Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Big Environmental Problem - The First Step to Change

[Cross-posted to The Environmental Capitalist blog]

One of the major themes of our last semester will be Environmental Sustainability, as it will come into play in our Global Strategy, Leading Change and Management Practicum courses.

As prep work, we're reading:
I haven't read all of these books yet, but a couple common themes come through in each of them.
  • The world's current consumption rate of natural resources will deplete the planet by the end of the 21st century (give or take a few years).
  • Much of the technology needed to solve today's problems exist today. It isn't necessarily ready to be deployed in a "cost effective" manner, but it exists today.
  • The interconnectedness of many of the problems is extremely complex (ie. Pollution comes from A, affects B/C/D, this depletes E/F/G, causing problems with X/Y/Z, etc.)
Unlike many people that want to bash things like Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, turning it into a political debate, or a science debate, or a morality debate, I don't believe it's really a debate about any of those things. This is a marketing debate and it's being lost by everyone that is passionate about the concept.

Let's break this down a little bit and see if we can make a few suggestions:
  • If the scientists are right and the world (at the current or forecasted pace) will run out of natural resources by the end of the 21st century, almost every person that can influence it (financially, politically, etc.) will be dead before that happens.
  • As we've seen with things like the Y2K computer bug, or the underfunded U.S. Social Security program, intelligent people don't take action upon well known issues until they are right in front of them and teetering on the edge of chaos.
  • As I've mentioned before, almost all of the discussions about sustainability are phrased in such massive scope that the average person can't grasp what that means. Is the rise of the ocean by 6" alot? Is a 1* increase in water near the Arctic Circle alot? 200 years of coal reserves available in the US seems like a long time, isn't it?
So essentially they are asking people to take action on things where they will never see the final act (or maybe even the intermission), they can't economically afford them today, and they can't actually grasp the scope of them other than in simple things like the price of gas in the summer.

So if you're selling this at the G8 summit, then it's a political or economic or moral discussion. But for the average person, it's hard for me to look at this as anything more than a massive marketing problem. And like many marketing problems, we need to convince people to make a change, especially the first change.

Let's try a simpler concept -

What if instead of the massive amount of money used for some of the 2008/2009 Gov't bailouts, that money had been focused on something that almost everyone in the US could grasp (since the US is the largest net-polluter in the world)? What if they had allowed GM and Chrysler to fail (real Chapter 11, not gov't bailout version), and completely focused the "Cash-for-Clunkers" program on trade-ins for vehicles that didn't use gasoline? You have a clunker, you MUST trade it in for a non-gasoline burning vehicle within 18 months. And within 5-10 years, all vehicles in the US must run on non-gasoline products. And while the initial price tags on the vehicles will be slightly higher, that can be blurred through subsidies, alternative taxes (sales tax, tire tax, whatever..). We have no idea where all the taxes dollars go today. And it's the law.

It would be the equivalent to the JFK "Man on the Moon" edict. It would focus all the industries surrounding automobiles to focus on green technologies because there is already a consumer demand for transportation, and it's the law. And it would be something that every person could grasp because cars intersect our lives on a daily basis. It's simple, it has a understandable timeline and it has massive scope of impact.

Would it have political and economic ramifications? Absolutely!! Both positive and negative, but at least they would be tangible by everyday people and governments.
  • Less dependence on foreign oil - lower trade deficits; lower military expenditures to protect sea channels which carry oil; less fear of terrorist bombings
  • Less pollution - lower healthcare spends on asthma, etc.
  • Job creation - new distribution channels for the alternative energy mechanisms (refueling stations, repair services, etc.)
And it might be partially impractical (at this point), but that's OK. All change is considered impractical until you can convince someone to do it.

This isn't a tree-hugger vs. non tree-hugger issue, this is a citizens of Planet Earth issue. It's a massive set of issues and it's a long-term set of issues. But people need to do a better job of starting the discussion.

I'd just ask that the passionate people around this industry consider this approach for a second. See if it makes any sense. Maybe you aren't in the automotive sector, but how could this type of thinking be applied to your sector or sustainability. What is the first step you wish you could get people to take, and then how might you force that to happen? Maybe it wouldn't all happen through a new law, but maybe it happens through some other event. What would be your first step to change?
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