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are religion and sustainability mutually exclusive?

October 5, 2009

Religion’s getting a bad rap these days – and with good reason. Between the Jihadi’s, the Israelis and the fundies on their compounds, the world is increasingly looking like something out of Dante’s inferno (and yes, I did just have a crack at Israel – and no that doesn’t make me anti-semitic; just as criticising the USA doesn’t make one ‘anti-American’).

Of course, the arguments are that the conflicts in Palestine, the Middle East and just about anywhere outside North America where the US military is stationed are purely political (or related to energy security).

Yet wherever you have Presidents, Kings, Sheiks, Prime Ministers and various other political leaders invoking their god(s), praying in parliament or printing scripture on their currency, there is a pretty decent case to be made for asserting that there is absolutely no separation between church and state.

And if that’s true, a rigorous analysis of the dominant religions and the part they play in shaping policy is essential for determining whether consumer sentiment or political activism really stands a chance of shifting us away from a path of almost certain self-destruction and onto a path of survival.

Many wiser and more erudite people than me have discussed this already, and the point of this post is not to seek to restate their positions, but to bring a particular focus to it in the hope of continuing to stimulate debate and enquiry.

Sam Harris in The End of Faith makes a compelling case for the dangers of faith-based religion, whilst The Ranting Gryphon makes a far more impassioned (and amusing to some) case through his two minute video on Global Warming. And then there’s Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher and a plethora of others asking similar and equally valid questions about whether religion has a future in humanity’s future – or if humanity even has a future as long as religion does.

In a recent post I commented:

It’s time for discussions about politics, religion and consumerism to take centre stage, for all of us to call into question the irrational and dangerous beliefs that have brought us to the precipice. It’s time to wage war on superstition and unsubstantiated belief and embrace reason.

Your lifestyle choice IS my concern – your diet is my concern, your means of transportation is my concern, your politics are my concern, your religion is my concern.

We all know that thought precedes action. I often hear discussions about the ‘lack of thoughtful action’ when it comes to addressing global sustainability concerns – yet I’m pretty sure that it’s the quality of the thinking, and not its absence that is the primary problem.

We’re so busy hammering away at a culture of consumerism – and blaming that for the problems that beset us – that we’ve failed to recognise that each of the three largest monotheistic religious groups have spread their influence throughout politics, the courts, economics, science, philanthropy and education due, in no small part, to our unwillingness to really discuss their place in our societies. Our imam’s, rabbi’s and priests are the original thought-police – not only telling us what we are permitted to believe, but threatening to ostracize us from our communities if we either fail to agree or, heaven forbid, exercise our own (god-given?) intelligence in contradiction to what they teach.

The time for religious tolerance is long past. And by saying this I’m not agitating for racial or cultural intolerance.

Religious tolerance seems to pretty much equate to “you leave me alone to believe what I want, and I’ll leave you alone to believe what you want”.

Yet when our beliefs, collectively, appear to represent a significant threat to our capacity to survive as a species, is this really a reasonable basis for continuing?

What it seems we need is an intolerance for foolishness. An intolerance for irrationality. An intolerance for the beliefs that have not only ‘brought us to the precipice’ but now threaten to tip us over the edge.

What I really want to know is, why, in our quest to save ourselves from self-induced extinction, is everything else up for discussion but God?

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love … the foundation of sustainability

August 17, 2009

In the fifteen years I’ve been working in health and sustainability I’ve made some bad decisions. Decisions that have cost me time, money and friendships.

I don’t think that makes me bad at what I do, or fundamentally inexcusable as a human being. If anything it makes me very much the same as most other people – we do what we think is best, and sometimes, upon reflection, we realise that the suffering our choices have created for us is a direct consequence of ‘jumping over’ what we knew at the time.

Georgi (my beloved wife and one of my business partners) and I have invested a lot in our businesses over the years. Some of the decisions have been sound in that they have moved us closer to the type of life we enjoy. Yet some of those decisions have cost us an enormous amount of time and money – and have brought us face to face with the reality of what it is to run an unsustainable business.

Unsustainable in that

somewhere along the line, we lost touch with what was most important to us, and got ensnared in a way of living that was determined by the requirements of our business, rather than the requirements of our life.

(although, if I’m being completely honest, it was definitely more me than her).

It’s not an uncommon situation – in fact, it’s something I’ve observed in projects of all shapes and sizes – from micro-projects run out of a basement, to multinationals with a dozen different divisions.

So five weeks ago I got on a plane and flew to Boulder. It wasn’t really all that intentional – I was supposed to be working on a project in LA that fell over at the eleventh hour. I had my ticket and couldn’t cancel it and was desperately in need of some sort of a holiday. I also urgently needed a new perspective.

A few days after arriving I lost my wedding ring. And it completely threw me. It was covered by insurance, sure, and could certainly be replaced – so logistically it wasn’t really that big a deal. But what my response to the situation showed me was, that regardless of how much money or influence I did or didn’t have, regardless of how many people I did or didn’t help, regardless of whether the world was improved a little, or a lot – or not at all – through my being here – none of it would have any meaning if I allowed my attention to be, even for one moment, taken away from Love.

It’s a scary word, in some sense. Love. It’s not the central topic of conversation around boardroom tables or in parliamentary debates. In the US town hall meetings on Health Care Reform, it’s not the framing topic on the agenda. It doesn’t seem to be taken into account when considering foreign policy, the Kyoto Protocol, or nuclear disarmament. And it certainly – despite all protestations to the contrary – is not informing most (if not all) religious activity around the planet.

Yet ultimately, as ephemeral and undefineable as Love is, it is the central tenet informing all human experience.
So why is Love considered to be something ‘personal’ that has no place in our professional or public discourse?

I’m not a doey-eyed romantic. I’m not writing about Love because I have some ungrounded vision of the world all holding hands and singing Kumbaya. We’re too different to always agree (and let’s be honest, conflict creates growth, generates change, engenders innovation and stimulates debate).

I’m writing about love because I’m rational, and am contemplating Archimedes‘ dictum:

Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world

So with everything we’re facing in the world at the moment, with all the time, effort and money going into trying to solve the enormous challenges facing us, is it possible that the only fulcrum we have available to us is love? And what if it is?

Clearly a fulcrum alone is not enough. We require the lever of intelligence, the lever of reason, the levers of discourse and debate. If we are really going to make a difference, we really need to consider that Love alone is not enough.

And as embarrassing to some as it may be to use the word, as foolish as it may sound to suggest we make love our global agenda, I’m a long way from proclaiming the dawn of a new age. There is no place in my epistemology for either reincarnation or the Rapture.

According to Advaita Vedanta, moksha (liberation) is achieved through both jnana (enquiry) and bhakti (devotion) – as a bird needs two wings to fly.

So perhaps it’s time we found a meeting place for the two – where the intellect, as a servant to the heart, can achieve it’s greatest potential – and the heart can acknowledge the value it’s servant provides.

Then, perhaps, we might find a truly sustainable way to move through the world.

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why LOHAS isn’t going to save the world

August 7, 2009

Just in case you’ve been hiding in a cave with bin Laden, Elvis Presley and the tattered remnants of a global democracy, LOHAS (Lifestyles Of Health And Sustainability) is the next big thing.

With a global market value in excess of $300 billion, and growing at a rate of between 20 and 300% (depending on who you talk to, and which sub-section of the market you’re looking at) it seems that times couldn’t be better for the organic-sprout eating, hybrid-car driving, Fair-Trade wearing moral collective-barometer.

I oughta know – I’m one of them.

But the trouble with LOHAS (aside from the fact that it’s yet another acronym to remember) is that it’s been co-opted by eco-consumerism – and as such, seems destined to fail before it’s even really got out of the gate.

It wasn’t that long ago, addressing an audience of Wellness professionals, that I recounted the story of how I came to be doing what I’m doing …. in a moment of Newtonian inspiration involving a mango, ocean and post yoga bliss, recognising the enormous potential inherent in simply changing the way we consume.

I declared that ‘this market, more than any other, has the potential to fundamentally and irrevocably change the world for the better’.

That was before watching marketers support well-intentioned but misguided entrepreneurs flood the market with a plethora of products the world would truly be better off without – catering to the need of the individual to feel as if they are actively involved in the same great battle for our survival.

Row after row of ‘toxic free’ soap, bottled water from the Pacific, shrink-wrapped smoked salmon from Tasmania, tins of organic tomatoes from Equador.

And don’t get me started on the massive carbon cloud hanging over the meat freezer at Wholefoods.

As the founder of the Sea Shepherds recently declared (and I’m paraphrasing here):

Better to be a vegan driving a hummer than a carnivorous cyclist

It’s a sickness – an addiction to ‘personal change’ without a deep appreciation for the compounding nature of personal choice. An addiction to ‘freedom’ – at least the poor substitute for freedom (freedom of choice) we’ve settled for.

As Gibran once said:

At the city gate and by your fireside I have seen you prostrate yourself and worship your own freedom,
Even as slaves humble themselves before a tyrant and praise him though he slays them.

In many countries – capitalist democracies in general, and the USA in particular – it seems time for individual freedom to be sacrificed in service to a greater freedom – that of the freedom for all of us to live.

We have no time left for political correctness. We have no time left to be polite. What we really need is for our apparently enlightened leaders to declare a state of emergency with little concern for what it will cost them personally (do we really want to be standing on the scorched earth singing REM‘s ‘It’s the end of the world as we know it ….. and I feel fine’?)

O! to see Oprah take a stand and move from serving the ever-escalating and largely vacuous demands of the Baby Boomers to ensuring that their as yet largely-unborn great-grandchildren inherit a world worth inheriting.

I’m far less interested in Dr Phil than I am in Hunter Lovins and while I think Deepak certainly had some interesting things to say, I’m far from convinced that metaphysics is going to save us.

Maybe it’s time we went in search of real discomfort – not the discomfort that comes from confronting a pattern of neurotic behaviour that sees us dating mysogynists, matriarchs and alcoholics. Let’s embrace the inevitable discomfort of answering the question

in the face of what we know about the state of the world, and our part in it, how is it most prudent to act?

There is no stone that should remain unturned, no sacred cow we should not consider making burgers out of. It’s time for discussions about politics, religion and consumerism to take centre stage, for all of us to call into question the irrational and dangerous beliefs that have brought us to the precipice. It’s time to wage war on superstition and unsubstantiated belief and embrace reason.

Your lifestyle choice IS my concern – your diet is my concern, your means of transportation is my concern, your politics are my concern, your religion is my concern.

Whatever you believe or do that in any way impacts upon my freedom to live is my concern – and it’s time for some unapologetic and rigorous questioning. And if you don’t like it – move to Iran or China (or turn back the clock twelve months in the USA)!

The LOHAS market is a transitional market – one that has arisen largely in response to a global outcry against waste and in favour of a more prudent and economically conservative lifestyle. It’s a market dripping with potential. But this potential is only going to waste while so many of us drive our SUV’s across town to ‘buy organic’ – instead of taking the time to nurture our own veggie patch, or better still a community garden.

There is a responsibility that comes with knowledge about health & sustainability – and that is to do something with that knowledge.

Let’s take these conversations – that so often take place on blogs, around coffee shops and in bars – and elevate them to the point of civil unrest before this is the only option remaining to us.

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Forget Shorter Showers – why personal change does not equal political change

July 27, 2009

The blog title is not mine – it’s drawn from an article by Derrick Jensen in the latest issue of Orion Magazine – the thinking person’s sustainability journal if ever I’ve seen one.

Jensen asks:

WOULD ANY SANE PERSON think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday, or that chopping wood and carrying water would have gotten people out of Tsarist prisons, or that dancing naked around a fire would have helped put in place the Voting Rights Act of 1957 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

Then why now, with all the world at stake, do so many people retreat into these entirely personal “solutions”?

Jensen’s article – one of the first of many I hope to see along this line – makes a clear and compelling case as to why consumer activism (for all it’s usefulness) is a shockingly incomplete and narcissistic practice when not coupled with direct political engagement.

Jensen is not disparaging of individual change – nor is he suggesting that we not ‘live simply’ – he is simply suggesting that the current focus on shifting individual consumption patterns in order to influence the state of the world is bound to fail.

His central argument is that, in the face of the monumental challenges we are currently dealing with, simply deciding to ‘go green’ is no substitute for political engagement. Especially when “more than 90 percent of the water used by humans is used by agriculture and industry“, and “municipal waste accounts for only 3 percent of total waste production” (in the United States at least).

Further, Jensen certainly does not criticize individual power – in fact, he is a strong proponent of it – merely suggesting that political change comes, not surprisingly, by engaging with politics as opposed to purchasing recycled toilet paper.

The most common argument posited in favour of consumer action over political action is that governments are lazy, corrupt, and unduly influenced by corporate interests – that we need change fast and that the only way this is going to happen is by bypassing the legislature (as if LOHAS is somehow going to save the world).

Yet, according to Thomas Jefferson:

“The will of the people is the only legitimate foundation of any government, and to protect its free expression should be our first object.”

Cynicism about the current state of our governments negates the immense potential inherent in a democracy when citizens engage meaningfully and consistently with the political process – rather than throwing their hands in the air and declaring that ‘it’s all too hard’.

The history of change generated through political action requires no exposition here – the list is too long, too varied, and too hackneyed to  reiterate.

Jensen is opening an important discussion about the nature of democracy and stating, loudly and uncompromisingly, that driving a hybrid car, recycling or taking shorter showers, is a far cry from the revolution the world at large seems to be in need of.

As Jensen says:

... the role of an activist is not to navigate systems of oppressive power with as much integrity as possible, but rather to confront and take down those systems.

Vive le Revolution!

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GFC … what GFC?

July 23, 2009

One could be forgiven for thinking there was no financial crisis. So many business owners are doing business-as-usual – operating without a clear strategy, and presuming that the way to weather the storm (if they even believe there is one) is to simply whittle back expenses, sit tight and hope for the best.

Regardless, in tough economic times the first sacrifice to be made is the marketing budget ….

I really thought that, by now, EVERYBODY would understand that there is a synergistic relationship between marketing and sales. No matter the size of the business, we are seeing such a consistent pattern it’s the kind of thing you could comfortably fall asleep to  – it’s that consistent, that boring – and of course so consistently disappointing.

As i’ve been saying for years:

marketing is to sales as the juicer is to the juice
no juicer, no juice

It indicates such a basic misunderstanding of how economies work … money doesn’t disappear, it just takes on a different pattern of circulation. We are recommending to many of our clients that when everyone else is slowing down, they really should think about accelerating. Not mindlessly, of course. Certainly not unstrategically (if there was such a word). But as Zig Ziglar famously once said ‘when they zig, you zag’.

Think about it – ‘going with the flow’ may be a great central philosophy of living moment-by-moment, but think about where the flow takes you in business – you wind up in the same cesspool of detritus as the rest of the world. The purest water, the greatest inspiration, is to be found at the source. Perhaps we should be exhorting our clients to go against the flow, to keep leaping upstream to regenerate.

Businesses fail – over and again. In the current economic climate, businesses are failing faster than ever.

It’s trite but true that businesses don’t plan to fail, they fail to plan – yet the question that rarely gets asked is why …..?

Knowing what we know – in the millions of business books freely available to anyone with a library card, or on the tens of milions of website pages freely available to just about everybody in the so called ‘developed world’ why do businesses not plan effectively?

Businesses fail because they lack a clear and compelling vision, and an intelligent and flexible strategy for achieving it.

It’s not something that marketers typically take into account – because, to be honest, it’s not really their job, is it?

Their job, ultimately, is to help you achieve a specific outcome – they presume (and fairly enough) that as mature, responsible, intelligent adults, their clients do actually know what they’re doing and why.

The problem is, and again, regardless of the size of the enterprise this has been a consistent experience, people are people (so why should it be, you and i should get along so awfully … sorry, Depeche Mode flashback that will only make sense to the Gen Xers amongst us).

People being people are not rational. They are inconsistent, fluid and fickle. Their needs change, not just over time, but moment-by-moment. Corporations and cottage industry are all run by people.

Where people don’t often change – and if they do, it’s certainly not quickly – is at the level of their values.

Values and visions are clearly aligned. Values form the identities of people, just as much as they do of businesses. A CEO’s primary role is to hold the space for the vision/values to be realised through the activities of the organisation. A President’s role is to the hold the space for the vision of a nation’s population. A visionary’s responsibility is to hold the space for a whole new world.

LOHAS enterprises are founded by visionaries, those with an interest in ‘making the world a better place’ and, somewhere along the line, making themselves a living. Sadly, LOHAS businesses fail faster (from what I’ve seen) than most – because a vision, as compelling as it might be – needs to have a clear pathway for its realisation.

Man may have dreamed of flight, but it took the Wright Brothers to sit down and figure out how to build the first plane before the dream became a reality.

In the current economic climate – and in the interests of true sustainability (not the limited eco-brand of sustainability dominating media at the moment) – businesses need to reflect upon their values and visions, and ensure that they are clear and compelling for the stakeholders, shareholders, staff and clients.

Then – and this is the absolutely critical part – they need to figure out how to make it happen.

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experimenting with exchange of service

July 21, 2009

In the past three years I’ve presented close to 30 seminars, and have worked with over 200 clients in nine countries specifically in the LOHAS arena. In the past nine years I’ve spoken directly with over 6000 wellness professionals about marketing. Somehow, along the way, I’ve become one of the most experienced commercialisation strategists in the LOHAS space.

My companies are frequently approached with offers to exchange service-or-product for service – something we have rarely agreed to because, in reality, once you find people and companies you trust, you’re unlikely to move away from them on the basis of getting something for free.

We have also discovered that there is a very real link between payment and value – and that those clients or friends with whom we negotiated ‘mates rates’ were invariably the ones who had the highest expectations and the lowest commitment to their business. In short, it was a painful and frustrating experience for all concerned.

As a result, we decided to only offer services for free in support – no strings attached – and have gifted over $100 000 in services over the past three years alone to charities, not-for-profits and NGO’s. They benefited, those in need benefited, and we have always felt good about this kind of work.

Our most recent pro bono client – the One Health Organisation – is a case in point; and if you’re a health care professional anywhere in the world, check out their model of Holistic Primary Health Care and consider supporting them financially (take the time to read the expanded version, not just the summary – it’s the most intelligent approach to health care i’ve ever seen!).

So now I’m in Boulder and am finding that there is a whole different way of doing business here. People collaborate. People offer free advice. People get together and think about how they can support each other through giving rather than thinking only about what they can get. Coming from Australia – where there is such a mindset of lack and competition – I feel like I can breathe again.

So I thought i would run an experiment and see what happens.

Every week I’m here in Boulder I will give away a 90 minute brainstorm to a LOHAS business.

No strings attached.

A couple of points worth noting:

  • my company typically charges $395 for this service – just so we are clear on value
  • there is no requirement for you to ‘give back’
  • sessions must be conducted at your premises or somewhere else where we can focus on the conversation (not over lunch)
  • you must commit to a full 90 minute session, with no interruptions
  • this is not a ‘group’ situation – it’s for an individual business (the only exception is for a clinic with multiple practitioners)
  • there is no obligation to do anything post the session – no product, e-book, seminar, workshop etc
  • it is your responsibility to take notes from the session – you can record, video or whatever else works for you (for internal use only)

Why am I doing this?

A fair question – it’s an experiment, I’m curious to see if Boulder really is as different as it appears to be. I guess I’m also racking up my karma points too.

I’m also on a semi-sabbattical (if there can be such a thing – seems a bit like being a weekend vegetarian) and have time on my hands, and might as well use it doing things I enjoy (other than hiking, and sleeping and reading and eating).

Finally, I’m interested in the possibility of relocating to Boulder (semi) permanently, and this seems like a good way to get to know the kind of people I’m particularly interested in connecting with.

So if this seems like you, leave a reply here on my blog (and if you’ve found this through facebook, follow the link so that everything appears in the one place). Take the time to tell me who you are, where you are, what you do. Provide a link to your twitter feed, facebook page, website or blog. Help me understand who you’re trying to help, and how I can help you help whoever they are.


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vision, strategy, output

July 18, 2009

I’ve been consulting to health and sustainability enterprises for almost fifteen years, and in that time I’ve become ever clearer about what causes business in this market place to fail.

Most consistently it seems to be that there is a lack of appreciation for the natural order of things, for the hierarchy of influence and how to work most effectively with it.

When businesses seek out a marketing specalist they are usually approaching them at the level of output. Output is product or service definition, branding, copywriting, web-development, advertising. Output is ultimately an activity related to business development.

Yet the presumption – generally an erroneous one – is that the primary stakeholders really know what their business needs. This is because there is usually no documented business strategy, and even if there is, there is a massive disconnect between the strategy and the (generally ambiguous) vision.

I’ve often said that people think that because they have an appreciation of aesthetics, that they are a designer, that because they know how to use a pen, they are a copywriter. The greatest mistake business people make is that they presume that because they are capable of thinking, they know how to strategise.

Michael Gerber talks about this at length in The E-Myth.

The highest point of influence within any enterprise is the vision of the stakeholders. Without taking the time to clarify this vision, to make it utterly compelling, all strategies and outputs will fail. This is quite simply because their sole purpose is to serve a vision. Equally important to this, however, is the synergies between each of these elements of business planning. A strategy needs to faithfully serve a vision, and can only do so through equal measures of intuition and critical intelligence.

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