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Is the Occupy Movement a Call for Sustainability?

For years the American public has professed to care about the environment, yet their purchasing decisions did not reflect this value. Consumers have decried labor conditions, yet sought the lowest-price option for goods. The sustainability community in the United States has long called for a consumer awakening to the fact that each time they make a purchase, they are ‘voting with their dollars’ –supporting practices, governments and policies that they dislike in survey after survey.

As one of the founding leaders of the Sustainable Business Network of Washington, a DC-area based not for profit organization I was instrumental in crafting our foundational documents. Our mission is to work to transform the ways businesses appraise, engage, and enhance human, ecological, and financial resources in order to make the national capital region a better place to live, work, visit, and do business.

For many this is a broader definition of what is needed to be enduring (sustainable) than those groups and individuals that focus their efforts exclusively on environmental sustainability.

That is why I have watched with growing interest as Occupy demonstrations began and have grown from New York to more than 150 cities across the country and around the world. Using social media, I reached out to participants and organizers (I was admonished not to use the term ‘leaders’ as their role was to convene, not to direct) of the various movements. And what I found surprised me.

A true grass roots movement

The initial media stories were somewhat dismissive; focusing on the lack of clarity and focus as the movement grew, perhaps forgetting that democracy is inherently a messy process. When different people come together to achieve consensus they come from a broad range of perspectives and motivations. Allowing all to be heard so that common themes emerge and define consensus is the process in its most pure – and inefficient – form. 

“What looks like organized chaos, is in fact, organized chaos,” said one participant. He likened this beginning to many other successful reform efforts in both the U.S. and around the world. He described the synergy of people coming together from a disparity of ideologies, ages and perspectives based on a shared perception that “there is a general disapproval of the way things are. Hopefully it will be inspiring. Our main thrust is to be heard and keep up with the size of our growth.”

The system is not working

America was founded on ‘We the People’ and designed to serve the interests of everyone equally. Yet the Occupy movement has come together because of a feeling that, for the majority of people (what they call the 99 percent), the system is not working.  There is also s sense that this is a relatively recent phenomenon – “we’re not trying to roll back the clock 100 years; just 30 years.”

What I repeatedly heard, regardless of the age, gender or location of the person with whom I was speaking was that neither political party nor any ideology was blamed for causing with the problem, or associated with having the solution.  

The movement has been born of frustration caused by a continued moribund economy, protracted high unemployment despite government bailouts of both the auto and investment industry in order to ‘save’ jobs and an increasing erosion of the middle class to the point where the divide between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ seems insurmountable.  At the same time, proposals to reduce social security, Medicare and Medicaid in an effort to reduce the crushing deficit as seen as a similar failure of the government-as-safety-net ideology.

The more I talked with people, the more I was reminded just how many successful political candidates have run – and won – on the theme of ‘fixing’ Washington and how disappointed people are that none of them have been able to make the changes. Both George W. Bush and Barrack Obama pledged a new era of bi-partisan cooperation and civility. Bill Clinton said that “there is nothing wrong with America that cannot be fixed by what is right with America” at his inaugural address. And Ronald Reagan championed that government could not solve the problem, “government is the problem.”

And yet, nothing has changed, despite calls for change from both sides of the political spectrum.

Capitalism without undue, corrupting influence (particularly by government and business)

Overall, the Occupy movements agree that the government that was established to be “of the people, by the people and for the people” (to quote Lincoln) has been coopted and subverted by corporate influence.  Ed Needham, a volunteer serving on the press and communications team, expressed the feeling “there is institutionalized collusion between business and governance over the last 30 years.”

Put another way, as political humorist P. J. O’Rourke has written; "When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators." 

One clear goal that appears to be emerging from the movement is representative government free from the corrupting influence of special interests, including wealthy contributors (be they individuals, corporations or organizations).  “It is tough to find people who don’t think that we are living in a plutocracy” – where the wealthy control the system and the system is designed to preserve their wealth rather than ‘promote the general welfare’ (as the Constitution promises).

Increasing Individual and Corporate Responsibility

One of the universal ‘demands’ of the Occupy movements is increasing the taxes paid by wealthy (the top 1 percent).  Shouldering one’s share of fiscal responsibility was perhaps best summed up by Ben Franklin who said that “taxes are the price we pay for a free society.” Surveys show that the majority of people in the country feel that the rich ought to pay more – including some prominent wealthy people. 

These are actually the kinds of voluntary contributions to society that are only possible under a capitalist system (rather than a forcible redistribution of wealth by the government which would be correctly considered socialism).

Environmental awareness

Like any group of people, various agendas are driving people to participate. Concern for environmental degradation is not as prominent a theme as economic justice, but for many, the two are inter-dependent and inter-related. When people are struggling to heat their homes, they are less concerned about the long-term consequences of cutting down trees to burn for heat. When people are hungry, that concern is paramount over any concerns about climate change. But there is a deep concern that businesses have a license to run amok thanks to ‘wink-and-a-nod’ oversight by regulators who are the very people that it put into office through financial support.

Serving as a Living Example

As part of living the ideology they wish to encourage and see, “we’re not getting into bed with any organization. We have to maintain our own direction. We’re not something linked to one political agenda or another. We’re not interested in choosing one social issue organization over another or one.”


The Occupy movement is now over a month old, and appears to be gaining strength and support. The consensus-driven, collaborative, inclusive process includes rotating facilitators (again, not leaders). It is admittedly “messy and procedural, “ but at a time, when backroom deals are seen as part of the problem, it is also reveling in its transparency.  

It has been easy for critics and the media to focus on those who are participating for ‘fringe’ reasons – forgetting that there are always those who join participatory events (to be with people that they find attractive or compelling, for a ‘good time’, even to ‘score some really good dope.’) The peace and civil rights movements of the 1960s had similar hangers-on as well, but they did not detract from the moral authority of those efforts.

In this age of reality TV and manufactured political events, what many may have failed to recognize what quickly became apparent to this author - what we are seeing is a true grassroots movement.

I am reminded again of the civil rights movement in the United States. It is important to remember that that effort did not begin with organized marches and speeches but rather in similar acts of defiance – occupying lunch counters and seats on buses – that grew into a movement that transformed a nation.

While leaders and spokespersons that bring forward the messages of the Occupy movement have not emerged, it is likely that they will. As I visited the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the National Mall in Washington DC, it occurred to me that our nation was indeed fortunate to have had the kind of dynamic champion for moral justice.  It may be too much to ask for it to happen again – but that is what may be needed to rebuild our economy into one that is protective and restorative of the environment, fiscally responsible, and most importantly, advancing, respectful and reflective of all people.


Update: Occupy Denver Selects Dog as Spokesperson

Shades of the Yippies running a pig for president in 1968, Occupy Denver appears to have fallen into the trap of allowing themselves to denigrate into self-parody. While I did not interview anyone from that locale for my piece, so I have no direct knowledge of the thinking behind this decision, it appears that they have forfeited being taken seriously for an amusing headline. If the other cities wish to be taken seriously as a meaningful call for change, they ought to model their efforts after successful protest movements.

OWS and Sustainability

John - great post, as usual. I agree the replies are also on target and inspirational. I would like to 2nd anonymous' reference to the "Transition Movement" as an emerging approach to develop community-based approaches to rebuild based on new principles. See: To begin to address the grievances represented by OWS, I agree with former President Clinton that eventually, someone or "some ones" will need to begin to articulate alternative futures and put plan(s) in place to bring about real change. I also agree with those in OWS that say for now just 'occupying' and calling attention is a powerful enough approach - keep a light shined on what is wrong - changing the conversation.

Transition Model

Thanks for adding to the discussion and the link, Jim. I agree, a transition from 'protest' to 'articulating alternative futures' is needed. Calling attention to the problem(s) is critical, but offering sensible (or even far-reaching) solutions is necessary. I again recall Dr. Martin Luther King with his clear articulation of the goal (this nation should be true to its founding documents and principles and grant equality regardless of race, creed, color, faith, and gender). That was pretty lofty, yet grounded in sound principles and shared values. And while we have not yet fully attained his vision, we're a lot closer than we were in 1965.

There is a great model for

There is a great model for the Occupy Movement in the Transition Movement. This movement does not focus on criticism of the system but, instead, provides practical alternatives about how to live in sustainable, local communities, using modern methods to create the 21st century models of the kinds of communities in which our grandparents and great grandparents lived. There are local businesses, local food production, and values of frugality and shared lives. Please read The Transition Handbook to see not only the philosophy but practical, proven ways of educating people and engaging them in these old/new ways of living happily together.

Don't be shy

Let us know who you are...we're happy to engage with you and your ideas as per Jim Loving and my response...

I see John Friedman's

I see John Friedman's comment, "...the majority of American consumers have managed to disconnect their own behaviors and actions from the consequences of their behaviors and actions." Don't forget that those who own many companies are removed from the actual production and delivery of good and services. The housing crisis had a lot to do with "bundling" mortgages--which were seen only as commodities and not related to actual people buying houses. So the disconnection is happening on a huge scale where today's capitalists are not investing in things they understand but are only looking at money and wealth and profit in the abstract. That's pretty scary.

Good point

Absolutely - the disconnect happening on a huge scale is exactly how the system breaks down. People allow themselves to 'dissociate' their actions from the consequences, especially when others pay the price. So, putting people in unaffordable mortgages isn't their fault because 'let the buyer beware' and they absolve themselves from any culpability based on legal rather than moral parameters. I addressed this somewhat in an earlier post 'the crude distinction between accountability and responsibility' in relationship to the Deepwater Horizon travesty. The real question has to be - how do we address the fact that we have a culture where irresponsibility is too often the norm?

Development of leaders and workers

Some very good points, and I agree there is strong linkage between the motivations for the protests and a lack of sustainability in our economy, and that greater transparency is needed. I'd like to add a couple of thoughts.

I think there is an opportunity to develop an awareness for sustainability among emerging leaders that will increase equity and environmental protection and decrease market volatility. Looking to the Civil Rights movement, there were a lot of meetings, trainings, strategy, and organizing that went into its success. And while we rightfully honor Dr. King, progress would not have happened without hundreds and thousands of motivated--and educated and trained--workers in a range of roles.

So is this the prime time to offer the aim, the lens, and the tools of sustainability to participants of the Occupy movement, and to those they protest?

Thanks for engaging!

I appreciate people sharing their thoughts and ideas. Let me clarify - not one person, of the dozen or more with whom I spoke and traded correspondence of one form or another, was advocating socialism - but rather an economic system that rewarded effort and responsibility with the opportunity (often called 'the American dream') of personal wealth creation. What i heard, in different words and with varying emphasis was a call for rebuilding of a successful economic model, not a cry to attempt to try a failed one.
It is fair to say that another 's' word was never uttered - sustainability. Most associated that with the enviornment, rather than the holistic model including people, planet and prosperity.

My God...this is not about

My God...this is not about anything other than a call for socialism.

Really? So any critisism of


So any critisism of (or attempt to discuss) the very much unwanted affects of free-market and capitalism for the 99% of us is automatically 'a call for socialism'? Imho your post is just another example of some people trying to create 'fear' of anything other than the current system. Put a 'label' on it to scare people off. Whether they are doing it consciously because they have gained the most from the way things work now or because the wool has been pulled over their own eyes and are not making / or able to make the effort to educate themselves.

Your post makes me think that you believe we should never be critical of the things that go on around us, we should never point out the errors and unwanted consequences or grab the opportunity to adjust things for the better? And by better I mean better for society as a whole not the individual, whether this be the US, or the global society (it is all linked anyway). Btw, the free-market as stated by Adam Smith consisted of more than just serving your self-interest.... it also called for regulation if such activities were counterproductive in the long-term or even dangerous to the balance of society as a whole, which apparently many Republicans and Tea Party enthusiasts have conveniently forgotten (or forget to mention). Plus, the free-market Adam Smith described has never been fully reached as what we like to say is 'free-market' isn't really the same level of 'free' to every one / every country now is it?

The majority of people will not want a 100% 'socialism' based economy (as the definition of socialism mentioned in dictionaries), but many apparently do want a socially acceptable system where people and nature are not taken advantage of or thrown to the gutter or destroid just to allow a small group of people all the (short term) wealth in the world. It is unsustainable (in the broader sense of the word), that much has been proven over the last couple of years and is now blatently obvious to most, especially the 'Occupy' movement (and all those who support it). So why not change things for the better, so we can all benefit from it better in the future, especially the LONG term future?

I agree with the article, the Occupy movement is a call for sustainability but possibly within the free-market / capitalisms economic framework. 'We' simple forgot a few things in the equation be able to keep this framework working properly and long-term. Which imho is not the same as calling for socialism.

invoking the scary "S" word

Oh, please. Why is it that any effort to put the common good ahead of...or even on par with...unfettered corporate greed is labeled as "socialism"? No one is buying that old bogeyman, so give it a rest.

Sustainability: People: Culture and Consciousness

Excellent article. I only want to add another perspective gleaned from having reviewed hundreds of videos based on a Web-wide query for sustainability voices and having covered Occupy Portland as a documentarian.

Activist Julia Butterfly Hill points out that in her opinion the root cause of the collapse of our systems lies in disconnected consciousness. The occupy movement reflects connection and consciousness, especially around issues, programs and actions that may be legal, but are immoral as well as those that are illegal and immoral. It should come as no surprise that those in seats of power and leadership who have chosen to see and profit from the world only through the green lens of consumerism are shaking their heads, mystified over what exactly it is that these folks are doing out there and where, for heavens sake, is the deal, the offer, the ROI, the plan for fixing every little thing.

It has taken sometime for our citizens to wrap their heads around the concepts that corporations are individuals, big money is to be made from caring for the sick and the dying, and mothers and children who are poor are the scammers out there we need to be protected from, especially if they come from Mexico to work in our fields and contribute to food production. I on the other hand hear the voices of sustainability in the signs and speeches at Occupy events who now join hundreds of others in the sustainability movement such as Julia Butterfly Hill or Raj Patel who advises us generosity is the antidote to greed or author Sharif Abdullah who explains economics in terms of criminality and morality or economist John Perkins who rightly points out we - producers and consumers - have "looked the other way" to social and economic costs in order to maximize profits and buy more and more cheap stuff or or any of the thousands of voices of sustainability out there who if they are not on the street are at least online and in our libraries, accessible to all.

Voices of Sustainability cited above:
Julia Butterfly Hill

John Perkins

Sharif Abdullah

Raj Patel

Great points

I am so pleased at the thoughtful contributions that this thread has inspired. So, again, thank you all for engaging with ideas and opinions.

I agree that the majority of American consumers have managed to disconnect their own behaviors and actions from the consequences of their behaviors and actions. I wonder if the point that the deplorable conditions exposed in the media (such as hidden cameras showing sewing factories) are very much the result of the fact that there is a market for goods produced in this manner. Similarly, bottled water companies are criticized for allowing their products to pollute our beaches when it is consumer behavior that has created a market for the product, as well as continuing to recycle at 24 percent. The bottles washing up on the beaches in Florida did not come from the factory, they came from passing cars, beachgoers, etc. who are more than content to blame the companies for their own failures to live their articulated values.
Capitalism empowers consumers to make choices, and to reward those merchants and industries that they choose.

John Friedman is Sustainability Manager at WGL. Prior to that, he headed corporate responsibility communications for Sodexo worldwide. He is an award-winning communications professional and internationally recognized sustainability expert with more than 20 years' experience in internal and… [Read more about John Friedman]

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