Balancing the Spiritual Ledger

Conference blends the spirituality and economics of sustainability



Notions of sustainability, like notions of spirituality, vary greatly from person to person, depending upon the different lenses through which we choose to view our world. To the defender of forests and wildlife habitat, sustainability can mean logging practices that do not eviscerate an ecosystem or choke rivers and streams with topsoil runoff. To the human rights activist, sustainability can mean healthy working conditions and wages that allow families to feed, clothe and house themselves. To the organic farmer, sustainability can mean raising crops and livestock that do not despoil the landscape, rob the soil of nutrients or produce food laced with toxic residue.

Although notions of ecological sustainability and financial profitability often collide with one another, it is rare that they meet on common ground, and rarer still that either include discussions of spirituality. Spiritual matters, it is traditionally assumed, are deeply emotional and private affairs, more appropriate for houses of worship or ethics classes than corporate boardrooms.

This weekend, Sept. 22-24, experts from across the nation and around the world will converge on Missoula to offer practical tools and solutions for melding the ideas of ecological, spiritual and economic sustainability. The conference, entitled “Spirit, Commerce and Sustainability,” will explore different notions of sustainability from the perspective of our home lives, faith, community and professional careers.

“We have a tendency to compartmentalize our lives and say that this is my family and personal life over here and my faith is over here, but between eight and five o’clock I do this job,” says Bryony Schwan of Women’s Voices for the Earth, one of the organizations sponsoring the event. “The thing is, you can’t compartmentalize your life that way. Everything we do in each of those aspects of our lives affects the way we behave in other ways too, so this conference is really about exploring those connections.”

Recognizing that environmental conferences often fall into the trap of preaching to the choir, Schwan says that this time organizers chose instead to focus their outreach on the business and faith communities.

“It’s been a tough sell to the business community because of the belief that those who want to protect the environment somehow want you to abandon your bottom line,” she says. “People can feel despondent that it’s an either/or choice, because there hasn’t been another vision out there for them.”

But as conference attendees will soon discover, there are alternative visions out there that do not require a wholesale abandonment of one’s core philosophical beliefs about business success or the environment. Chief among its advocates is the keynote speaker for the conference, author, entrepreneur and environmentalist Paul Hawken, who founded several successful business ventures and is a premier advocate for sustainable business practices. In 1998, Hawken’s book, The Ecology of Commerce, was voted the number one college text on business and the environment by professors at 67 business schools.

“We have the capacity and ability to create a remarkably different economy, one that can restore ecosystems and protect the environment while bringing forth innovation, prosperity, meaningful work, and true security,” writes Hawken. “While commerce at its worst sometimes appears to be a shambles of defilement compared to the beauty and complexity of the natural world, the ideas and much of the technology required for the redesign of our businesses and the restoration of the world are already in hand. What is wanting is the collective will.”

Advocates at this conference for what Hawken calls “the restorative economy” are hardly fringe radicals, but read more like a who’s who of Fortune 500 success stories: Nick Palmer of TH!NK, the entrepreneurial arm of the Ford Motor Company, which conceived of the first hybrid electric car, Lu Setnicka, director of public affairs for Patagonia, Inc., the outdoor gear and clothing company that conducts an environmental assessment of every product it sells; Stevensville author and international business consultant Janine Benyus, whose book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, explores how major corporations like Nike have incorporated sustainable business solutions modeled after systems found in nature.

Like a natural system, the conference itself has already begun feeding on its own momentum. When Schwan sought out an environmentally sustainable brand of paper for conference literature made from wheat straw, a natural byproduct of wheat farming, its Alberta manufacturer, Arbokem, offered to give a presentation on sustainable pulp mills that help save family farms and forests.

Other presentations and workshops will run the gamut on sustainability, such as one by Missoula builder Steve Loken of Loken Builders and Dale McCormick of the Center for Resourceful Building Technology, which will focus on sustainable building practices, to another by Susan Estep of Solomon Smith Barney, who will explain how to invest in a profitable yet socially responsible manner. Other presentations will explore what different faiths and cultural traditions have to say about sustainability and its role in preserving community life.

Ultimately, Schwan hopes that people will come away from this conference with a firmer understanding that economic prosperity and spiritual wholeness need not—and must not—be mutually exclusive terms, and with a renewed faith that balancing the economic and spiritual bottom lines are, in essence, one and the same.
For more information on the conference, call (406) 543-3747.

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