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Monday, June 09, 2008

Polar Bears or a Clean Energy Economy: What can make us Great?

The time for the environmental movement to become great has arrived, and we must grab this opportunity by its horns before it passes us by.

Cross-posted from the Breakthrough Generation Blog. By Adam Zemel.

Wind TurbineDespite what my you may have derived from my previous posts, I think that the environmental movement is a good movement. It has done good work cleaning up smog, fixing the ozone, and cleaning up lakes and rivers. The results, like the movement, have been pretty good. But the time for good is over. The time for the environmental movement to become great has arrived, and we must grab this opportunity by its horns before it passes us by.

I spent a good chunk of my Sunday afternoon reading sections of Good to Great, by Jim Collins. The book studies businesses that made a lasting, sustained transition from a “good” company to a “great” company. Collins wrote about corporations, but what he said can be applied to any organization of people, including environmental NGO's or the movement itself. Collins dug up articles and conducted interviews with executives from these companies, including businesses like Walgreens and Circuit City, to learn what these companies had done in common during the point of their transition from good to great. He identified a few different practices and factors, including the presence of adversity, honesty about the brutal facts, and identifying what each company had the capacity and potential to become the best at. It's critical that we similarly apply these to our movement in order for us to be great:


Adversity, according to Collins, helps facilitate the transition from good to great. This is not due to adversity in itself, but the opportunity it presents to reconstitute an organization’s mode of operations and frame of thought on all levels. Adversity also acts as a great motivator, leading to increased dedication to the fundamental mission of the organization. Adversity can come in the form of a new opponent, a new paradigm to operate in or a struggle from the organization internally.

The challenge of climate change marks something qualitatively and quantitatively different than anything the environmental movement has taken on before. Carbon dioxide emissions are not chlorofluorocarbons—dangerous, ozone hole causing chemicals which were emitted by relatively few companies that had a viable alternative within cost-effective reach. They are a result of almost every activity that we engage in, linked to our infrastructure and our economy. This is not about stopping a single pollutant in a single industry. In fact, its not about stopping anything at all. It is building entirely new: a clean energy economy, a clean energy infrastructure, and a clean energy society.

If we recognize the adversity we face, and acknowledge it, we will be ready. Overcoming climate change could be the challenge that transitions the environmental movement from good to great.

Confronting the Brutal Truth

In order to transition from a good movement to a great movement, environmentalists must face the facts. We need to be more honest about the state of things:

  • The scale of the technology challenge is huge, simply staggering. We must tackle this head-on and aggressively invest in clean energy solutions across the board—this could mean making compromises from our current energy policy preferences. For example, maybe we do need carbon capture and storage as part of our investment portfolio. Maybe the mitigation challenge is too great for cap-and-trade alone to regulate away.
  • Time is short and the challenge is urgent. We are quickly approaching 450 ppm of carbon - often considered the climate 'redline' beyond which we do NOT want to cross. Given the urgency of the challenge, we must begin working with the technology we have now in addition to investing heavily in the technology breakthroughs we know can come.
  • China. It exists and continues to grow at an explosive rate. We'd better deal with that fact and willful ignorance of the international context of climate change will get us nowhere. We need solutions that will spur the deployment of clean energy technology across the globe, fueling a new era of clean economic development that can lift billions of out of poverty without cooking the climate.
  • Traditional environmentalism has failed to galvanize the country (and the world) because its messages and tactics don't run parallel to (and often run against) most people's values. The environmental movement has also demonstrated an astounding ability to cling to old ways of thinking, even when faced with new and different problems. Let's be clear: just because Al Gore won an Oscar doesn’t mean we are reaching and convincing people in droves.

We need to recognize these truths, and others. It is not until we have recognized these truths that we will be able to move forward with firm footing.

I am not saying that we must give up due to insurmountable facts; I am simply saying the time has come to stop sugar-coating the pills that we must swallow. Collins identifies something he calls the Stockdale Paradox: maintaining faith that we will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, while at the same time confronting the most brutal facts of our current reality.

At what are we The Best?

Collins points out that to become a great organization, you must recognize what it is you have the potential to be the best in the world at. It might not be what you are engaged in right now, and it might not be what you have done before. But to be great, to achieve great results, you have to identify what it is you will be the best at.

Perhaps the old guard is best at conservation, clean up and preservation. But we are a new generation of advocates and activists, and what we can be best at is ours to own. We, the youth arm of the environmental movement, need to recognize what we can be the best at. It might not be what movements of the past have done.

At this moment in time, the youth engaged in climate action have met the preconditions to be best in the world at advocating for and achieving global, sustainable, just and prosperous energy equity. We are a movement that cares about energy use, we are a movement that considers global consequence, we are a movement that wants to reduce our carbon emissions. These concerns are the preconditions for our greatness; we can take these concerns, couple them with a care for lifting billions out of poverty, couple them with a dream of making the earth one that can sustainably and prosperously accommodate nine billion human beings, and couple them with a knowledge that a clean energy civilization is the best avenue to achieve our ends. We can take all this, and know it, and own it, and work towards it, and then we could be great.

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