Tuesday, December 9, 2008

A Visit to the Living Earth Cafe

Note: I wrote this for World Watch Magazine for the July/August 2008 issue. I'm adding this and other articles now to get this blog up to speed.

Imagine this. You walk into the Living Earth Cafe, a new coffeehouse that just opened in your city. The d├ęcor is simple, and in places clashes with itself. A funky old couch dominates a corner, a few well-worn arm chairs sit to one side, occupied by two patrons engaged in a passionate debate. A mix of eclectic tables and chairs is spread around the space. At the front of the store, a prominent sign explains that all furniture is used, acquired locally from Freecycle, Craig’s List, or secondhand stores. The same sign announces that all electricity comes from renewable sources and that about half the hot water is generated from rooftop solar hot water collectors.

Over by the windows you see dozens of herbs and vegetable plants sprouting from the sills. In the corner, there’s a strange box labeled “vermicomposter” and another sign stating that “1% of our organic waste is recycled here by our worms, the other 99% in composters at our local urban garden, which produces 100% of our herbal teas and a portion of our food.”

You get in line to order a cup of the locally grown herbal tea. In front of you a customer orders a latte to go and is shocked to hear there are no to-go cups. “You can either enjoy your coffee here, sir, or you can borrow one of our travel mugs,” explains the barista. “There’s a $4 deposit, which you’ll get back if you return it.”A bit surprisingly, the guy agrees and borrows one of the mugs and goes on his way.

It’s your turn. Typically ordering tea at a cafe is a humdrum experience, with three or four options, each costing as much as a dozen bags at the grocery store. But there is a long list of tea choices here—served loose-leaf, not in a bleached paper bag—and in several innovative combinations. “I’ll take the mint lavender,” you say.

“Would you like that sweet? We can add stevia leaves, a natural herbal sweetener with no calories.”

“Sure, I’ll try that.”

You fork over three bucks (you can’t help but notice the cafe still charges what the market will bear), and take your little tea pot and mug to your table.While drinking your tea, you read a little brochure about the cafe. On one side is a menu and upcoming events. The cafe offers a set menu, but looking around at what the other diners are having, the food looks quite healthy, tasty, and not served in obesity-promoting portions. The week’s menu offers simple, staple meals from around the world: dhal and brown basmati rice on Mondays, spelt pasta with tomatoes and basil on Tuesdays, green tofu curry and sticky brown rice on Wednesday, and so on. It looks totally vegetarian, possibly even vegan, and minimally processed. The upcoming events described are diverse, too—local organizations’ meetings, lectures, book groups,musical performances, even classes on how to vermicompost and grow food in containers and urban garden plots.

On the back of the menu is a broader description of the cafe, which turns out to be a project of the Living Earth Ethics Foundation (LEEF), a nonprofit organization whose mission is “to promote a code of ethics that will sustain life on a living Earth.”

All profits from this chain of cafes and LEEF’s other mission driven businesses support the foundation’s social service providers: urban gardens that offer skills training and access to healthy food for low-income urban residents; free clinics that are as focused on promoting a healthy lifestyle as treating the many chronic diseases that are side-effects of the consumer culture; homeless shelters that emphasize both empowerment and a new model of success (rather than success through increased material consumption); and several Living Earth Charter Schools where, unlike typical schools, the curriculum centers on building an awareness of the natural limits of a finite planet, developing a deep understanding of the close links between the consumer economy and current exploitation of people and the environment, and instilling a consciousness of our ethical responsibility to the Earth and all beings that are part of it, all while providing the highest level of academic training possible.

Finally, below the description is a box titled, “Love Living Earth Cafe? Become an investor.” It explains that “the capital to run this cafe comes directly from the customers, who receive interest on their investments in Living Earth Dollars redeemable for goods at the cafe. These investments are equivalent to one to five-year certificates of deposit and are currently providing a 5 to 7 percent annual return. For more details, chat with the manager or visit www.livingearthcafe.org.”

Sound too good to be true? So far it is, but much of the model described here has been implemented in one form or another, and creating a more comprehensive model is possible.

There are already restaurants in Thailand that educate customers about HIV, safe sex, and family planning while directing the profits to an NGO focused on addressing these issues in rural populations. There is a bakery in New York City helping to provide skills training to the chronically underemployed while using its profits to support several additional social enterprises and services, such as affordable housing. And these are just some of the smaller, more recently established social enterprises. There are several well-known social enterprises that have over a billion dollars in annual revenue and more than a hundred years of experience, namely, the Salvation Army and the YMCA. Of course, these organizations’ agendas are not environmental in nature, but nothing is stopping the environmental community from comprehensively utilizing the proven tool of social enterprise.

All that’s required is to build not-for-profit businesses and channel surplus earnings into broader efforts than just “harm reduction” advocacy. Currently most environmental advocacy is focused on reducing the worst effects of consumerism, rather than on providing an alternative socio-economic model. For example, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act both set maximum limits on the pollution that can be emitted into the air and water. Current climate change legislative efforts are focused on trying to curb greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent overall—a lofty reduction but one that still won’t get us to where we need to be, especially in a world where population and desire for the consumer lifestyle continue to grow.

Of course, our political system, which is based on compromise and the interplay between competing interests, shapes this harm reduction agenda, but the question needs to be asked: why aren’t environmental organizations playing hardball like corporations do?

Corporations deploy lobbyists and “astroturf organizations” (grassroots organizations engineered by corporations that pretend to represent the public interest) to influence governments around the world, undermining those organizations that actually represent the public interest.Why aren’t environmental groups penetrating businesses’ realm—not just by pressuring them directly to change, as organizations like Rainforest Action Network do, but by setting up social enterprises that indirectly force corporations to redesign how they do business? NGOs could set up wind farms, cafes, ecologically designed funeral homes, eco-banks, or any number of sustainable business that directly threaten corporate chains.

For example, if designed right (i.e., made popular), an environmental franchise like the Living Earth Cafe would be able to pressure Starbucks and other cafes to redesign their model to accommodate the evolving taste of the green consumer. Consciousness would grow to the point where Starbucks could no longer get away with touting their eco-friendliness by serving coffee in a 10-percent-recycled paper cup, but might feel pressured into getting rid of to-go cups altogether.

As importantly, the funds generated by these non-profit environmentalist businesses could be channeled directly into the organizations’ advocacy and education work and into social service providers that, in the long term, could help to weaken consumerism’s hold on humanity and create new environmentalists. In other words, just as a Catholic school or a Catholic based homeless shelter helps to expose people to the Christian God and Jesus, environmentalist schools and shelters could do the same for the Earth. As well, these service providers could help prepare people for the real possibility of a widespread ecological and economic collapse. How many people living in consumer societies know how to grow food? Or make a simple solar cooker and use it to purify water? Or build a composting toilet? We assume that fresh water will flow into our homes (and sewage out of them) long into the future, but there are absolutely no guarantees of either.With the rapid degeneration of the global environment, the environmental community will need to expand its role beyond harm reduction advocacy if we expect human civilization to have even a small chance of thriving beyond the 21st century.

To launch this type of comprehensive environmental movement, we need a philosophy more complete than the average environmental organization currently provides. In the coming months I will describe a vision of the next evolution of environmentalism, including 10 ethical principles that could help orient this shift. Environmentalism does not need to die, as was recently argued, nor does it have to remain a marginalized special interest. Instead it can become a much broader movement, absorbing many of the related social-justice issues into a more unified system—one that, at its core, has a simple ethical code to guide both individual behavior and the movement. And that can mobilize an ever-expanding network of social services, social enterprises, and development efforts, systematically replacing the self-destructive, corporate-driven consumer economy with an ecological social-entrepreneurial system that can be sustained for millennia.

First printed in World Watch Magazine, Jul/Aug 2008 issue.

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