You’ve torn open eight days’ worth of presents, and you’re still disposing of holiday wrappings and packaging. Before Hanukkah, you’d have expected me to remind you of the Torah and rabbinic admonitions to make no waste (ba’al tashchit) and heal the Earth (tikkun olam). So, you’ll have given and received long-lasting or biodegradable gifts, recycled or composted the wraps and packages, and left nada for the garbage, right?
Who am I kidding?
We occupy the tail ends of massively long animals called “supply chains.” They stretch from Latin America, Asia and Europe, across land bridges and oceans, into our very own homes. They grew into behemoths by giving low prices to us buyers, and profits to their owners and shareholders. How? They hunt out the cheapest capital, labor, materials, manufacturing and transport systems, add fees at every step, yet miraculously deliver digital thermometers and reading glasses to us for 3-for-$20 at Costco, and a buck each at the Dollar Store.
Making these fossil-fueled Leviathans “sustainable” is ludicrous, since — hel-lo? — they can’t go “green” unless they stay in business. Converting them to sustainable enterprises means — yikes! — re-inventing everything we “know” and depend on about business, earning our wages and salaries, and living our lives. Specifically: “greening” means shortening the chains — by sourcing within our continents and regions rather than globally (with few exceptions); investing capital here in infrastructure and opportunity, raising pay for labor, cutting pay for management; eliminating all supply chain waste products; and ultimately, as customers, buying less and paying some higher prices.
We regard these huge enterprises as entirely uncontrollable, rather like giant cats. Who but the most wildly optimistic, deranged, or ingenious people would try to retrain these massive creatures? We’ve kind of made them into discomfiting house pets, which are unintentionally killing us.
Examples? We got gold for our jewelry and electronics from the Berkeley Pit mine near Butte, Montana, but the sulfuric acid pumped underground to free it has polluted drinking and irrigation wells, and is seeping with dissolved heavy metals toward the Clark Fork and Columbia Rivers. To grow abundant grain from America’s Midwest “breadbasket,” agribusiness farms are sucking the vast Oglala aquifer dry for irrigation, and wiping out the topsoil. To supply our petro-products, oil and gas companies erased northern Gulf of Mexico wetlands, polluted surrounding fresh water wells, and opened the way for Katrina to destroy New Orleans.
Though the scale of global supply chains is beyond biblical and Talmudic scope, the sages did offer guiding principles for business conduct: Understand the pain of living things (tsar ba’aleh chayyim), ba’al tashchit, and tikkun olam. They were locally focused and pragmatically commercial. The fruit trees they prohibited cutting during wartime, for example, could be felled in peacetime to clear land for building if they were more valuable for their lumber than for their fruit.
Today’s sustainable business people are similarly pragmatic, and arguably more principled. They focus globally on a “triple bottom line” of economic, environmental and human capital. They judge enterprises on their movement toward balance in these three areas. Their progress is hampered, however, by supply chain customers themselves, who assume that:
Humans must unconditionally breed, get new supplies of food, energy and water, and make useless and dangerous waste,
Human imperatives trump those of all other living things, and
Change is frightening. Humans reap fabulous sums of money, abundance, things to strive for, and low prices from this system. It underpins our economy. Recall George Bush’s call to America after 9/11: “Go shopping!”
Ironically, shopping may lead to change: we “vote” with our money. Companies whose products we buy prosper; others go bankrupt.
Suppose you were presented with nothing but “green” purchasing options? Your money would enrich resource efficient companies, build alternative and “smart” power and water systems, and conserve natural resources. Suppose you could get a “green” mortgage that awarded you with a 1/2-percent lower interest rate for improving the resource efficiency of your home?
How about a national co-op network that connected you with a vast array of competitively priced green products and services? Would you support
programs that educate and empower Third World women, to help lift their families out of poverty, and lower their birthrates? Would you buy from companies that operate so efficiently they create no carbon footprint? What about from companies that take good care of their employees and the environment? Would you buy groceries from stores that sell local and organic, and power themselves entirely with renewable energy?
What you buy for Hanukkah, or any other time of year, can change the world. It’s that simple. It may be difficult for you to see the light at the end of the tunnel right now. But it’s there, and it’s green.