Some of you know that I am a faculty member at Fleming College in the Sustainable Agriculture program. I also guest lecture at other institutions. Last spring a colleague from the Flourishing Business Innovation Toolkit project and I were guest lecturers in the Strategic Foresight and Innovation Master’s program at OCADU. We had two classes to help the students understand and apply the Flourishing Business Canvas – a tool for designing businesses and organizations that will support the health of people and the planet over the long term.
Our tool is the first to explicitly put all necessary dimensions for design on one canvas on one wall. For the second class, the students used the canvas to describe a case study business of their choosing. One of the groups chose a social enterprise that sells solar powered lights as a replacement to kerosene lamps in Africa. On the surface it looks like they have covered all the angles – they have a local seller network to mitigate the impact on the local economy of displacing the kerosene supply chain, the lights are marketed globally with margins on lights sold in the developed world subsidizing the lights sold in Africa, and they have developed a low cost supply infrastructure direct from Southeast Asia. However, the canvas highlighted several areas where the business hadn’t thought through all the consequences. First, the solar lights were still being made in a take-make-waste paradigm – at the end of their useful life, the plastic, lights, solar cells and batteries were garbage. Second, the health of the people making the products in Southeast Asia weren’t being considered. Third, no life cycle analysis had been completed to determine whether the units were actually an energy source improvement over kerosene lamps (most argued that it was so obvious that the analysis didn’t need to be completed – they’re likely right but I’ve been fooled enough times to know that it is always worthwhile to complete the full analysis.)
For pointing this out, I was, for all intents and purposes, labled a privileged white hypocrite. Now, the label I have no issue with – I am privileged, white, and a hypocrite. So was almost everyone else in the room. I didn’t cede any moral ground on that point. The students were quite willing to sacrifice some health in SE Asia and add plastics and toxics to the environment in Africa in order to accomplish the goal of reducing the burns from kerosene lamps and increase the education level in Africa. It’s an “ends justify the means” argument blended with that special disdain for anyone from a developed society who suggests that less developed societies shouldn’t be allowed to screw up their section of the planet to the same degree we have in the name of raising their standard of living.
I think the root of our difference of opinion comes from our worldviews – the students believed that compromise was necessary – that we had no choice but to substitute environmental health for improving the standard of living in less developed parts of the world and since our society had done it, we had to allow others to do it. I don’t accept either premise. We now have the knowledge of what happens when we follow the compromise path and can easily deduce that it is the wrong path. We owe the rest of humanity the benefit of our knowledge. We also owe it to the rest of humanity to challenge ourselves to find the solutions that are without compromise, the solutions that stop our damage, the solutions that begin the healing.
The criticism I often receive is that I am aiming too high – that perfection is the enemy of good. But good is the enemy of great. The boundaries for a great solution can be defined. But a “good” solution always leaves the question “is it good enough?” The answer is “no” until the solution becomes great. Here at the farm we have a goal of using agriculture to regenerate the planet and create a flourishing future for all living things. Are we there? No. But anything less than this goal would require compromise.