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Book Review: In Earth's Company by Carl Frankel

IN EARTH'S COMPANY: Business, Environment, and the Challenge of Sustainability
by Carl Frankel
New Society Publishers, 1998
Gabriola Island, BC
223 pages, $$16.95 paperback

Buy this book from Powell's, an independent bookstore

 

In Earth's Company: Business, Environment, and the Challenge of Sustainability takes seriously the possibility that business could become sustainable, and it gives inspiration and context for helping this happen. Frankel's book is a unique contribution that may challenge both environmentalists and business people.

Frankel is as clear as any environmental activist that business-as-usual is a death sentence for our planet. Yet he is more pragmatic than bitter in sketching the mixed results of business and government initiatives towards sustainability. And, he holds a hopeful vision of a transformed citizenry creating a sustainable business world.

Not many of us who have an insider's access to how business works are very optimistic – as a business consultant with environmental leanings, I can hardly bring up the subject with most of my paying clients. Read Sharon Beder's Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism (Chelsea Green Publishers, 1998) to better understand the anti-environmental corporate agenda we've been up against for the last two decades – one which dominates our public policy, while deluding the public and blocking sustainable innovation.

Yet this agenda is not what Frankel has us focus on. Frankel is a journalist – North American editor for Tomorrow Magazine and an occasional contributor to YES!– but in his book he raises journalism to cultural commentary and historical critique.

 

In Earth's Company chronicles our society's recent environmental awakening and our attempts to become more sustainable, filling in the history from Rachael Carson through 1997 and highlighting milestones of both progress and backsliding. We are faced with very mixed results – for instance, we are improving steadily on eco-efficiency, but we can't claim progress on sustainable consumption. Among other problems, Frankel points out, corporate emphasis on greening-up products has defused consumer concerns about the environment and has essentially foreclosed attention on deep-green products whose widespread use could really make a difference in healing our environment.

Nonetheless, there has been a corporate environmental movement building over the same decades during which corporate spin doctors have held sway. Many courageous and far-sighted individuals, industry groups, and government initiatives are moving businesses towards sustainability – albeit in fits and starts, through ignorance, obstructionism, and inherent business and cultural contradictions. I think of a friend, young and female, who as the environmental health and safety manager at a large refinery has been achieving radical reductions in waste and resource use while saving millions of dollars annually. She is a rising star, leading her company into the future. Ten years ago her hands would have been tied.

There is a critical piece of education missing in our society, especially in higher education – the knowledge, contextual understanding, attitudes, and skills needed to transform our business and industrial system. Since most of us go to work in the very system we are trying to change, the need for sustainability education is nearly universal. This education might include but goes well beyond domestic recycling or restoring a habitat.

Frankel's book shows us bit by bit the mosaic of assumptions that hold our current system in place – familiar bugaboos like scientific reductionism, and more subtle or paradoxical barriers to change like the high regard of business for labor efficiency. In Frankel's words, "Sustainable development requires a deep-level shift in cultural assumptions and values such that quality is privileged equally with quantity, depth equally with surfaces, and the subjective equally with the objective."

Though most of In Earth's Company is a balanced history and assessment accessible to businesspeople and environmentalists alike, we are also given a thread of philosophy and ethics that by the end becomes a vision of what Frankel calls the "new humanism." He believes that our society is in the transition out of modernism. On the planetary level, the strategy of environmental exploitation is reaching the end of its natural life, and Frankel feels most citizens realize this. On the personal level, he says, as our values and self-sense grow stronger, we could begin to take responsibility for environment, equality, and justice. We will do so, he says, by focusing as much on the spiritual as the material quality of life.

Is this wishful thinking, or is it a plan? Our material interdependence with the business world continues to grow and expand further throughout the globe, maintained by our collective consent and actions. Yet if most of us, employees and citizens, withdraw our consent and contribute pieces toward the new way, we might transform the consumer/business/government juggernaut to a sustainable way of life and work. The stakes are high: Unless we all make changes, we will lose our life sustenance, sooner or later.

Frankel has written a uniquely balanced text that gives us a conceptual framework for deeper and more consistent change. As Paul Hawken says in the foreword to the book, the transition to sustainability is – or should be – the central drama of our time. Frankel makes that drama available to all, including the millions who could make changes at work.


Reviewed by Libba Pinchot, a business consultant and vice-president of the Positive Futures Network board.

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