As renewables transform energy markets and sustainable investing finds ever-steadier footing, it can be hard to look past the numbers to find the lyric beauty in an environmental impact assessment, or the delicate, transitive paradigm in the new lives of recycled plastic.
I don’t know when, exactly, in my busy schedule of doing stupid things on the internet, I started Googling the words “sustainable business poetry.” But somewhere along the way I began developing a curriculum, a slate of verse loosely connected to the idea of businesses or technologies working to make the world a better place.
Some of these are good poems. Some … are not. But even the most groan-inducing selections here offer some offbeat charm or an interesting origin story. I mean, it’s not easy writing this stuff—both green business and poetry can carry airs of sanctimony that can be hard to overcome. And obviously, the work on this list was not originally intended to be “sustainable business poetry.” You might say the writers here are sustainable business poets … and they didn’t even sustainable business know it.
“Turbines in January” by Colette Bryce
“Turbines in January” is a vivid invocation of a wind farm by Irish poet and editor Colette Bryce, published in The Guardian’s 20-part series of environmental poems. The series, curated by U.K. poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy was part of The Guardian’s Keep it in the Ground campaign, focused on clean energy and fossil fuel divestment.
“A thousand synonyms for wind / make up your song,” begins Bryce, who addresses the turbines directly, almost appreciatively at first. But set against a living landscape, the churning machines are also sphinxlike and alien, indifferent bird executioners, possessed of a “whirling one-track mind.”
“and panes of ice, which crystallize
on your frozen wings,
are flung when you turn
(one, it was said, had lodged
like a glass fin
in the roof of a camper van).”
Sir Richard Branson’s “A poem for all entrepreneurs”
Billionaire bad-boy bard Richard Branson wrote this corny dad poem as part of his #ChallengeRichard campaign, in which he accepted 65 challenges from the public upon turning 65 years old. In his Dr. Seuss-inspired outing, Branson urges tomorrow’s corporate titans to think about more than just the bottom line. Says Sir Richard:
“If you think with your head and listen to your heart,
I promise you’ll get off to a flying start.
Make bold moves, but always play fair,
Always say please and thank you—it’s cool to care.”
“The Mouse’s Petition to Dr. Priestley, Found in the Trap where he had been Confined all Night” by Anna Laetitia Barbauld
Speaking to NPR, historian Richard Holmes called this poem, “perhaps the first animal-rights manifesto ever written.” In 1773 English writer Anna Laetitia Barbauld was employed as a lab assistant to chemist Joseph Priestley, famous for being among the first researchers to isolate oxygen. Priestley experimented on mice, and Barbauld, after seeing one lil’ squeaker too many meet its fate at the hands of her boss, wrote this poem in protest. She left the message, a sad, desperate plea from the point of view of one doomed lab mouse, for Priestley to find the next day.
“For here forlorn and sad I sit,
Within the wiry grate;
And tremble at th’ approaching morn,
Which brings impending fate.
If e’er thy breast with freedom glow’d,
And spurn’d a tyrant’s chain,
Let not thy strong oppressive force
A free-born mouse detain.”
According to Holmes the fallout of the incident is unreported, so we don’t know what came of Barbauld’s speaking up. But her poem’s origin is a colorful example of an employee taking an ethical stand at work and creatively engaging with the powers that be to change an organization from the inside.
Odwalla’s corporate vision statement
According to a 1995 L.A. Times article, this poem was created “with input from ‘all Odwallians’ back when the California-based company stood at just 120 employees.” The beverage business, then an independent, values-driven company (Odwalla was bought by Coca-Cola in 2001) had just hired its first “vice president of vision access,” whose job was maintaining good corporate citizenship. The L.A. Times piece also quotes an IBM spokesman, who scoffs at the very idea of such a position: “We have a head of strategy,” said the IBM representative. “We don’t have anyone with ‘vision’ in the title, which we would view as highly sophomoric.” Of course, this scold has aged particularly poorly over the last two decades, directly clashing with the way the business world has evolved—and yes, even IBM now employs a “manager of vision.”
Odwalla’s poem is short, crunchy, and very Californian:
A breath of fresh.
Soil to soul,
People to planet,
Nourishing the body whole.
“Something About Energy” by Abel H.
Winner of the SunPower Student Slam Poetry Competition in 2015, “Something About Energy” is a rhyming interrogation of humanity’s addiction to fossil fuels. If you’ve ever wondered what a teen channeling Lin-Manuel Miranda waxing rhapsodic about solar panels sounds like, well, here it is. A sample verse:
“Man, I really hope humans don’t wait till the last hour
Late at night, thinking in the shower
Telling his boss the next day during happy hour
‘Sir, why don’t we use solar power?’”
“The New Optimism” by Dean Young
Poetry magazine ran this piece by Dean Young in 2010, four years before his tenure as Texas’ poet laureate. In “The New Optimism,” Young channels both futility and promise, shitting on the cyclical motivators and altruistic diversions that occupy us as we scurry about, seeking some kind of peace with our world.
“even as the last polar bear sat
on his shrinking berg thinking,
I have been vicious but my soul is pure.
And the new optimism loves the bear’s
soul and makes images of it to sell
at fair-trade craft fairs with laboriously
knotted hunks of rope, photos of cheese,
soaps with odd ingredients, whiskey…”
Even in the convoluted path from last bear to craft fair, there’s more here than Young’s satirical side-eye. He bores into ideal and industry, blurring the naivety and profundity in seeking a future where, as he writes, “You look an animal in the eye before eating it,” and “War finally seems stupid enough.”
This one, available on bumper stickers, t-shirts, and posters, is often attributed to an Alan M. Eddison, Director of an organization called Green Earth Affairs in Zimbabwe, though I could not find a good source confirming its origins.