Cornerstones, Keystones, Milestones and Touchstones

Nadine Gudz

Not only is this an important month

(April is commonly referred to as Earth Month since Earth Day is April 22), but this is a landmark year. For many, 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the environmental movement. Though this milestone year may be met with mixed emotions (how much longer will we need an “environmental” movement and can we afford to wait that long?), it is certainly cause for reflection.

Published in 1962, Rachel Carson’s cornerstone book, Silent Spring, is often recognized for launching the environmental movement. To draw analogy from the craft of masonry, the cornerstone is the first stone set in the construction of a foundation, the reference for all other stones, thereby influencing the entire structure.

A biologist’s call to action, Carson challenged the practices of agricultural scientists, chemical industrialists and governments, warned of the impacts of toxins in the environment and threats of bioaccumulation. She exposed the danger and futility of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides as more and more insects and fungal diseases evolved immunity to chemical control substances like DDT, which were destroying the ecological systems we and others depend on for life.

Attacked by the chemical industry and governments, while battling breast cancer, her courageous leadership led to the development of some of the first environmental regulations, protection and conservation measures.

Carson called for a change in the way humankind viewed the natural world. She acknowledged that humans are a vulnerable part of the natural world subject to the same damage as the rest of the ecosystem. In other words, by harming the natural world, we are harming ourselves. In fact, we are nature. Our bodies are walking ecosystems, providing homes to microscopic organisms living on the tongue, teeth, and skin and in the intestine.

She reminded us, however, that human beings are but one small part of nature distinguished primarily by our power to alter it, in some cases irreversibly.

Rachel Carson was a keystone. To borrow from ecology, a keystone species has a dramatic role in a community as its presence/absence significantly impacts the lives of others.

What does all of this mean for business?

Interface founder, Ray Anderson, might have responded with a question he would typically ask audiences, “What’s the business case for destroying the ecological systems we and others depend on for life?” Interface’s fundamental rethinking of its relationship with the natural world inspired Interface to step up its game, follow a different path and climb Mount Sustainability.

At Interface, it also means delivering sustainable design from the company level and how we work together, to the molecular level in terms of the ingredients that constitute our products. Science-based tools like Life Cycle Assessment are critical to making the right decisions about product ingredients based on reducing and eliminating environmental impact and stewarding our products into a closed loop system.

It also means “thinking like a movement, acting like an organization.” This is the mantra of the Tamarack Institute in Ontario, Canada and serves as an invitation to think beyond our individual organizations and their day-to-day operations towards a much larger vision. When we think like an organization, we use fewer levers to move forward, whereas thinking like a movement uses as many levers as possible through strategic collaborations and requires understanding the complexities of systemic change.

Silent Spring is recognized as a cornerstone of the environmental movement, and Rachel Carson was most certainly a game-changing keystone, but as we mark 50 years of the environmental movement, I hope 2012 serves as a true milestone: a turning point, not just an event. Perhaps as more organizations think like a movement and act consciously and deliberately as an organization, more might evolve as touchstones – templates for change and places of inspiration. What’s the alternative? Unfortunately, we can’t afford another 50 years to figure it out.
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