History’s Lesson: Sustainability Requires Everyone in the Trenches
“Our republics cannot exist long in prosperity. We require adversity and appear to possess most of the republican spirit when most depressed.” – Benjamin Rush –
What’s the relevance of the quote? As the historian David Hackett Fischer wrote in Washington’s Crossing, “He (Rush) thought it was a national habit of the American people (maybe all free people) not to deal with a difficult problem until it was nearly impossible.” But, the positive aspect of this is that we do rise up and deal with problems, and eventually solve them.
That’s what is needed for the current vexing problems of the economy, energy security and the environment. Just as the nascent nation relied upon state militias to supplement those Continental soldiers in the field month after month during the Revolutionary War (sometimes to the Glorious Cause’s detriment), so, too, this nation requires everyone in the trenches to fight this action in transforming and sustaining our economy.
What do I mean by this? In a previous post, I stressed the importance of teamwork in business to address sustainability. However, to transform society, it’s larger than business. We must all be working together. Having an “us versus them” mentality isn’t helpful. It’s not just about business having to take actions to reduce their environmental footprint. It’s not a NIMBY (“Not in my backyard”) attitude when renewable energy projects are proposed, sited and, more often than not, opposed. It’s not government overlaying multiple regulations that, in essence, do the same things in different ways, but at significant complexity, impacts and costs. Again, it’s about governments, businesses and citizens working collaboratively to become more efficient, to develop new, “greener” technologies that are economically viable, and to use these new innovations across our society.
I spoke at a summit some weeks back for The Economist magazine, titled The 2009 Sustainability Summit – The New Climate: Global Warming and Its Implications for Corporate Strategy. This is a big title for a big societal challenge. I was particularly struck by an innovation that could result in big environmental benefits. Procter & Gamble has done much in their sustainability efforts, even conducting life cycle analyses on their products. They found that their biggest environmental impact from energy usage was not their product manufacturing; it was not their materials, not their transportation of materials or products, not even material disposal; none of these were even close. No, it was the use of their laundry products in homes that was their biggest impact, primarily from the energy used to heat water. So, they developed Tide Cold Water. Procter & Gamble has calculated that washing laundry in cold water in every
What’s the point? Well, just as during the American Revolution when states were often less than forthcoming with militias and funding for the Continental Army until the pain of the revolutionaries’ defeats was unbearable, so, too, attempts to “pass the buck” to others on economic, energy security and environmental considerations will result in pain for some. But, here’s the “not-so-secret” secret of a democracy: pain for some effects all. So, it’s going to take everyone – governments, businesses and citizens – to implement those solutions that involve shared action like the example above – and those that are responsible, both environmentally and economically. It’s time for our republic to prosper with everyone in the trenches, working together.