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  Ishmael Community: What To Do?!

A Dialogue About
"What To Do"

    Q. I've read Ishmael and The Story of B, and I like what I see in these books, but I'm left wondering what to DO.

    A. Do you think of yourself as an activist?

    Q. Not exactly. I guess I'd like to know what I'd do if I WERE an activist.

    A. All right. Let me outline a problem of the sort that activists know how to attack. Here's an ordinary sort of industry that needs to be turned around so as to be less detrimental to life on earth. It's the carpet tile industry, which supplies the floor-covering of choice for most modern commercial buildings -- hotels, office buildings, hospitals, airports, convention centers, shopping malls, and so on. Do you know anything about this business?

    Q. Not a thing.

    A. Well, to begin with, this kind of carpet isn't made from wool or cotton or silk, for obvious reasons. It's all manmade -- and it's heavily petroleum-based. Right off the bat, this is fundamentally unhealthy -- pollutive and reliant on a nonrenewable resource.

    Q. Right.

    A. The process is more than ordinarily wasteful of resources, if only because carpet has such a short life span. Do you see why this is so?

    Q. I think so. Wood floor covering is obviously less wasteful, because it lasts much longer.

    A. Exactly. Now, to make matters worse, worn out carpet can't be compressed to take up less room, so it makes an enormous contribution to landfill.

    Q. I understand.

    A. Now, thinking like an activist, what would you DO to turn this industry around? What would you do to put an end to its dependence on petroleum, its wastefulness, its contribution to landfill?

    Q. I take it that there are things like industry standards and regulations that apply to all of this stuff.

    A. Yes. Regulations are in place, but they're written by people who understand the realities of the situation. Manmade carpet is what it is. It's heavily dependent on petroleum, is more than usually wasteful of resources, and contributes heavily to landfill. The regulations regulate these things, they don't end them.

    Q. Okay. But you seem to be saying that the problem is unsolvable.

    A. No. Look, the automakers had to be FORCED to solve safety problems that they said were unsolvable. They ultimately DID solve them, but they had to be forced to do it. How was the forcing done? That's what we're looking for here. How are we going to force these carpet makers to do what's right?

    Q. I see what you mean. We have to pass new laws.

    A. Now we've got something for people to DO, don't we?

    Q. How do you mean?

    A. Look, just the way the automakers had to be forced into line, congress had to be forced to pass the laws that brought them into line.

    Q. True.

    A. So how do we force congress to pass the laws that will force the carpet makers into line?

    Q. That's a big job.

    A. You bet it is. Plenty of work for folks who want to DO something. But what is that work?

    Q. Well, I suppose first you've got to get people stirred up about it.

    A. That would certainly help, yes. Get some exposés out there in print and on television.

    Q. I suppose we'd need to get some consumer advocate groups interested.

    A. What would their job be?

    Q. They'd agitate to get some legislation going in congress. Maybe start with public hearings or something.

    A. What are the carpet makers going to be doing while this is going on?

    Q. Oh, right. They're going to be mounting a big public campaign telling their side of the story. And of course they'd activate their own lobbying group.

    A. How long has all this taken up to this point?

    Q. I suppose about five years.

    A. Go on. You've got the two lobbying giants butting heads in the halls of congress. How do we get ordinary citizens involved in this? That's what we're looking for here. People are saying, "Yes, we know it's important to change minds, but what should we DO?"

    Q. Well, the consumer advocates are going to want to organize public support for their position. They're going to put out the word: "Write to congress and the President and demand action on this bill."

    A. Right. And then what happens?

    Q. Well, the lobbyists are going to fight it out and finally a bill is going to get written.

    A. And what's it going to say?

    Q. All the things you talked about eliminate petroleum, cut down on waste, figure out a way to cut down on contribution to landfill.

    A. And what are the carpet makers going to say about this bill?

    Q. Impossible, can't be done.

    A. And how will the lawmakers respond? They can't make people do the impossible.

    Q. I don't know. Part of my problem is that I don't know whether these things are possible or not.

    A. What did congress do when automakers said, "Oh, you can't make a bumper that will withstand a 15-mile-an-hour collision"? How did they respond to that?

    Q. I see what you mean. They gave them a deadline. Do it in five years or else.

    A. So they'll give the carpet makers a deadline. Let's say five years. Then what? What happens at the end of five years?

    Q. They get an extension. Three years.

    A. So this whole process ends up taking what, fifteen or twenty years? And after that you have the whole policing problem to solve, and the law may be put in abeyance while it's tested in the courts a few times. And you know that, realistically speaking, congress would never actually pass a law as extreme as this.

    Q. Yes, that's true.

    A. But what do you think of this as an example of "what to do"? Is this what people are thinking of when they say, "Yes, changing minds is all well and good, but what should we DO?"?

    Q. I guess so.

    A. Is this what YOU meant?

    Q. Yeah, I guess so.

    A. Is it or isn't it? We mobilized hundreds of thousands of people, gave them something to do, spent millions of dollars, and after fifteen or twenty years passed a law that will transform the carpet-tile industry. If that isn't the sort of thing you had in mind, please let me know.

    Q. No, that's what I had in mind.

    A. Okay. Now I'll tell you something you couldn't know. This industry is already being transformed-and it didn't take fifteen or twenty years or millions of dollars. Not a single consumer advocate group was involved, nobody had to lobby congress, and not a single law got passed. Would you like to know how it happened?

    Q. Sure.

    A. Two years ago the CEO of the Interface Corporation -- the industry leader in the carpet-tile business -- read two books. One was Paul Hawken's The Ecology of Commerce and the other was Ishmael. Up to that time, this CEO, a man named Ray Anderson, had made it his business to be in full compliance with all relevant regulations. But when he read these two books, he saw that being merely in compliance is not nearly enough. He made up his mind to do three things: first, to eliminate petroleum from his carpeting, second, to develop carpeting that can be 100% recycled -- into materials from which all his new carpeting could be made, and third, to encourage his customers to think differently about their floor covering needs. Instead of buying carpet and discarding it when it's no longer serviceable, he will lease them carpet. When it's no longer serviceable, he'll take it back to be recycled totally and replace it with carpeting made from totally recycled materials. These are goals he intends to reach before the end of the century. What they add up to is creating a truly sustainable business, offering recyclable products made entirely from recycled materials -- zero waste and zero contribution to landfill. So successful has Ray Anderson been in pursuing these goals that he has -- in two years flat -- become recognized as a world leader in the development of sustainable industry. Not only has he set new goals for himself, he has inspired others to set new goals -- and, incidentally, forced his competitors to set new goals in order to remain competitive. Thus he's well on his way to transforming an entire industry -- all because two books changed his mind.

    Q. Very impressive.

    A. It's important to see that Ray Anderson has totally left the regulations behind. Regulations would NEVER have mandated the changes he's making -- and they never will. It will NEVER be an article of law to run your business the way Ray Anderson is running his. And no law could ever force his competitors to follow his lead. Only their need to remain competitive could accomplish that.

    Q. Yes, I see that.

    A. What's most important to see is that changing minds is definitely not a sort of feeble alternative to "doing something." It's not just something you do when you can't manage to actually "do" something. There is, in fact, nothing you can do that is more effective than changing minds.

    Q. Yes . . . but changing Ray Anderson's mind was something YOU did. You and Paul Hawken. What are WE supposed to do?

    A. You're missing the point. Neither I nor Paul Hawken was within a thousand miles of Ray Anderson when he changed his mind. Someone ELSE got to him -- a friend, a colleague, a reviewer. Maybe it was an old classmate. Maybe it was one of his children. I have no idea who it was, but it wasn't me and it wasn't Paul Hawken. Someone handed him a book and said, "Ray, you've got to read this." This person accomplished more in one minute than a troop of consumer advocates, ten thousand of their supporters, and the U.S. congress could have accomplished in a decade.

    Q. But now you're saying that there's nothing for us to do but give away copies of your books.

    A. I'm not saying that at all. I'm saying that the world will not be saved by old minds with new programs. If it's saved, it will be saved by new minds with no programs at all. I don't care what tools you use to change minds. The Ecology of Commerce is a good tool. Ishmael is a good tool. The Story of B is a good tool. Jean Liedloff's The Continuum Concept is a good tool. Use any of them or all of them -- or none of them. The tools themselves aren't important and neither are the tool makers. Uru the Awakener can't save the world, because he can only awaken a few hundred. But those hundreds can awaken thousands, and those thousands can awaken millions, and those millions can awaken billions.

    And that's how the world is going to be saved. Each of us must become an agent of change within the range of our own influence, and it doesn't matter how great that range is. If you can't reach a hundred (Ishmael's suggested number), then reach ten, and if you can't reach ten, then reach one, because you never know -- that one may reach a million!

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