Don't S**t Where You Eat: Rise of the Ecopreneur

The following is an excerpt from The Gort Cloud: The Invisible Force Powering Today's Most Visible Green Brands, by Richard Seireeni. It has been adapted from its original formatting to suit the web.

Education is the path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty.
-- Mark Twain

The world has known many pioneers -- people with extraordinary vision who have addressed social imperatives with intuition, imagination, scientific breakthroughs, technological inventions, product innovations, and plain old business savvy. They were and are revolutionaries of the business sort.

Abraham Darby is a good example. He's credited with starting the Industrial Revolution in 1709. Darby was the enterprising Quaker who figured out how to smelt iron with coke instead of the more costly charcoal. Working in a small town on the River Severn in central England, Darby used his cheap iron, instead of brass, to cast inexpensive cooking pots for the poor. Although it would be a couple hundred years before brands like Cuisinart and Magic Chef would become well known, Darby's pots were harbingers of the modern, mass-produced consumer goods we find in a Target store today. Under the direction of his son and, later, his grandson, Darby's Coalbrookdale works produced a number of world firsts, including cast-iron rails, iron wheels, steam cylinders, steam locomotives, iron boats, and, most famously, the first iron bridge. Over time, the Severn Gorge area was transformed into a hive of foundries, kilns, and factories producing the goods, and the pollution, that the modern era is famous for.

The Industrial Revolution marked a turning point in human social history, like the invention of farming or the rise of the city-state. It unleashed a torrent of inventions and technologies that increased labor efficiency, reduced product costs, improved transportation, increased international trade, and ultimately led to the primacy of the modern corporation -- and all without central direction or government control. There was no conductor leading this band of innovators. It just took off on its own.

Mass production demanded a steady flow of raw materials that soon began to outstrip the earth's ability to replace them. Processing these raw materials often required brute-force processes that taxed natural systems and produced toxic wastes that no one bothered to deal with properly. Industrialism also demanded cheap fuel, mostly in the form of wood, coal, and petroleum. The by-products of burning these fuels are soot and greenhouse gases. When the climate-change denial industry, which was financed and then abandoned by the likes of ExxonMobil, attacks Al Gore's inconvenient truths, it forgets that industrialization has also resulted in the loss of natural habitats and fisheries; an increase in extinctions; industrial and agricultural substance poisoning; a population explosion; social injustice; ozone depletion; urban sprawl; deforestation; the draining of natural aquifers; the introduction of invasive species, like kudzu, Africanized honeybees, and zebra mussels; the loss of indigenous culture; obesity and related illnesses; regional wars for limited natural resources; toxic dumps; increased incidence of asthma and other autoimmune diseases; cancer; increased risk of radiation exposure; sewage spills; smog; red tides; land, space, and ocean littering; contaminated runoff and oil spills; and global pandemics, including AIDS and influenza. Clearly these are problems with far greater proportions than just global warming, and they are not going to be solved by recycling soda bottles. It will take a lot of people, especially businesspeople, making incremental changes on their own without the direction of central authorities – just as the Industrial Revolution was set in motion without central direction.

While the First World's standard of living and personal longevity are certainly better than in Darby's time, the earth has paid a heavy price for the miracle of modern consumerism. We are paying the piper for the gift of prosperity. From the mercury poisoning at Minamata Bay in Japan to the Superfund sites in America to the perpetual smog over Beijing, we have managed to foul our own homes in the name of progress. Even the Inuit people of northern Canada and Greenland are not immune, as industrial contamination has risen to health-threatening levels in Arctic fish and mammals. Tony Soprano put it rather bluntly: “You don't shit where you eat.”

Luckily and perhaps not too late, we who are old enough have also witnessed two other revolutions: the technology revolution, sometimes referred to as the third Industrial Revolution, and the digital communications revolution, which has produced the Internet, with immediate mass dissemination of raw and unfiltered information. It's this flood of information that has led to a worldwide recognition that something must be done if we are to sustain and spread the quality of life many of us enjoy today. As in Darby's time, a few enterprising folks see opportunity in a different kind of future.

The people responsible for transforming the theory of sustainability into the practice of sustainable business and, then, into viable and desired brands are the ecopreneurs I will profile in this book. Of course, there are many, many more than I had the time or the space to profile properly. Nevertheless, the total list of American sustainable business pioneers is still quite small. It's a small community of like-minded entrepreneurs who generally know one another and continually run into one another at conferences and on speaking tours. And like Darby's village in Shropshire, England, the ecopreneurs in America are found concentrating in places like Burlington, Vermont, and Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco. From these and other bases, they are diligently building green brands.

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