By Joseph Carpenter, Director of Operations and Sustainability
In the middle of my third deployment to Iraq I found myself standing at the site of the ancient city of Ur. Saddam, during his time as dictator, had reconstructed aspects of this famous city to include its Ziggurat Temple. Now, I was there getting a tour from a local who oversaw its maintenance.
I stood in awe of the history and thought about how much has changed over the millennia since Abraham left this place, since it is now mostly desert with little-to-no vegetation. I couldn’t image anyone picking this spot as a good location to live. However, the tour guide mentioned how the Euphrates river had shifted over time and left the once fertile city to dry up.
The fact that rivers shift over time is hardly a revolutionary concept, but for me, the timing of this idea was like the last bit of water that forces a dam to break open. My worldview opened up and a torrent of ideas, thoughts, and feelings rushed in as my mind tried to make sense of it all: religion, changing environments, and life in general.
Neither of my parents went to college and instead worked most of their lives for a large corporation that manufactured a variety of products. As the saying goes, it was an honest living. They came from large families, but decided they would rather put all their resources toward providing one child with a better life. My parents instilled in me the ideal that if you are honest and work hard, you’re rewarded with a good life – not solely in the sense of material possessions, but also so you can stand to look yourself in the mirror.
My father’s love for hockey drove my parents to use the money they had to fund my involvement in the sport. I skated for the first time at about three and a half years old, lessons at four, and leagues at five. By the time I was nine, they were spending most of their weekends and vacations taking me to games, tournaments, and training clinics. I didn’t waste their money and poured everything I had into it – I loved playing hockey and my parents loved watching!
Admittedly, and my mother would agree, I can’t say I was always the most helpful child around the house. However, when it came time for college though I couldn’t bear the thought of them sacrificing any more for me. I thought they had done enough and that going to college was a reward for all the hard work and sacrifice on both our parts.
Despite my deep desire to play professional hockey I decided to take a free and quality education instead. So, off to West Point I went in the comfort that I would have no college debt, I’d get a great education, have a job afterwards, and wouldn’t have to worry about buying normal clothes for a while. I didn’t laugh too much while at West Point. I consider it an experience I underappreciated because it fit more of a practical means to an end rather than a truly good fit for what I was a passionate about at the time.
Then, things became real very quickly. If the indoctrination into a new culture weren’t enough of a change, the attacks of 9-11 during my senior year made the choice of going to West Point something far more than my young mind could really comprehend. It also amplified my belief in the need to work hard and have integrity doing it – I mean, people’s lives would now literally depend on it.
So, at the age of 23 I was put in charge of about sixty people and pointed in the direction of a place called Iraq. This was to be the first of three separate year-long deployments there, spanning nearly a decade of my life. In lieu of describing the many lessons I learned, I will just say that it was my honor to serve in this capacity, but I couldn’t do it anymore.
Unable to continue the lifestyle of always preparing for, being at, or resetting from war, I got out of the Army. I also resigned my commission to make sure I didn’t go back, forcing myself to start a new life. After taking some much needed time off to decompress, I started working for a small manufacturing company.
My interest here was twofold: get experience in the business world, and see for myself what manufacturing was all about. Since my parents worked in this space, they also talked about it, including how many jobs had been shifted overseas during their life. Like my parents, it was an honest living. I learned a lot during my time there and gravitated towards the concepts of waste reduction and process improvement. However, something was missing, and I had to find out what it was.
My search started with going to graduate school full time to study this concept of Sustainability. For years I had been fighting the impulse to get a graduate degree, and this seemed like a good excuse to give in. Previously, I felt as though I should go back for an M.B.A., but unlike my decision to go to West Point, I rejected the more practical route, instead choosing to study something that genuinely interested me.
Despite my newfound commitment to learning about the topic, not long after starting school I found myself emotionally exacerbated by my ever-growing knowledge. I would often come home somewhat depressed from class and my wife would ask “Is coal bad and we’re all going to die?”. If I answered yes, we would then go for a walk to talk about the challenges that I see before us as a species. The floodgates that initially opened when I visited Ur were back in full force.
This time though, it came with the realization that adults actually don’t know everything. I don’t think it is so much that I didn’t understand it before, only that I didn’t want to believe it. The ideals that I had developed through my life were suddenly shattering. I wanted to believe that if you work hard and have integrity, a perfect solution will emerge to fix all problems. I wanted to believe that one could fix processes to the point of perfection. And ok – I still kind of do believe this, but for all my idealism, the reality is the world is messy and complicated.
But rather than holding up the proverbial white flag in the face of some seemingly impossible odds, I choose to remain and work for a livable climate using the concept of sustainability as a guide post of sorts. I choose to take a breath, take on a holistic point of view, and from there identify an informed path forward. Deep down I want to believe that we as a species can rise above some of our inherent predispositions and meet these pressing existential threats before it is too late. This is my driving force.
So, here I am now working to help member companies of Climate Action Business Association integrate sustainability considerations into their business practices. I believe that this type of approach is what the next generation of businesses, people, and society will use out of necessity. Otherwise, we will go the way of the city of Ur as the natural course of time and change march continuously forward.
Ideals rarely ever meet reality, so I intend on trying to enjoy the journey, and approach these complicated topics with a balanced measure of passion, critical thinking, and empathy for alternate viewpoints. Although I may not be able to figure it all out, I will at least have done something to try and change the course of humanity for the better. Hopefully, I’ll find other likeminded individuals along the way to travel this road with too.