How Sustainable Values Bridge the Conservative-Progressive Divide

By Martin Melaver

One of our clients is a fundamentalist Church with a mega-congregation. My own company is a small family business with strong leftist Jewish values. You wouldn’t think we’d have much to talk about except the weather and SEC football. The differences could not be greater.

The K-12 school that is a part of the Church has a sign on its football stadium that reads “With God’s help we will crush the enemy.” In my own lexicon, I don’t think I’ve ever used the word “warrior” outside the context of a yoga position. The Church finishes all of its meetings with a prayer. Our own company meetings are much more riotous by comparison. The Church evangelizes on television every Sunday. We try to do our talking through various sustainable practices that take years before they come to fruition.

There are some things we are never going to agree on, some other things I can’t even imagine having a conversation about. And yet despite many cultural differences, our two entities are slowly discovering some compelling common ground.

This particular Church is interested in creating a continuum of care for its congregants, a cradle-to-grave development that most of us would recognize in one way or another as good ol’ mixed-use, mixed-income community development. And, as trustees of church coffers, they are interested in energy-saving strategies and water-conservation technologies that reduce costs for its constituents thus making them similarly invested in being good stewards of our natural capital. In short, a conservative Church finds itself breaking bread with a progressive business on a sustainable real estate  venture.

I think this is one of the arenas where true paradigm change takes place: building a bridge across one of the most marked socio-political chasms in American culture.

Those immersed in the green building movement are well-versed in the exponential growth of LEED, slated to comprise about 10% of commercial construction in the US in 2010. But the “how many” is far less significant than the “who”: it’s all about the stakeholders involved. And faith-based communities represent the mother lode. As Kevin Phillips notes in his 2006 study American Theocracy, “We can begin by describing the role of religion in American politics . . . with two words: widely underestimated.”

A December 2004 Newsweek poll found that 55% of Americans believe in the literal accuracy of the Bible.  This stat goes hand in hand with Stark and Finke’s two-century analysis of the increasing religious adherence in America (17% in 1776 to 63% in 2000). As Phillips notes, a strange brew of  religious hawkishness, emphasis on faith over reason, and increasing missionary activity and millennial faith are pushing a trend toward an “American Disenlightenment.”

All of which makes this particular deal between our Church client and us intriguing. It won’t move mountains. And of course, there will always be naysavers, such as a recent editorial in the Tulsa Beacon that links the environmental movement to disrespect of the Church .

But it does epitomize how even a small business can leverage what it does to be an agent of change. In this case fiduciary conservativeness is linked to environmental conservation, in the process bridging the chasm between ethics and ecology. Of course, the trick is one of education along systems thinking lines: to enable clients to look beyond the footprint of a green project to considerations about how one votes and the lobbyists one ends up in bed with, the jobs that can be created as a result of a project, the infrastructure one might be able to tap into, the moral ethos embedded in regenerative development.

The Reverend Thomas Berry, at a talk at the Harvard Seminar on Environmental Values, put it well: “We have a moral sense of suicide, homicide, and genocide, but no moral sense of biocide or geocide, the killing of the life systems themselves and even the killing of the Earth.” Perhaps the bridge-building we are engaging with our client is indicative of a larger movement to shape a more holistic environmental ethos.

That’s my new year’s hope, in any case.

Martin Melaver is CEO of Melaver, Inc. and the author of Living Above the Story: Building a Business That Creates Value, Inspires Change, and Restores Land and Community.

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