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Want policy changes? Sound the fire alarm
Submitted by Regina Hauser on July 9, 2012 - 1:31pm.
Bob Willard, author of “The Sustainability Advantage” and several other books on business and sustainability, is a shrewd observer of human nature.
In a full conference room Willard suggested that people consider moving to the conference room next door – it had the same amenities as this one, but with a little more comfort. No one moved. He then went on to suggest that if he said a $5 bill was sitting on each chair, some people would move, but not everyone. However, if a fire were to break out in the room, people would finally move.
This is the sustainability dilemma. Most people see a healthy environment as a “nice to have,” but not critical for business. In the past 10 years that efficiency has caught on, investment in alternative energy and technology has gained some support. But as explained in an article by KC Golden, it’s not just about saying yes to clean energy, but also about saying no to dirty energy. We are adding clean energy sources, but we’re not yet significantly reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.
In the past three years, polls show that the American people do not rank the environment as one of the most important issues we must resolve. The economy and jobs trump the environment by a large margin. And policy makers are paying attention.
Cap and trade is dead, and talk of climate change is verboten in Washington. The economy and jobs dominate our headlines. Green jobs are “nice to haves,” but we’ll take any jobs at this point, whatever color they may be.
Every day, the Wall Street Journal, the Oregonian, NPR, Fox News and CNN all lead with stories on the economy. We take the temperature of the stock market hourly, check the unemployment numbers, and watch the European banking crisis day to day.
The timing is indeed unfortunate, because the fire is growing in that conference room we’re sitting in, and we aren’t doing much to put it out. Perhaps we believe that we can move to the other conference room at the last minute.
This was brought home last week in a number of stories that didn’t get front-page attention in the mainstream media. NOAA has released data showing that last month global land temperatures were the highest recorded in 133 years. A new study published in the Nature journal finds that population growth, widespread destruction of natural ecosystems, and climate change are creating a global “state shift.”
What is a state shift? Generally, we think of nature as fairly stable – for example, a food web or chain is fairly stable, with numerous species playing a critical role. The populations of a few of those species may be able to shrink, and stability would endure. But if all of the pollinators were to disappear, that food web could become unstable and collapse.
The Nature study suggests that we are on the brink of such instability on a global scale. Going back to Bob Willard’s conference room analogy, there is a fire in every conference room and there’s no place left to go.
This time we’re the driving force of the state shift. Our increasing resource consumption, energy consumption and habitat destruction are changing Earth’s biophysical systems. Doing nothing is not a good option.
Many people will read about this study and shrug. Others will ask what we can do. There is not a simple list of 10 things we each can do to save the planet. At this point, it’s not just about becoming more efficient. This is a business issue that demands sound policy.
We will not implement significant policies to address this crisis until a large number of business leaders demand them. Business and civic leaders must make it clear to our policy makers that environmental uncertainty is as threatening to our economy as the loss of jobs, the cost of health care and monetary policy.
If we continue to let policy makers think that the environment is not critically important, we will simply watch as the fire in our conference room continues to grow.
Regina Hauser is a board director for The Natural Step International and a sustainability consultant. Contact her at hauseregina(at)gmail.com.