11 June 2005

11.06.05. The Commons Man (Q&A with environmental foot soldiers)

Editor’s note: I hesitate before posting this e-interview to “A day at the office” and do so only with some real trepidation, not least because I do not like to have too much personal visibility and in a world of pushing egos I really don’t want to be counted among them. But we need all the visibility we can get to rally support for the good causes of The Commons and our terrific web of group programs and projects for a more sustainable world. So here we go, warts and all. And lend an eye to the questions of the mainly young readers. They in my view are the real justification behind all this.
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The Commons Man

Eric Britton, sustainable-development booster, answers Grist's questions


06 Jun 2005


question What work do you do?


answer I earn my living and pay the rent as an international adviser, consultant, and team builder for public- and private-sector organizations that have accepted that they need new thinking in the face of this uncomfortable concept that some call "sustainable development." That takes about half my time. For the rest, I have since the mid-'70s been involved in creating and maintaining a number of continuing public dialogues about various aspects of sustainable development, starting with The Commons: Open Society Sustainability Initiative.

I try to reconcile my NGO work with my advisory relationship with my private industrial and financial clients by thinking about it like this: Among our most challenging tasks is to find ways to bring together the huge creative potential of the private sector -- call it the market economy -- to produce the goods and services that we all need to live full and healthy lives. When I work with them, my role is not only to nag them about the unsustainability of their current activities, but also to see if I can help them understand that sustainability is also an important theme for them in their own operations and planning for the future. And as you can imagine, it is quite a challenge.

question What does your organization do?


answer We define The Commons as a wide-open, independent, first-stop shop on the web for concerned citizens, researchers, students, policy makers, entrepreneurs, investors, or social activists interested in quickly getting a feel for world sustainability issues, views, and developments from an unbiased critical perspective. We invite open discussion, information sharing, diversity, complex thinking, and collaborative initiatives for action.

We have a whole slew of cooperative programs under something we call the New Mobility Agenda, which we started back in 1988 as an open international platform for critical discussion, exchanges of materials and views, and diverse forms of cross-border collaboration on the challenging, necessarily conflicted topic of "sustainable transportation and social justice." And of these programs, the one that is getting the bulk of our attention these days is the Kyoto World Cities Challenge initiative. Another ongoing project is a discussion of Women, Transport, & Decision-making.

question What, in a perfect world, would constitute "mission accomplished"?

answer Hmm. I've never really thought about that explicitly since I always assumed that my life was going to be a continuing story of work in progress. The end goal is to make my contribution to a world in which every child born has an equal chance to lead a full, happy, and safe life.


question Where were you born? Where do you live now?


answer Born in Mississippi in 1938. I've lived in Paris, France, since 1969.


question What long and winding road led you to your current position?


answer During my childhood, I was surrounded by able and generous doctors and architects, both of whose wonderful task it is to protect and build lives. But I discovered early that I had no gifts for either of those professions, so I decided that what I wanted to do was to be a doctor and builder of society and daily lives. This led me first to a broad program of the sciences in my little New England college, followed by pretty intense doctoral work in the field of economics, spread out over several countries and cultures. But I never wanted to be an economist (not smart enough); what I wanted to understand better is what role economic matters play in people's daily lives.

Surely as important as anything in my "career choice" has been my irascible, independent personality. I am not sure that I am exactly proud of it, but no one ever really wanted to give me a job. So I had to make my own, which is what I do now.

question What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?


answer I get up early with a grin, stretch, roll around on the floor, lift a few weights, bolt down my cereal, and get down to work: I observe, I learn, I communicate. To accomplish this, I stretch the possibilities of the affordable information technology to its limit (the usual, plus IP videoconferencing since 1994, and now Skype), and I meet and talk to people. The day starts about 7 a.m. and chugs to a halt about 11 hours later as I go for a much-deserved workout and row.

question How many emails are currently in your inbox?


answer Don't ask. (675. Aaaaaargh!)


question Who is your environmental hero?


answer No joke: St. Francis of Assisi.


question What's your environmental vice?


answer Oh, shit. On the one hand, I am far more careful than your average Joe Six-pack. I turn off the lights and water, I get around locally mainly by walking and bike (easy to do in Paris), I don't go anywhere on vacation (but hey, this is Paris), and I substitute videoconferencing, et al. for air travel with a vengeance. But the world would still, I am afraid, need a couple of planets of this size to accommodate its 6 billion if everyone did as I do.

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Discuss this story in our blog, Gristmill.

question What are you reading these days?


answer The Indian, Trinidadian, English, permanent-expatriate-wherever-he-is, poor, old V.S. Naipaul. I had read a few samples of his work with real interest over the years. But a friend from India recently brought me the entire collection of his works, and I am slogging my way through them. He is such an acute observer of the many different cultures he has rubbed up against. And since he is, like me and perhaps you, so "out of place" no matter where he is, I feel a particular empathy with him. But what a sad sack he is. (Not even getting the Nobel Prize made him grin.)

question Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?


answer I am unruly, idealistic, difficult, childish, and optimistic.


question What's one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?


answer Above all, constantly renewing itself and not fading away -- showing continuing ability to adapt. And we are increasingly showing ourselves able to take advantage of the good advice and observation that Alexis de Tocqueville cited in his Democracy in America (1835); he wrote, "In democratic countries, knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others." That's it -- we are getting better at combining.


question What's one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could it be done better?

answer In a way, the greatest drawback in terms of effectiveness is utopianism -- end-state fascination.


question If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?

answer Render any law, ordinance, or judgment of society -- public and private sector alike --invalid unless it emanates from institutions with strong (at least 40 percent) women's composition and leadership.


question What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?


answer(Boy do you have the wrong guy for this one!) Okay, when I was 18, it was the Budapest String Quartet. Today it is any of the ensembles led by the eminent musicologist and composer Professor Peter Schickele of the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople.

question What are you happy about right now?


answer That you and I are still here. That you and I care. And that you and I are going to make a difference.


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