A few days ago, Alan M. Webber, one of Fast Company's founders, stopped by our offices for a visit. He talked about a recent trip he'd made to Tanzania, where he toured a traditional village. The men still hunt animals for meat, he noted, and the women dig up tubers. Although the villagers know about modern conveniences like matches, they still choose to twirl sticks into stones to start a fire. The very idea of innovation and change is threatening to them, Webber observed.
As Americans, we can be just as stubborn—and conflicted—about maintaining our way of life. And that's understandable. We enjoy a degree of freedom, choice, wealth, and economic opportunity that is unparalleled in history. Who wants to change that? We know that the consumption of fossil fuels, for instance, holds risk. But no one really suggests we give up our cars or planes and go back to the old days. Does that mean that we are embracing change or that we are stubbornly holding on to the way things are?
It's a complicated question to get your mind around, which is why senior writer Charles Fishman was so drawn to the subject of his case study in this issue: our $15 billion-a-year obsession with bottled water. Fish, as we call him, was recently nominated for business journalism's most prestigious prize, the Gerald Loeb Awards, both for his book The Wal-Mart Effect and for his September 2006 article about compact fluorescent bulbs, "How Many Lightbulbs Does It Take to Save the World? One."
To understand the bottled-water phenomenon, Fish traveled from San Pellegrino in Italy to Poland Spring in Maine to the source of Fiji Water in the South Pacific. What he discovered about the water business—and you can discover yourself, beginning here—is just how complex the mix of social, environmental, and economic issues can be. We don't really need bottled water, Fish writes, but he doesn't simply brand it as evil. Instead, he offers a nuanced analysis that provides a prism for viewing all of our conflicted choices as consumers and businesses: What in our culture is waste and what is creativity?
This issue's cover story about Al Gore examines another realm of cultural conflicts. Gore was a ridiculed figure not long ago. Yet he resurfaced in part on the strength of his business acumen and financial success. He has become a more effective agent of change as a private citizen than he was as a public official. So is this development worth celebrating, as a symbol of the value of economic markets? Or is it, as Gore would argue, an indictment of our political system?
We'd love your feedback on these questions, on Fish's bottled-water article, and on any other potential conflicts you see in our culture—or in this magazine. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks.
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.