable agriculture. No one can explain this importance better than Dr. Horne who is one of the most inspirational persons that I’ve met. Another invigorating speaker is a person who I met through my association with Oklahoma’s Sustainability Network , the President of Oklahoma Food Coop, Robert Waldrop. Mr. Waldrop’s view is one hundred percent right, local grown produce is better and local investment leads to local solutions. A sustainable economy needs a continual presence of small business investments, a diversified economy made up of local dollars means a community can survive even in tough economic times. We need an economy that thrives not just on the trading of oil and the raising of chickens, but an economy based on adding value to products and rewarding and recognizing work like taking care of the young and elderly and volunteerism for community.
We must change our views on what is important to recognize in our economy. The method of paying for governance must also change. We should lower the payroll tax burden, reward capital investment and subsidize clean energy technology. We should shift more tax responsibility to those industries that deplete natural resources or hurt the environment.
The third building block of sustainability, to me, is a sustainable environment. I speak to you today as a tree hugger so I probably am jaded by my passion for young trees like the ones I saw throughout the drive here… I am impressed by the majestic redwoods in California and I’ve been told that the Loblolly Pine in my front yard is one of the tallest of its type in all of Tulsa County…. but I feel real passion for baby trees because they represent investment of time and energy. Trees are a renewable resource that can be planted and enjoyed by all.
My mother, who is in the audience, made sure we planted trees to celebrate each birth into the family. It is such a joy to eat the pecans from the now 25 year old tree planted for the 1st grandchild. Trees, like each of us, require nurturing and guidance to grow straight and strong. I can see this conference as a tree and the people here in this room as the flowers and fruit it yields.
Throughout the history of humankind, we have spent the majority of the time that humans have lived on earth finding ways to protect man from nature. Our goals have been basic in appeal. We build for shelter or comfort or costs as a concern. I believe the first one, shelter, is the most important in a sustainable world. We must build homes that can survive for more than a generation or two. We must insist that our homebuilders build walls that properly insulate and reduce our energy burden. And we must insist on building homes that are designed to survive tornados, floods and other disasters. It makes no sense to chop down trees to build homes that cannot survive the winds of Oklahoma, and then upon the likely event of damage, take that broken lumber and put it in the landfill. We must build homes that can survive and protect us and still be usable by the next generation of Oklahomans.
I call for strengthening ordinances that help homebuilders and homebuyers alike understand the importance of building a safe home even if it costs a few dollars more. The homebuyers should demand it. We must also strengthen the rules that ensure that erosion and sediment control are priorities in construction.
Some people view a sustainable environment as an issue of government interference into free commerce. I just want an even playing field. We subsidize the use of virgin wood in the paper industry and then offer no assistance to the recycling paper industry. Doesn’t it make more sense to make paper from paper than to make it from trees? We give tax credits to landfill operators to try and capture methane gas, yet refuse to subsidize the fuel costs of shipping recyclables to markets. I hate the landfills in Oklahoma. They are constant reminders of our failures…our failure to buy the right amount, to try to reuse materials again, or to recycle.
We should take a hard look at the rate and type of resources being consumed. I am so reminded of this every time I hear our morning speaker, Mathis. We must determine if renewable resources are being consumed at a faster rate than regeneration. We need to know whether life-supporting ecosystems are being degraded or maintained. Don’t believe NASA, Good planets are hard to find. We need to take care of this one.
A sustainable environment means more than protecting man from nature but also protecting nature from man. We can do both! We have the ability and technology to succeed here.
Finally, sustainable living is a matter of personal action. I can make a difference even in my own backyard. I can try to avoid excess waste while shopping or by participating in groups like Oklahoma Food Co-op. I can speak to my elected officials when they ask me for my vote this year to promise to change the rules to support a sustainable workplace and state.
Since I have been taught by many of you in this room, I have made many choices that do lessen my impact on the earth. I’m pleased that I have been able to buy better produce, a smarter light bulb, an improved rechargeable battery. Next week includes new solar panels for my home from one of this afternoon’s speakers, John Miggins. I have been taught to carpool and pay attention to where my goods come from, how they are grown and what was the wage to the workers at harvest.
Sustainability can be achieved on all these levels. The people in this room have the ability through their personal choices, their partnership opportunities, and their possible investment in sustainable choices. I know now that sustainability is more than a buzz word, it is a movement, a movement that truly does fix or fasten underneath our lives. This movement has enabled me to find the ability to make the right choices, to grow our team and to invest the time to change our world. My favorite political line this season comes from the Dean campaign …”that progress doesn’t happen in the moment, it happens in the movement. We are a movement and we have the ability to achieve sustainability.