Notes From The Green Festival
Posted by Somik Raha on Nov 8, 2010
On Sat, Nov 6, I found myself at the Green Festival. I don't consider myself an activist for any cause, so I decided to be open to what I was seeing in front of me. Here are some reflections from some random walks through the festival.
I walk in and see a big line at one booth near the entrance, which of course, I skip. The first thing that hits me is the massive hall and the large number of people who have decided to bring their presence to the festival, both to offer and to receive. There are lots of samples of lots of things, everything claimed as green and good for the planet. My wife gives me $80 and tells me to get whatever's interesting, while she serves at a booth on Ayurveda. As I walk around, ...
.. some people are doing all kinds of things to get attention. One stall that was trying to get us to go vegan had women taking a shower, to drive home the point that we waste so much water when we eat meat. That was a bizarre way of getting people's attention. At this booth, I questioned the information at hand, because a tremendous amount of water is "wasted" in growing rice, a staple diet of vegetarians. It turned out that it wasn't just the water, their objection was the methane as well produced from cows. Now, we have a lot of methane from living cows in India :), so it wasn't just about the methane either. The next line of reasoning was about the high cancer rates in meat-eating populations. It seems the UN has recommended a vegetarian diet (wish I could get my hands on that repot). It also turned out that my informer was unaware of unadulterated milk from free-range cows, and Strauss had a booth right next door, giving away their various products and not selling anything.
As I moved further, found this lady selling women's purses which were made by artisans in India out of discarded plastic, which really looked beautiful, so I got one. Chatting further, discovered that she could speak a little Hindi and the company she'd started was out of volunteer work she did in India. Very inspired to see this.
As I look around, I find everyone's carrying these amazingly colorful and gorgeous bags, and I ask someone - "Where did you get these?" and sure enough, it was the booth at the entrance with the big line. I get in the queue, and it is a cereal company that is just giving away the bags. I take two, and see their different products on display, and ask to buy some of it out of gratitude for the nice bag. The man at the counter says, "We are not selling anything here. But you can take what you like." And there are cereal bars of all kinds on display. The company is Nature's Path, and people are cutting lines to grab bags or cereal bars. I offered good wishes for their generosity and with a big smile, moved on.
Then, as I walked further, I met this man from an investment firm making "clean investments," with not too many visitors. As we strike up a conversation, it turns out he has been in the business of helping people invest their money where their values lie for the last 25 years. His eyes light up when he finds I'm interested in learning more, and he shares that research has shown that investments made around values tend to outperform those that are made simply around profits. This result had made many wonder what the underlying reason could be, and his best reflection on the matter was that those organizations that tend to be about more than just making money also tend to avoid short-cuts, reducing the risk of doing something ridiculous and self-destructing, and focusing their horizon on the long-term. I asked him for references and he shared about SocialFunds and the Domini Social Investments. My smile grew wider.
Moving on, I couldn't help marvel at a big duality in the festival. One was about activists who were asking us to get involved in causes. The other was in finding creative solutions to existing problems. While generally wary of the former, I found myself in a conversation with this Jewish woman who was part of Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization that focuses on disinvestment from companies whose technology helps Israel demolish Palestinian homes. I was surprised to find Motorola in the blacklist :), and probed deeper on their ethical distinctions. Was it a case of technology being designed generally but used to harm others, or was it a case of technology being exclusively developed to harm others? After pressing on this, the lady seemed to imply it was the latter. Reminded me of my advisor's (Prof. Howard) examples in an ethics class, which focus largely on the Nazis. At that time, the government would issue requests for proposals, which involved the design of a truck where the exhaust would be fed into the back, causing carbon monoxide posioning. Engineering companies bid competitively for the contracts and worked hard to fulfill them. This trend continued throughout the war, with firms working hard to optimize the ovens in which so many Jews would be cremated. Prof. Howard asks us to reflect what the point is of being involved with technology whose best use is to never be used. I find myself realizing that the Nazi regime was no brutish regime - it was just like the world we live in today, and we haven't fully mined the lessons from the failure of the ethical apparatus in people's minds during that time. Having seen bitter divisions between the Jewish and the Muslim student community at Stanford, it was a breath of fresh air to be seeing Jews standing up for Muslims. A smile as I moved on.
Moving further, found two women running a small business making beautiful eco-friendly reusable bags that made for great gifts. In a conversation, the women talked about how they had to surpass several challenges in being able to create what they wanted. There was something distinctly artistic about their approach, and they had won my heart with their creation. Another smile.
Just as these women were trying to make artistic bags at an individual level, Bagnetic was there to reduce plastic at an industrial level, with magnetic bags that were easy to stick on a metallic surface, and easy to grip with a rubber gripper. Turns out large retail stores might be utilizing their products, one of which utilizes hemp.
Other eye-catchers - "conscience-friendly" chocolates from Bolivia, and little tablets, which when in contact with a few drops of water, would magically grow into large napkins. Eco-friendly, no chemicals and super-cool. I found myself wondering - if this is a group of folks against consumerism (which I often hear people discouraging), then the green festival is consumerism on steroids. We are just consuming differently now. If we say we care about certain things, then those in the business of pleasing us will care about those things too. In the deepest sense, people, without lecturing, know to align their interests with ours.
On this note, the most fascinating of all the exhibits was that of Mr. Ellie Pooh. In Sri Lanka, this organization has combined head and heart to conserve forest, elephants and the livelihood of the local population. By recognizing that elephant-killing happens because elephants are eating up food that humans need, and this was because of the loss of their natural habitat to agriculture, the solution had to keep the interest of all in mind. What these folks have done is to observe the elephant very closely and note that the elephant poos 16 times a day, and in large quantity. The poo has a lot of fiber (which is what the elephant eats), and it can be processed to produce paper, which can be sold to create livelihood for those who were otherwise farming. Local communities can now get into the business of processing elephant poo to produce paper, thus reducing the pressure on destroying natural habitat, and increasing the incentive to protect the elephants. I bought a children's book which explains this story on elephant poo paper, and totally loved it.
The deeper point for me in all of this was that if we truly believe in oneness at the subtle spiritual level, then it cannot be that this oneness does not manifest at the grossest level. When we frame an existential crisis - the elephants against the humans, it is a very partial frame, that sets up activists against the elephant-killers. Both have succumbed to fear and cannot possibly transcend their respective frames unless fear is renounced (beautifully explained by Adyashanti in this video) . At the grossest practical level, the manifestation of the highest ideal of unity is in observing how the benefit of one leads to benefit of the other. Aligning incentives, crass as it may sound at a superficial level, is actually the work of an intelligence that is available to us only when we have left behind the fearful mind. Given that aligning incentives is the business of business, it stands to reason that quieting the mind is the best means to achieving that end.