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May 2008

Earth Day

What an exciting period of time to be alive, to be a part of the sustainability evolution, and to celebrate Earth Day. A time when everywhere we turn there is a news report, new product, or person talking about being green. A real movement among the masses: not "just" environmentalists but business people, local and state level governmental entities, all sorts of organizations, and people of all ages are involved. It is definitely a grassroots movement with the will of people leading the way.

The most powerful Earth Day related event I participated in was the play, A Sense of Wonder. It is a one woman play about the life and work of Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring. Just as Rachel worked largely alone on her writing projects, Kaiulani Lee wrote and has performed this one woman play largely alone for over thirty years. It is a powerfully written and acted play which seems to actually bring Rachel to life, sharing with the audience her journey writing Silent Spring along with the challenges of her personal life including the pain of her declining health. The simple stage allowed my imagination to be a participant and I cherished the opportunity to feel as though I were actually with Rachel in her sea side cabin or sharing a cup of tea with her in her Maryland home. A deepened sense of knowing stirred in me as I came to understand the level of courage and determination she possessed which carried her through her questioning of the powerful status quo of the times while also dealing head on with many personal challenges.

During the question and answer period after the play, Kaiulani was asked what Rachel would think of the state of environmental affairs today. Kaiulani speculated that Rachel would feel encouraged. She always did have a positive outlook on the possibilities. And now, the simple fact that there is a movement would be both a satisfaction for her and added reason for hopefulness. As Kaiulani pointed out, the EPA, clean water acts, and many other environmental policies were enacted after Rachel wrote her book; most after she died in mid life of cancer. If she were alive today, she would be able to experience the environmental movement that she is so often credited with starting. I wonder too what actions she would take now, what role she would play as leader or worker in the movement. Imagining can help us find answers and help determine our own course of action. All the ways that we choose to continue and expand on Rachel's work is our challenge now.

One of our biggest challenges is the resistance that still exists today. As I listened to news reports on and around Earth Day, I was struck by the common inclusion of concern for the economy as a rationale for the resistance. Attitudes in the media included ones like this: "We can be green if it doesn't hurt the economy" or "Americans will do green things if they can still have their lifestyles and conveniences." Well, the truth is we can't continue our current lifestyles or supposed entitlements like being energy hogs. It is our lifestyles that have caused the environmental and social challenges we now face. And, certainly we can't claim the status quo has given us a strong economy. Instead we need to continue educating ourselves and the public at large about the connection between the triple bottom line principles of environmental stewardship, social equity AND economic prosperity; they truly are linked. Once we accept that truth and quit using the false resistance of protecting the economy as an excuse for inaction, then we can have integrated improvement in the environment, the social fabric of our culture, and the economy.

Along with a concern for the economy as a whole, people often use the "it costs too much" reason for not making environmentally or socially responsible decisions. Well, the truth is that statement is talking only about the up front ticket price of a product or practice. It ignores things like underpaid workers, resources being used up, and toxic contamination in our environment and therefore in our bodies. If we decide to act in a way that considers these costs to be unacceptable then the up front ticket price may be higher. But, with all the real costs factored in and with real responsibility for what we claim we value then the higher price will be a truer number and the consumer will be the one carrying the real costs. Another possibility is that looking at the real cost of things will stimulate innovation and keep the up front costs similar while also providing real solutions to environmental and social challenges. This is already happening in some parts of our culture. The green building movement is a wonderful example. The marketplace is transforming in response to the will of the people within the industry and in the public. Innovation is bringing more sustainable and still affordable buildings. It can happen in all businesses and areas of our lives.

I find reasons for hopefulness in the environmental movement. I find support in our industry with the strong wave of sustainable products and practices now available to us. And I choose to use the resistance and negativity in our culture as added motivation for action in my personal, professional, and public life. The resistance also serves to point out the work needed in educating people so that we are all engaged in working together to seek solutions. Rachel launched us on this path. Now we have Earth Day as a reminder, a movement for support, and living more responsibly everyday as our challenge.

Joyfully, Sue Norman
Sue Norman, Managing Editor
Associate IIDA
Allied Member ASID