By Martin Melaver
This past week, I was fortunate enough to be a guest of the Carter Center at its annual meeting.
President Carter, at 85, was jaw-droppingly impressive, speaking on his feet for 45 minutes without notes on a broad range of political and economic issues. The programs the Carter Center highlighted during this meeting were no less impressive, ranging from elimination of malaria in Haiti and the Dominican Republic to promoting greater openness and unfettered flow of information in China, to tee-ing up democratic elections in the Sudan.
But it was the underlying architecture of this organization that really grabbed my attention. I felt I was getting a glimpse of what a sustainably-rooted organization looks like.
We are certainly not lacking for one-off stories of numerous companies and organizations all announcing their various green initiatives. Bravo. It’s about time. Much rarer, however, are examples of entities that “get it.” By getting it, I mean having a clear, focused purpose that locates all one’s resources on the three keys to a more sustainable world order:
1) Paradigm-changing programs. Delivering on any of the handful of big-ticket game-changing ideas that are currently circulating. Ideas like radical carbon reduction (see George Monbiot, Heat, Lester Brown, Plan B 3.0), creating multi-generational trusts for natural capital (Peter Barnes, Capitalism 3.0), shaping a green-collar economy (Van Jones), eliminating poverty (Jeffrey Sachs),and retooling democracy (Robert Reich, Sheldon Wolin).
2) Holistic thinking. In my world (real estate), we simply cannot afford to limit our scope of work to the four corners of a particular project. Instead, we need to think about the surrounding infrastructure that envelops a project water, energy, existing recreational and educational facilities, etc. and figure out creative ways to leverage those resources. The same is true for virtually all enterprises these days.
3) Congruent (or synthetic) action. The noted biologist E. O. Wilson once noted (see Consilience) that we have been hardwired over millennia with epigenetic codes, codes that lead us to trust our specific tribe and distrust all others. For sustainability to take hold, we need to shape congruent action across tribal lines (business, government, civil society, academia, etc.) that have historically divided us.
The Carter Center seems to be firing on all these cylinders. There’s the focus on big-ticket concepts like advancing human rights and eliminating unnecessary human suffering. There’s its holistic way of thinking that connects a specific program like malaria elimination to improved health, poverty reduction, greater social productivity, and advancement of peace initiatives across traditionally hostile national borders. And there’s its capacity to shape congruent action across cultural and sector lines that are traditionally siloed from one another. Watching the Carter Center in action, you can’t help but be struck by the way scientists and government agencies and businesses are all brought together through the auspices of a non-profit entity.
It is often said that Carter has been a much better global ambassador than he was a President. I don’t know about that. His attention to greater energy efficiency and alternative sources of energy should be part of a revised legacy. So too his focus on water quality and quality as well as biodiversity, witnessed by efforts to curb the mania in Washington for big, expensive, and destructive dams (see Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert). It may be fairer to say that he was ahead of his time as President. But the Carter Center’s efforts are of its time, a model of how we need to function in whatever sector of the economy we operate. Perhaps we will pay more attention this go-round to what leadership in sustainability looks like.
Martin Melaver is CEO of Melaver, Inc. and the author of Living Above the Store: Building a Business That Creates Value, Inspires Change, and Restores Land and Community.