Some in the green community are calling Adam Werbach, the former and youngest-ever president of the Sierra Club (then 21, now 34) a “sellout” for having gone to work as an environmental consultant for Wal-Mart. There’s nothing green or that can be green, they say, about a company that violates safety and environmental standards, devastates downtowns, sells products made in sweatshops, pays oppressively low wages, and is owned by a family that counts among its clan five of the 10 richest people in the U.S.
But what is their advice to Werbach, then? He saw an opportunity to help reform a company in ways that could have worldwide implications. Wal-Mart’s very size means that any efforts to “green it up”—whether by offering consumers natural foods and organic cotton or changing all store light bulbs to compact fluorescents and its truck fleet to hybrids—can have much greater impact than the same kinds of efforts applied at the mom-and-pop level.
Like Werbach’s detractors, I am no fan of big business. I left the corporate world 30 years ago and never looked back. And I believe that the continued consolidation going on in virtually every business sector is a dangerous trend for people and the planet alike. But too many leaders (and others) in our movement are so focused on showing off their political ideology that they oppose any kind of effort that doesn’t aim to create instant utopia all in one wave of the hand.
I”m lucky to have a job here at E that gives me both meaningful purpose in working for the environment and autonomy in essentially “being my own boss.” Chances are most people will not have that same opportunity, given the corporate trends I just mentioned. But as you”ll read in our cover package of stories, the world’s newfound interest in all things environmental has triggered a groundswell of job opportunities for those who are willing to go to work in an imperfect world and try to move it forward.
These jobs are not just about planting trees, as Lisa Simpson is doing on our cover (though we can always use more trees!). As we try to move away from an over-consumptive, fossil fuel-based, “better living through chemistry” economy to one that embraces alternative energies, organic foods and recycling as if our lives depended on it (they do), new career paths will emerge. And people of conscience should flock to those opportunities and help pave the way to that perfect world that all the handwringers think Adam Werbach should have already created for us.
Al Gore, writing in E 15 years ago as a senator from Tennessee, railed against then-President George H.W. Bush for continually arguing that the choice before Americans was either to strengthen the economy and provide jobs or protect the environment. We know this to be a false trade-off and, fortunately, it is an objection we hear less and less from the corporate apologists these days. Let’s not replace that myth with self-destructive political correctness that will hamstring environmental progress just as badly, if not worse.