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Birth of a Recovering Plunderer

August 18th 2011

Before I get started about the recovering plunderer, the gentle king of carpets, here’s the debut of my ever-expanding list of books that have inspired distinct action:

Books That Bewitch Their Readers

– Recently, the research-and-development arm of the U.S. military announced an award of up to $500,000 in seed money for a project that will bring us closer to interstellar (that’s ‘between the stars’) space travel. David Neyland, the founder of the project, was inspired by Time for the Stars, a sci-fi novel by Robert A. Heinlein in which an organization called The Long Range Foundation invests in interstellar travel. Read about it here.

– On March 31, 1973, heavyweight boxer Ken Norton broke Muhammad Ali’s jaw, thus becoming (and remaining) the second man to beat Ali in a professional match. Norton attributed his win to Think and Grow Rich, a self-help/philosophy book by Napoleon Hill. To quote sportswriter Jim Murray: “Close students of the game are inclined to credit a man in his corner more than the book on his nightstand.” But such was not the case, it seems, with Ken Norton. According to Jim Murray, when Ken Norton beat Ali, “The world couldn’t have been more shocked if a statue in the park began to swat the pigeons.” Actually, you should really just read Jim Murray’s article in full, a potent reminder that journalists once had greater creative license.

– Books mentioned in my earlier posts include The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek (inspired Ron Paul to become a politician) and Uncle Tom’s Cabin (inspired, umm, the Civil War).

The featured book this week is Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability, in which the author argues for ecological and humanistic business models. In 1994, Ray Anderson, founder and chairman of one of the world’s largest carpet and commercial fabric manufacturers, read this book. The reading of this book was later recalled by Ray as a “conversion experience.” It was a “spear in the chest.” Ray was reborn as a “recovering plunderer.” In a 2005 speech, he said,

“I read on and was dumbfounded by how much I did not know about the environment, and the impacts of the industrial system on the environment — the industrial system of which I and my ‘successful’ company were an integral part. A new definition of success burst into my consciousness, and the latent sense of legacy asserted itself. I got it. I was a plunderer of Earth, and that is not the legacy one wants to leave behind. I wept.”

Ray didn’t waste any time. According to a 2007 New York Times profile, Ray’s company Interface Inc. had reduced its consumption of fossil fuels by 45% since 1994. The company’s worldwide contribution to landfills was cut by 80%, and its use of water was down one third. During this same time period, sales were up 49 per cent. Innovative solutions were central to Ray’s plans. He and individuals at his company engineered the “cool blue machine” which transforms carpet waste that would have been landfilled into carpet backing. They harnessed the power of local sources by converting the local landfill into a bioreactor that burns the methane released by garbage and uses the resulting energy to fuel their factory.

Ray passed away this August at age 77. He spent the later years of his life traveling around, spreading the message of business responsibility. He emphasized that the divide between profits and environmentalism is illusory; moral businesses, he argued, are profitable businesses. His words lacked the platitudinous ring of other so-called “social response capitalists.” In an amazing eulogy that was printed with permission by The New York Times, Paul Hawken, author of the book that started it all, said,

“Business audiences in particular had no defenses because they had no framework for Ray. Was he really a businessman? Yes. Was he a conservative southern gentleman with that very refined Georgia drawl. Yes. Was he successful? For sure. Well, then where did these radical statements come from? Ironically, because people could not connect the dots, he was extraordinarily credible.

People called Ray a dreamer. To be sure, he was, but he was also an engineer. He had definitely seen the mountain, but he also dreamed in balance sheets, thermodynamics, and resource flow theory. He dreamed a world yet to come because dreams of a livable future are not coming from our politicians, bankers, and the media. For Ray, reimagining the world was a responsibility, something owed to our children’s children, a gift to a future that is begging for selflessness and vision.”

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