14 January 2006

The Conscientious Orc

I’ve been reading about people like Ray Anderson, the carpet manufacturer who is trying to “climb Mt. Sustainability” by making carpets that reuse 100% of their materials, are tracked and reclaimed by the company at the end of the product’s life, are made with solar power rather than being plugged into the grid. The architect William McDonough specializes in making eco-friendly factories for businesses like The Gap and Ford so that the output from those factories produces fewer or no toxins (really?) in the design. He even creates scenarios where river water used by factories is pumped out at the “waste” end with even cleaner water than the river had originally.

Let’s put this in perspective, first of all. These guys are freaks. Regular businesses laugh and point at these guys. Immediate profits are everything to just about every company in the world, and this is even a legal mandate for a corporation, who (yes who, corporations are legal people, remember) cares nothing for you or me or any other creature on the planet.

But beyond the fringe nature of these guys, I can’t help but feel disturbed by what they are doing, because their idea is that we can still turn a profit and run a sustainable enterprise. In fact, as you might well imagine, without this pitch, neither The Gap nor Ford would ever agree to build eco-friendly factories at all, unless it were an isolated publicity stunt to enhance their corporate image (and I’m not convinced, yet, that this isn’t the case).

Can we really maintain a paradigm of economic growth and still be doing no harm in any sense? We need to think beyond being green, here. What about poverty? Should we still be able to horde 4000 pair of shoes in our closets like those idiot women in Sex in the City just because the soles are no longer made of PVC, and just because the factory didn’t pollute the water? Is it OK to remain rabid consumers, which is essential to the growth paradigm, when most of the world suffers as a result of our glut?

It’s just not enough.

An analogy with those evil Orcs from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings amuses me, and sort of makes it easier for me to understand why it feels wrong to be both green and profitable.

So there’s this medium-sized Orc, by the name of Grisly, who is a member of Sauron’s (the Dark Lord’s) army. He and his fellow marauders are currently dismembering Hobbits (you know, like cute little Frodo and Sam) in the Shire, stealing their moderate wealth, then torching the Hobbit’s tiny hovels before moving on to the next village.

One night, around the fire, Grisly confides to his friends that he believes it is wrong to dismember the Hobbits in so painful a way. His buddies point and laugh, slap him around a bit, but eventually they listen to what he has to say. They tell him he can go ahead and use a quick cut to the throat if he wishes, but that he shouldn’t deprive the rest of the band of the joy they receive from torture.

The next evening in the next Hobbit village, Grisly acts on his conscious, and he reduces the suffering of the poor Hobbits by slashing their throats quickly and efficiently. He even is able to sneak up on some of them and kill them before they know what is happening. It is his hope that this practice will spread to his fellow pillagers, but until such a time, he will just have to be content with his new, clean methods of extermination.

After a couple of weeks of this practice, however, a new thought nags at Grisly: Why are we pillaging at all? Yes, we need to ransack and murder for the Dark Lord, but is this the right thing to be doing? Are there not other pursuits besides filling Sauron’s coffers through murder that ought to be considered as primary occupations for one’s life?

“Nah,” says Grisly to himself. “It’s all I know how to do.”

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