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Is the Occupy Wall Street Movement Sustainable?

RP Siegel | Monday October 31st, 2011 | 1 Comment

Yes, I admit, the title is a double-entendre. There are two ways it can be read. Mostly, when this question has been asked, it is referring to how long the people will remain at the site. Will they stay once it really gets cold? Last week’s storm was a test of that. I would say that they will stay until they have made a difference, which they already have.

But what I am really asking about here, is how much is the movement about sustainability, and if it’s not explicitly so, then to what extent are the goals of the two movements compatible?

John Elkington, founder of SustainAbility recently described a meeting that took place the crypt in the basement of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London as part of National Ethical Investment Week, while Occupy London Stock Exchange protestors rallied outside.

With images of protesters freshly impressed on his mind, Elkington pointed out to the investment advisers that sat around the table that if things don’t change, “capitalism risks losing its social license to operate.”

He talked about the various lists and ranking processes that sorted companies by their good deeds and bad ones, and the incremental changes that these rankings, with their feet firmly planted in the status quo, tend to inspire. He then went on to say that, “transformative change is rarely delivered by the sort of incumbents celebrated” in these best-of lists.

Instead, he added, “we need to draw on the energy, ambition and fearlessness of those at the edges of the current system.” Was he talking about the people gathered just outside?

No doubt they were in his thoughts as he closed with the observation that “younger people are showing a growing appetite to occupy the future on their own terms.”

Occupy Wall Street has been demonstrating just such an appetite since its inception on September 17th. The group is self-described as a

“leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%. We are using the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic to achieve our ends and encourage the use of nonviolence to maximize the safety of all participants. This #ows movement empowers real people to create real change from the bottom up. We want to see a general assembly in every backyard, on every street corner because we don’t need Wall Street and we don’t need politicians to build a better society.”

But does the movement even care about sustainability?

Perusing their website I saw hundreds of posts on many topics, all of them based on the premise that the system as it stands today only works for those few at the top who are controlling it. Some of these were eloquent, others strident.

One example, which received 794 comments, said “A Resource Based Economy means all resources become the common heritage of all of the inhabitants, not just a select few.  It is a holistic socio-economic system in which all goods and services are available without the use of money, credits, barter or any other system of debt or servitude. Do you agree on such a system – YES or NO?”

This is clearly a social justice concern, but wouldn’t resources held in under common stewardship likely receive more conservation and less exploitation?

Another post called “Lobby Democracy” proposes raising money to pay lobbyists to represent the interests of the majority, kind of an “if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em” approach. There is talk of “muzzling the illegitimate interests of big business,” among the comments. Perhaps it’s too early in the process to understand that it is balance that is needed and not suppression.

Back at St.Paul’s, Elkington referred to a report produced by marketing communications company JWT and Elkington’s sustainability consultancy Volans entitled Future Quotient, which explores how businesses, governments and investors can move beyond the pressure to focus on the short term and start thinking about future generations.

The report points out that, “Much progress has been made with more than 60% of companies reporting increases in their sustainability initiatives. But much of that has been in the area of corporate citizenship rather than in any actions addressing the core challenge of sustainability, which is directly addressing the needs of future generations.”

We seem to be poised on the brink as the sustainability movement tries to extend itself across the chasm between the visionaries who are passionately building the future even as the present crumbles around them, and the mainstream public who are, in large measure, either distracted or disinterested. The required bridge might be a bit longer than a lot of us would like to think. Apparently, 88% of business leaders surveyed by feel that they have already embedded sustainability into their operations. But, as the report points out, they are mostly missing the inter-generational aspect of the concept.

“The responsibility of leadership is to represent the future to the present,” said Dalton McGuinty, Premier of Ontario.

So how do we get from #OWS to a sustainable future, when so much of what is written on the hundred of placards and cardboard signs has little bearing on what we ordinarily think of as sustainability?

The question is not an easy one to answer. The direct linkages are not immediately apparent. One needs to connect the dots, but I maintain that the connections are definitely there. You just have to look below the surface.

One of the many ways that things need to change is the way that Capitalist economics discounts the future through discounted cash flow valuations. As Frank Dixon pointed out years ago, a dollar twenty years from now is worth considerably less than a dollar today, so where is the incentive to care about the future? It’s clearly not  in the high rise towers surrounding Wall Street.

Future Quotient points out that, “before the Industrial revolution, the prevailing energy paradigm mainly revolved around renewable energy…We then moved into the fossil fuel era. . . Now with growing concerns over Peak Oil. . . we are racing towards a new paradigm—whose character is yet to be determined.”

But I would argue that the new paradigm is here and it has been eloquently articulated by Jeremy Rifkin in his new book, The Third Industrial Revolution. The book argues that a fundamental change occurs in society whenever powerful new information technology and energy-generation technologies converge. It happened with coal and the telegraph (the first industrial revolution, with oil and television (the second), and now in the third and final industrial revolution, distributed, renewable energy and the Internet will take us to a sustainable post-carbon era. The revolution, which is based on five pillars: renewable energy, the transformation of buildings into power plants, internet-based smart grid, hydrogen energy storage and electrified vehicles, will not only create millions of new jobs, but will also usher in a transformation in the structure of society from one of hierarchical power to one of lateral power.

According to Rifkin:

The new era will bring with it a reorganization of power relationships across every level of society. While the fossil fuel-based First and Second Industrial Revolutions scaled vertically and favored centralized, top-down organizational structures operating in markets, the Third Industrial Revolution is organized nodally, scales laterally, and favors distributed and collaborative business practices that work most effectively in networks. The “democratization of energy” has profound implications for how we orchestrate the entirety of human life in the coming century. We are entering the era of “Distributed Capitalism.

This new paradigm has already been embraced in Europe where this agenda is being aggressively pursued.

The title to this piece has two meanings and I believe that the answer to both questions is “yes.” The occupation itself has already been sustained long enough to initiate a powerful message of change that is spreading rapidly around the world where it is sure to take root and grow. And while the particulars of the change agenda have yet to be fully articulated, it seems clear that a “democratization of energy,” in every sense of those words  is a central element to what this movement is all about.

[Image credit: Long Island Rose: Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water.  Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.


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  • Facebook User

    I would like to share some information about the sustainability of OWS (in the ecological sense that is). To be exact, the movement’s actual implementation of sustainability at the local level. The committees for sustainability at various encampments in different cities have gotten started immediately, installing water filtration systems to recycle ” grey water”, they have clean and healthy peddle generators and are doing a variety of workshops. To read about it visit: http://www.occupy-wallstreet.com/permaculture/