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A tithe for Mother Nature

Alan Braunholtz

Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, has a story in Sierra magazine about his “eureka” moment as an environmentalist.

While attending a city council meeting about channelizing the Ventura River, he listened to a procession of industry scientists and engineers testifying about the benefits of concrete and the fact that nothing lived in the river anyway. He thought the ruination of the river from a wildlife and scenic point of view was a done deal.

Then a young student gave a slide show of birds nesting in willows, snakes basking on mud and a host of animals that lived there.



So much for the prostituted scientists and their “dead” river. One kid and his camera saved that river.

Patagonia now donates 1 percent of sales (or 10 percent of profits, whichever is greater) to grass-roots environmental organizations.



Activism works.

Thomas Clarkson and 11 Quakers started the campaign to end the slave trade in England in 1787. At the time Britain’s empire profited vastly from the slave trade and slavery. Caribbean sugar plantations provided the wealth to many a London dynasty.

Fifty-one years later the Quakers achieved what had appeared impossible. Slavery that had “existed for millennia,” was “essential to the economy,” “older than money,” “part of the human condition,” was abolished in the British Empire On Aug. 1, 1838. The global superpower of the time set an example for the rest of the world to follow.



This is one of the more stunning examples of a few activists changing the world. There also was John Muir dragging Teddy Roosevelt to Yosemite; Martin Luther King and some marchers standing up to the police Greenpeace highlighting the plight of whales, forests as examples.

Activism takes many forms and with globalization we can use our buying power to change the world for better or worse.

Seventh Generation (www.seventhgeneration.com) is one company I support with my wallet. Their bathroom tissue, detergent and bleach works as well as the more toxic stuff, doesn’t harm the environment, and I feel healthier. It costs more, but how do I price my allergies, skin rashes and environmental degradation? It’s a “pay now or pay later” deal and paying later always costs more.

It can be hard to find, since shelf space is competitive in supermarket chains. Up here I find City Market a little better from the organic-environmental produce viewpoint than Safeway, and I don’t go to Wal-Mart. Seventh Generation comes from the Iroquois confederacy saying, “In our every deliberation we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.”

Try taking that to a shareholder meeting. Actually you can by investing with one of the many socially responsible funds out there. These funds can match and beat the market.

Recently a woman on NPR was pushing her book advocating to “Invest in Sin” (alcohol, tobacco, arms manufacturers, etc). Socially responsible investing appeared to be heresy to her. She almost sounded angry that people could be so stupid to even consider social actions, as that could undermine her religion of selfish capitalism.

Anti-globalization is appealing, but it’s similar to being against the rising of the sun. Recent failures of free trade agreements reflect poorer countries balking at the injustices current free trade hoists onto them rather than the principle of open markets.

In negotiations, the powerful get the leverage and the world’s wealthy can abuse this power at the expense of the world’s poor. The U.S. and European agribusiness subsidies are a case in point. How can a Third World farmer live when the daily subsidy for one of our cows is more than his weekly wage? Ethical consumer activism is essential to guide global free trade to one of global fair trade. Shop wisely. There are many companies that really try to do a good job.

Change starts at the bottom and works its way up. Yvon Chouinard and Craig Matthews of Blue Ribbon Flies started “1 percent for the planet.” It’s a non-profit with which companies sign on to donate 1 percent of sales, a sort of tax for the earth, to help local environmental groups that are always outgunned by the finances of governments and corporations.

Still morality and ethics have great leverage, too, and these organizations can achieve wonders. To quote Margaret Mead, “Never underestimate the power of a few committed people to change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”

Hopefully this “1 percent for the planet” will grow and be a logo to look for while shopping.

Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.


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