Catching the next environmental wave

Today is Earth day and in commemoration of the event, which has been held each year since 1970, this week’s post will talk about the idea that environmentalism comes in waves. John Elkington, an early environmental practitioner first introduced this idea in  his book, Cannibals with Forks, which he published in 1999.

Roosevelt and Muir

Elkington talks about the 1960s as the first wave and although I like his idea, I go back even further. For me, the first wave in modern society goes back to the late 1800s during which the progressive political movement coincided with a passion for the outdoors by conservationists such as John Muir and adventurers such as Teddy Roosevelt.

I suggest that the second wave started back in the late 1950s and 1960s and was triggered by the deadly effects of smog in cities such as London, New York and Los Angeles as well as increased concern for water pollution. These episodes were brought into focus by the publication of Rachel carson’s silent spring as well as the publication of Earthrise, a photograph taken by Astronaut Bill Anders from the surface of the moon. A massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara in California in 1969 also led to a strong public outcry.

United States Senator Gaylord Nelson (Wisconsin) led the organization of the event which brought liberals together with environmentalist, hippies and other segments of civil society in a a movement which demanded protection for the natural environment. Earth Day, and the movement which it represented led to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States in 1972. Another seminal event of the time ws the founding of Greenpeace in 1971 to protest against atomic testing int he waters off the Aleutian islands in Alaska.

A third wave appeared in the late 1980s and was widely focused on climate change and carbon concentration as the principal culprit. That wave appeared to crest in the 1990s with the 1992 Rio meeting and subsequent Kyoto  and Paris accords.

In terms of the link between business strategy and environmental sustainability, there are a number of important implications for looking at the evolution of the issues connected to the environment in this way.

Earthday 1970

In the first place, the waves appear to have a pattern. Tragedies or events occur which provoke public outrage. The outrage is used by interest groups and the news media which amplify people’s concerns and work towards some kind of solution. When the support of solutions become broad enough, political leaders step in (either by choice or against their will) and eventually develop legislation designed to curtail specific practices or encourage others. Finally, some institution is tasked with implanting and/or enforcing the legislation. 

Typically, at some point there is a national crisis, war or the economy takes a downward turn which takes the issue out of the pubic eye until the next cycle. What is critically important from a business point of view, however,  is that even after a set of issues drop out of public view, their institutional momentum continues and each wave adds regulations to those that came before setting the bar for compliance higher every time.

Part of that momentum comes from the politicization of a portion of the young men and women who were involved in the protests and then go onto to a career in politics or public administration.  As these people entere public life they are been able to slowly and steadily support some of the ideas they embraced as students and activists. This phenomena has been called the “long march through the institutions of power” by German communist Rudi Dutschke who would eventually join the green movement in Germany.

This has been the basic process up until the election of Donald Trump and his appointment of Scott Pruitt as Administrator of the EPA. Mr. Trump’s agenda has not been to reform the EPA but to ratchet back what he and Mr. Pruitt believe to be administrative over reach during the Obama administration. Pruitt, who in my view should never have been confirmed, has proven to not only favor specific industrial interests over the environment but is currently under investigation for ethics violations connected to the same industries he is supposed to be regulating.

Kamala Harris

From a business planning perspective, the real question is how much influence the current administration will have and the data I see seems to indicate that the next wave will happen whatever they try to do. That wave, I believe,  will be all about electrification and de-carbonizing the economy. The hope is that the Democrats will get their act together for the mid-term elections or at least by 2020 and that the country will elect California Senator Kamala Harris, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo or basically anyone who understands that people do care about issues such as clean air and water and can see beyond their narrow self interest to take steps to combat climate change!