2015: Two steps forward?

As we say goodbye to 2007, I’ve been thinking about U.S. Climate Action Partnership, the energy bill, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell and The Great Debaters—and what they tell us about how the world has changed, and how it hasn’t, in the year gone by.

This has been a watershed year, I’d argue, for the issue of sustainability in business and government. It was only last January that nine major companies, including General Electric, DuPont, Caterpillar and four utilities joined with four big environmental groups to for the U.S. Climate Action Partnership and call for mandatory federal regulations on emissions of greenhouse gases. Last month, Congress passed an energy bill that, while flawed, raises mileage standards for cars and requires much more efficient buildings and appliances. Those two events, both in Washington, can be seen as bookends to a year in which the environment in general and climate change in particular became mainstream concerns of business and government elites. It’s now clear to anyone paying close attention that Congress will in the next year or two enact meaningful climate change legislation. That will be a very big deal, needless to say.

There were other dramatic signs of progress in 2007. Al Gore and the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), represented by its chairman R.K. Pachauri, won the Nobel peace prize for their advocacy on climate change. (Later, Gore joined venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins to work on clean technology solutions to the problem.) The U.S. Supreme Court all but ordered the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant. By the end of the year, automakers GM, Ford and Chrysler and oil companies Conoco Phillips and Shell were among those signing onto U.S. CAP. The wind and solar energy industries, meanwhile, are growing fast, attracting investment and, most importantly, continuing to make technology gains. I could go on—about environmental initiatives at the local and state level, about green buildings, about the resistance to coal plants, about Wal-Mart’s impact and the like.

But are we making real progress, as a society, towards sustainability? Progress, of course, always comes in fits and starts. (The headline of this post, Two Steps Forward, is borrowed from my friend Joel Makower’s invaluable blog about sustainable business.) But I think what we are seeing right now in the U.S. (and I’m not qualified to speak about the rest of the world) is a society that’s moving forward and backwards at the same time. To be more specific, I see a yawning disconnect between the progress in the political and business world and business-as-usual in the broader, consumer culture which, in the end, matters as much if not more. Business-as-usual, when it comes to climate change, means things are getting worse as more and more carbon emissions get dumped into the air. That needs to change, soon. Which brings me to Dr. Blackwell and The Great Debaters.

First, though, do you doubt that the consumer behavior lags the elites when it comes to sustainability? If you do, I’d bet you didn’t spend any time at the malls or watching TV this past holiday season. Or realize that, for all the talk about climate change, roughly half the vehicles purchased in 2007 were SUVs and light trucks. Or see that despite the so-called credit crunch, millions of Americans continue to spend more money than they can afford to buy things they probably don’t need. Consider, for example, this shocking Los Angeles Times story about auto financing that, says, among other things that Americans are “slipping into a perpetual cycle of automobile debt,” that 45% of car loans are written for longer than six years, that the average loan is more than $30,000 (!), and that most car loans are made for amounts higher than the car is worth at the time of purchase. I hate to break it to you, friends, but these people aren’t buying Priuses.

Dr. Blackwell was the first woman to receive an M.D. from an American medical school. She did so in 1849, and I know that only because I bought a book about her last week as a birthday present for my nine-year-old niece. Dr. Blackwell wrote this about her experience at Geneva Medical College in upstate New York:

as I walked backwards and forwards to college the ladies stopped to stare at me, as at a curious animal. I afterwards found that I had so shocked Geneva propriety that the theory was fully established either that I was a bad woman, whose designs would gradually become evident, or that, being insane, an outbreak of insanity would soon be apparent.

Amazing, no? Today, in case you were wondering, there are about 235,000 female physicians in the U.S., slightly more than 25% of all doctors, the AMA says.

Last week, too, I saw The Great Debaters, a thoroughly entertaining movie about the debate team from all-black Wiley College that won national acclaim in the 1930s. (They defeated Harvard in the movie, USC in fact.) The students witness a lynching in one scene, which is fictional but could have happened; lynchings were a major civil rights issue during the Depression. One member of the team, James L. Farmer, went on to found the Congress of Racial Equality; he died less than nine years ago, so this isn’t ancient history. We’re still a long way from racial equality in America, of course, but we’re getting there, andfor the first time ever an African-American candidate is being taken seriously as a possible president.

Here’s the thing: Big, difficult social problems can only be solved by big, sweeping, political movements that engage millions of people. Sexism and racism led to the feminist movement and the civil rights movement, thanks to courageous people like Dr. Blackwell and James Farmer. Unfortunately, I don’t see anything comparable, not now and not on the immediate horizon, when it comes to the environment. (Please, if I am missing this story, let me know.) I don’t see anyone effectively challenging the culture of consumption that so dominates American society. I don’t know why the big environmental groups don’t say and do more around consumption issues; perhaps too many of their major donors drive SUVs and own vacation homes. I see a very few people trying – yes, here comes another plug for the Center for a New American Dream – and I continue to hope that religious leaders will step up to address the issue in a louder and more effective way. Churches and synagogues are, as best as I can, the places where conversations can and should unfold about values, about what really matters and, yes, about why buying that Hummer is an anti-social act.

So I’m cheered by what we’ve seen in 2007. But I’m reminded that we can’t expect government or business, for goodness sake, to lead us towards a path of buying, consuming and wasting less.

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