Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Earth Day: good life

In the early 1970s, the good life in Minnesota—the state that works, exemplified by then-Governor Wendell Anderson, made the cover of Time magazine. This occurred several years before I moved to Minnesota to work for the Metropolitan Council. In those days, the Twin Cities and the Council enjoyed the kind of progressive reputation which currently seems to belong to places like Portland, OR. It's been some time since I've heard a positive reference to Minnesota as a state that works.

A quick search on the internet turned up a 2003 Minnesota Public Radio reprise of the Time story, in which former Governor Anderson "says the biggest change in Minnesota since 1973 is the state's political parties and how both parties are interested in catering to special interests rather than nurturing leaders who govern for the common good." I agree that, as far as I can see, Minnesota (and Minnesotans) seems to have become much more focused on "me" than on "we."

Fast forward another decade, MinnPost now takes a retrospective look at the Time cover and story. They find that "The progressive consensus that Wierzynski and Time magazine discerned back in 1973 has retreated in the years since then. Even in this current liberal moment of 2013, our DFL governor and DFL-controlled Legislature seem unwilling to consider the kind of broad based, share- the-sacrifice tax increases that helped pay for new public initiatives during the early 1970s." MinnPost's conclusion: "'State That Works' cover offered a Minnesota image that doesn't fit as comfortably today."

Both the MPR and the MinnPost assessments attribute causes for change to the political sector. Most politicians I've know were consensus gatherers, not change agents. I've lived in Minnesota since the late 1970's and can attest that political changes, including a significant loss of moderate Republicans, helps to account for some, but I don't think all, of "what happened." I believe we're experiencing a number of unfortunate impacts of global capitalism, including some spillover to the nonprofit sector, where a focus on "Market Orientation" has been proposed as a fruitful approach. The definition of "Market Orientation," used by a notable local nonprofit is "Maximizing resources to benefit low-income or disinvested communities by calibrating forces of government and the civic and nonprofit sectors with the private market, helping everyone to adapt better to what works." On the surface, this might seem like a progressive public-private partnership approach. On further consideration, however, I believe it suffers from several fatal flaws. The first concern I have is that this definition of "market orientation" differs greatly from that found in the Business Dictionary ("A business approach or philosophy that focuses on identifying and meeting the stated or hidden needs or wants of customers. See also product orientation and sales orientation." Read more: http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/market-orientation.html#ixzz2zWnGmqZZ). This means the question of what works has to involve "for whom" and also be based on a clarification of who are the customers, low-income persons, disinvested communities or public and civic sectors and the private market.

I think there are more sustainable ways to approach the question of how to optimally benefit low-income or disinvested communities. For example, Donella Meadows, in her seminal "Indicators and Information Systems for Sustainable Development," provides a framework (initially proposed by Herman Daly) based on making distinctions among ultimate means (natural capital), intermediate means (built and human capital), intermediate ends (human and social capital) and ultimate ends (well-being). I believe we need Minnesota leaders in the private, nonprofit and public sectors to move beyond the concept that economic and human development is a zero sum game and help us create a sustainable future for all. Past Minnesota leaders have already recognized such an approach as a necessity.

During the late 1980s, the Blandin Foundation engaged two of Minnesota's most notable communicators to create a book (published by Blandin in 1990) entitled Minnesota: Images of Home. Photos by Jim Brandenburg and text by Paul Gruchow captured what I think are Minnesota's most desirable and characteristic qualities and did it in a way I've yet to see be done as well, let alone better. Most encouraging to me, however, was the philosophy and perspective expressed by Blandin's then president, Paul M. Olson who wrote something I believe is highly relevant today: "… our state faces a special challenge: the struggle to hold a common purpose in the face of economic realities that threaten to divide and polarize us…So both urban and rural Minnesota are caught up in the tensions of enormous change. At the same time, a growing economic gap threatens to divide rural Minnesotans from their urban cousins, and the wealthiest urbanites from their neighbors, who have not shared in recent income gains. It will take discipline, imagination and determined leadership to keep us working together as a communities of communities toward what is good for all Minnesotans… We will not succeed if we do not--all of us-- feel bound to a common place, if we do not sense the many ways in which our history, our climate, our land, and our cultural experiences all cast us together. We acknowledge our many needs; we cherish our many resources, our many points of view; but if Minnesota is to work well, it can claim only one interdependent future."

Interdependence and being bound to a common future are not the first thoughts that occur to me when I hear the phrase "market orientation." I think that markets represent an intermediate means that may help meet some societal needs efficiently. I have major problems when a market orientation concept is (mis)applied to trying to create ultimate ends (well-being) or is proposed to serve to value ultimate means such as ecosystem services. But that's a whole different conversation.

Although I'm not a particularly religious person, for Earth Day 2014 I think we would be well served to remember the dictum from the New Testament: "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's." We could also stand to be more mindful of Gary Snyder's vision in his magnificent poem "For The Children."