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Altruism: A Dying Value? Will you pay me for it?

I posted a version of this on a discussion board related to green careers for young adults. A green professional in city government asked: “what kind work would be of interest to young people?” The responses from students stirred up a provocative question for me: why would anyone do anything that doesn’t lead to personal gain?

That’s the kind of thinking that got us into the kinds of environmental challenges we were talking about on the discussion board in the first place. It makes me wonder what young adults are learning and having modeled for them about altruism – the idea that we take actions that benefit the “greater good,” that have implications beyond ourselves. Why do elderly people volunteer in their community? Because they’re bored and have nothing better to do? Most of the ones I speak with do so because it enhances their sense of belonging, creates better circumstances in their community, and is connected to a sense of being involved in something greater than one’s self. If what’s being modeled to young adults instead is that you have to get yours, fight hard for it, compete, and “get something,” then I opine we’re headed in the wrong direction and away from solving the challenges.


I’m not much of a fan of perpetuating the “start at the bottom cleaning toilets and work your way up” model of work, particularly for bright, A+ students, particularly a model that dictates young people have to do menial work before they can come to meaningful work. I didn’t follow that model, for the most part. I started by working in a computer store at 14, selling IBMs and Apple products, doing a little programming, learning how to repair systems, and answering the telephone. And I also sweeped, mopped, changed the toilet paper, and got my boss’ coffee. Sure, I got paid, a whopping $4.75 an hour. I wasn’t there for the money; I was there to learn, to meet people who also liked computers, to help customers solve their computer problems. In a way, I wanted to “strut my stuff,” to impress someone, to show people what I knew… in the hopes that I would connect with even better jobs later, to build a resume toward college, and see what this whole adult “work” thing was about.


Jobs and internships don’t drop out of the sky on a silver platter. Everyone has a starting point, and goes through a process of building experience. “You gotta work!!”  If money is a motivator, that’s great, but especially in environmental jobs, not all internships translate into money. I know college graduates who volunteer for internships to gain exposure, network, build resume, and learn about the technical and program issues. One student related his experience that his “grunt” work while volunteering in a social service agency didn’t lead to those insights and opportunities – it didn’t take him close to program work which was his actual interest. Good to get clear and move on from those situations and invite ones from which you can learn about a career field.

We’ve talked in our youth green jobs program about the idea of a “journey” through learning about green careers, but I’m not sure that the process really registered; everyone seemed focus on the end result – a job, money, an employer contacting them about a position. What the process will reveal is the need to actively engage employers and green career professsionals; they’re not spending their day actively looking for you. Not arrogant, just real.
The value to an internship – paid or not, grunt work or high-brow intellectual – is more about networking, learning, and yes even resume building. As a volunteer in Portland’s Master Recycler program, I had to be “arms and legs” staffing booths, schlepping displays, and spending time away from my paid consulting. I did it because I enjoyed it. It helped people in my community understand how to deal with waste, recycling, and compost. The idea that I would do this for my own learning, for the benefit of community service, for achieving some greater goal than just drawing a paycheck seems to be largely lost on a culture that values the $financial$ bottom line. Is altruism a dying value?


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In Memoriam: My memories of Ray Anderson, Industrial Ecology Pioneer, Visionary, Mentor, Hero

I posted this memoriam to Ray’s memorial blog.

I first met Ray at Emory University in early 1996, not even a full 2 years after his reading of “The Ecology of Commerce,” and his eloquence then about the sustainability challenge of climbing such a tall mountain was just as poignant and inspiring to me as his last interviews and talks. I approached this gentle and engaging man afterward and expressed my discomfort about my work in environmental communities that I always felt like I was “preaching the choir” and not making much of a difference. Ray did not miss a beat, grabbed me squarely by the shoulders, and said, in his soothing Georgia accent, “My friend, the choir is growing!!” That moment still gives me chills, brings tears to my eyes, and was quite a pivotal moment for me in my thinking and, really, in my worldview.

I met Ray the following year, 1997, as an intern in Georgia Tech’s (our mutual alma mater, something Ray would remember about me in our future meetings) Center for Sustainable Technologies conference. As keynote speaker, Ray had refined his message even more, had goals to talk about for Interface, and introduced us to the concept of Mount Sustainability. I was privileged to sit at Ray’s table for awhile during lunch and get to know a bit more about the man who would become a professional role model and a sustainability hero.

I work at eschewing regrets in my life, though one that arises from time to time is that I did not get to know Ray more personally while I had the chance when I still lived in Atlanta. Ray invited me out to their offices, though I graduated and moved before I could find a time that worked. Nevertheless, I met Ray again at UC Berkeley where I was completing my Masters, and he remembered me right away with a firm handshake, a smile, and “Good to see you, John!” in that familiar Georgia accent. How this amazing being could meet so many thousands of leaders, scholars, presidents — important people! — and still remember my name and our conversation from two years prior was beyond me.

There are very few people we meet along the road that we can say steered our lives in one significant direction or other. Many teachers and mentors inspire us, encourage us to express our fullest potential, but few can change our core values and shape our very foundations. Ray had this keen and unique influence on me, and I will remain immensely grateful to him. While his temporary form has changed, what he brought to this world is timeless and immortal, a tremendous gift.

Many blessings to Ray, Mrs. Anderson, and his living and loving family.

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When communities must rise to the occasion, by hook or by crook

The musing I had in my kitchen as I looked in my pantry for something to snack on went a little something like this:


If suddenly my community stopped receiving Federal and State monies, if it failed to meet its operating budget to the point where it shuddered the police department, the fire department, open the jail because it couldn’t keep the lights on, what would happen? Utter chaos? Would people stand around and scratch their heads like monkeys wondering how to function without its non-functional government? Not a chance. I believe ingenuity and creativity would dominate, and a culture of service would emerge where the community would essentially be forced to shift its priorities and its resources toward maintaining a certain quality of life. Physicians would provide care, neighborhoods would fight fires and see after each other, and structures would emerge in self-organization to feed people.


Is that utterly Pollyanna? Yes, probably. Would there be some chaos, violence, and discord? Absolutely – some people would freak out as the natural course of the ego being stripped of its security blanket – the structures that it knows and relies on for safety and survival. The game has changed; the wise find ways to adapt, the unwise resist what is actually happening. There will be fearful expressions of competition for scarce resources – food and water being the first.


Yet in the midst of this ego-shock, I imagine the light of the human spirit prevails and orients us toward community, sharing, and collective innovation. We come to realize that reliance on unsustainable structures, such as an economy that provides us with money and goods from a far distance, has produced a very limited sense of community – and of ourselves – and then realize what powerful beings we are. All our attention and energy that has gone into frivolous efforts, diversion, pain-numbing, and distraction is now called to participate in building community, providing for ourselves, our families, and our community in new ways.


I went back to the pantry and realized that my craving for halvah, which I found on the label had been made in Israel, didn’t quite fit my model above! 🙂 I opted for a locally grown apple instead.

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Building a Bridge to a New Culture

Yesterday I wrote this to a new connection on LinkedIn who asked what I’m up to:

My “career” intention is to help communities form, thrive, and grow around principles and practices of sustainability, and to help mobilize resources toward that end. I’m enjoying the abundant conversations and actions here in Portland that support that.

When I posed this to another colleague who’s a career counselor, she responded that she didn’t hear the problem that’s to be solved, or what skills I’m bringing to bridge the problem to the solution or provide the solution. Perhaps that would come in a longer conversation, but we’re constantly polishing our “elevator pitch,” aren’t we? Read the rest of this entry »

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Urban Growth Bounty in Portland: City sponsored workshops

Urban Growth Bounty 2009
Sustainable food classes presented by the City of Portland Office of Sustainable Development [Now Bureau of Planning and Sustainability]

Want to grow abundant fruit and vegetables, raise chickens, keep bees, make cheese and preserve food? Urban Growth Bounty classes, taught by Portland experts, will provide the tools to make 2009 a more sustainable, healthier year for you and your budget.

More info on City of Portland web site here

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Yard Sharing: Resource for Pairing Gardeners with Dirt

This could be one of the coolest resources for local food production: Yard Sharing.  Follow the link there and check out the Google Map overlay. The basics: people wanting to garden pair up with people who have suitable yards and spaces to grow food. The terms of the exchange are up to the individuals involved. We are currently planning our garden for the year, and depending on what arrangements we make with our neighbors, might just hop on this one. My housemate had all the greenery taken out of the backyard to make room for food, so I’m excited to get dirt under my nails!


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