We live in truly extraordinary times, and climate change is at the top of the list of reasons why. Stop and think about it for a moment – we've altered the chemistry of our planet so that we are actually witnessing in real time the accelerated transformation of our climate. We’re moving from a period of thousands of years of relative stability (a period that allowed us to build our civilization) to something radically new in the human experience. Turn off all the noise – the politics, the petty arguments, the reams of scientific evidence – and you come back to the fundamental truth that we are conducting a great experiment, the results of which will determine our continued ability to support a historically massive (and growing) human population.
If we're actually going to do something about this in enough time, we will all be required to rethink our most basic assumptions, leave our biases aside and work together towards a solution. I'm realizing more and more that, even though I consider myself to be open-minded and "freethinking", this is going to be extremely difficult for me as well.
For many years I’ve lived what most of mainstream America would describe as a leftist and even hippie-ish existence. This lifestyle was most pronounced in my 20s (now a long time ago), which included a couple of years working on a composting farm in Vermont and about six months cow-and-goat-herding/cheesemaking on a remote farm in France. While in Vermont I lived mostly in Montpelier, which did and I assume does pride itself on being the only state capital lacking a McDonald's. This is not an accident – the citizens of this amazing little town actively fight to keep it small and independent. A key component of this fight is the effort to keep large corporate chains out and small local businesses in.
I was proud to be a part of this spirited community when I lived there, and I have to admit I even bragged about the no McDonald's thing once or twice. And to be completely honest, I've long held a bias against large corporations. (This has lessened somewhat over the years, certainly in the last couple as I've worked with many global corporations on their sustainability initiatives. But the vestiges remain.) This bias is obviously completely consistent with mainstream liberalism in America and mainstream everything in most other countries. But these extraordinary times lead to an extraordinary question: are corporate chains actually better for the environment?
How could this possibly be true? Well, it may just come down to efficiency. Here's an example: this week I was reading an article by the amazing Atul Gawande examining whether or not the medical care industry can follow in the footsteps of corporate restaurants like the Cheesecake Factory, a giant chain that has managed to deliver high quality food at reasonable prices. (Or so they say – I've never actually been to one.) The question Gawande is trying to answer is whether or not hospitals, for example, can also deliver higher quality and better care to patients by rigorously documenting best practices and standardizing their delivery to patients. (That this is not the norm should leave us all more than a little bit afraid…)
I was particularly struck by a piece of evidence cited in the article: by rigorously tracking past consumption patterns and creating computer models that predict likely future sales and orders, Cheesecake Factory restaurants have managed to cut their food waste losses to about 2.5%. In other words, they are 97.5% efficient in ordering the right amounts of food to serve their thousands of daily customers. As a former composter who continues to obsess about food waste in our society, this was bound to draw my attention. And when you consider the fact that the average US restaurant wastes anywhere from 4 to 10% of pre-consumer food, it stands out even more.
Most people now know the story of Walmart and how they've managed to drive consumer prices down, at least partly due to the fact that they're able to realize tremendous efficiencies of scale. Perhaps less known but certainly no less important is their push for sustainability, which started with efforts to green their own stores by increasing energy efficiency, installing solar panels, decreasing waste etc. But they quickly learned that if they were really going to make a dent in the problem they had to influence their suppliers (i.e. the companies whose products they sell) to green their own businesses as well. This all points to the possibility that a company like Walmart, with its vast size and reach and mind-boggling operational efficiencies, can in fact be "greener" than a mom-and-pop store in downtown Mainstreet USA.
I want to be clear that I'm not arguing against the existence of mom-and-pop stores in favor of corporate behemoths. I'm simply trying to put forth the idea that we need to re-examine our basic philosophies and prejudices if we're going to solve what might be the greatest challenge in our history.
So, are you ready to rethink everything you've always taken for granted? Humankind may very well depend on it.