Obama and the Vision Thing

Two steps forward jpegJoel Makower's recent post on hig blog Two Steps Forward discusses the opportunity President-elect Obama created for environmentalists and green marketers to brand "green" as an opportunity instead of a fear, which consumers have come to expect from talk of rising temperatures and tides.

Posted Jan. 12, 2009

By Joel Makower, Two Steps Forward

There's long been a fundamental problem with the green world — the
myriad companies, activists, evangelists, politicians, clergy, thought
leaders, and others who, each in their own way, have prodded us to
address our planet's environmental ills. And it explains why, after
four decades of the modern environmental movement, only a relative
handful of companies and citizens have joined in, while many more have
dragged their heels to slow, or even reverse, environmental progress.

Green obama jpeg
The problem is this: No one has created a vision of what happens if we get things right.

That seems odd, when you think about it. We have a crystal clear
picture of the consequences of getting things wrong (thank you very
much, Al Gore). We know well the potential devastation of unmitigated
environmental problems: the droughts, floods, hurricanes, tsunamis,
resource wars, famine, and pestilence. We know about epidemics of
childhood asthma in inner cities, toxic rivers in impoverished lands,
and depleted fisheries that may never fully recover. We see for
ourselves the rampant development in formerly verdant landscapes. There
are vivid pictures of denuded forests, strip-mined mountains, and
strip-malled farmland. We read about these things, hear Hollywood stars
fret over them, and may even experience them firsthand.

Point is, we know what business as usual looks like.

But what about success? What happens if we get things right? What does that look like?

This, as much as anything, is a vision I'm hoping President Obama
can portray to America and the world. Yes, there is a list of necessary
policy prescriptions as long as my arm (and, fortunately, a corps of
green policy geeks much savvier than I who know how to get them
enacted). But without the vision thing, even the best policies can only
go so far.

This is no small matter. For decades, environmental leaders in
business, activism, and government have expressed frustration that the
public isn't behind them, except in disappointingly small numbers,
despite a litany of increasingly dire environmental problems. These
same leaders express bewilderment at the painfully slow uptake of green
products and personal habits, from buying organics to recycling to
energy conservation. Even when people understand the issues and
consequences of everyday actions — the direct relationship between
inefficient light bulbs and the threat of global climate change, for
example — they usually fail to act.

We've long known that fear is a limited motivator. Think of how
persuasion has changed. A generation ago, we were told by advertisers
to worry about ring around the collar, iron-poor blood, waxy yellow buildup, and the heartbreak of psoriasis.
Madison Avenue believed that driving fear into the hearts and minds of
the public would unleash a wealth of sales and profits. No longer.
Today, profits come from imbuing visions of sexual appeal, personal
freedom, and a life without worry. Those positive images are the ones
that inspire people to take action and, for better or worse, make
choices in the marketplace.

What is the positive image of "green" that will inspire a nation —
indeed, the world — to transform itself in the way that Obama and
others are hoping: that create jobs, build economic opportunities,
engender energy independence, attack climate change, improve public
health, reduce environmental degradation, and ensure national security?

Ask yourself: What does a world look like where former autoworkers
and steelmakers are employed in well-paid jobs to manufacture turbines
and solar panels, and where mechanics, electricians, truck drivers, and
plumbers are working fervently to build the smarter, upgraded
electricity grid needed to distribute all this home-grown energy? Where
a new generation of smart buildings and electric vehicles are operating
in concert on cheaper, less-polluting energy, and a new generation of
technicians is needed to build and maintain them and infrastructure
necessary to power them? Where every home, office, factory, and store
is retrofitted or rebuilt to be as energy efficient as possible, made
so by armies of newly trained workers from local communities? Where
entrepreneurial companies are mining landfills in order to turn waste
back into raw materials at a fraction of the cost and environmental
impacts of mining or manufacturing new ones? Where food is grown and
distributed regionally, reducing transportation emissions and ensuring
food security, creating a wealth of jobs for local farmers, food
processors, distributors, and others?

I could go on, but you get the point. It's a pretty compelling story. Who's telling it?

Van Jones is. The author of The Green-Collar Economy
and one of my personal heroes, Jones may be the only one who has
learned how to inspire people with the vision thing. And not just any
people: Jones is providing hope to legions of the economic underclass
who have largely been left out of the environmental movement to date.
He's telling ghetto kids to "Put down a handgun and pick up a caulking
gun," and that, "Somebody's going to make a million dollars figuring
out a way to get solar panels made and deployed in our 'hoods. I think
it should be you." (Elizabeth Kolbert has a terrific profile of Jones in the January 12 issue of New Yorker.)
Another Jones classic line, about Obama: "It's not that we have a
President who's black; it's that for the first time we have a President
who's green."

Jones has the ear of Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and others, but beyond
Jones, not many others have his vision or voice. Precious few others
can spin a positive, exciting story about a world in which thinking and
acting green becomes a pathway through the thicket of so many seemingly
intractable economic, political, and social problems. And that lack of
voices, itself, is a problem.

Can Obama incite and excite the populace by painting an enticing
picture of a greener world? Of course: Yes, he can. But will he? Amid
the many pressures he'll have — to cure an ailing economy, world
strife, and, God knows, the common cold — will he be willing and able
to place his political currency in the green vision thing? If he can,
it could be one of the more profound exercises in the audacity of hope.

And what about the rest of us? What's the uplifting story each of us
is willing and able to tell? How much of your own personal and
professional currency are you willing to expend to help not merely
portray this good, green vision but also to ensure it becomes reality?

Without that vision, the notion of a greener economy is destined to
be seen as a "nice to do," not a "need to do." It will be easily
countered by the incumbent interests who hope to continue to profit
from the existing model, and who will warn that this is no time to
tinker with radical, untested ideas about how our world works. And our
political leaders will follow the money, and the votes, watering down
the green ideal until it becomes yet another tepid policy soup.

We've seen vividly what happens when presidents squander
opportunities. After 9/11, President Bush could have inspired Americans
to demand energy independence as a means of avoiding future terrorist
attacks, enacting a wealth of policy directives to promote more
efficient buildings and vehicles and develop oil alternatives. He could
have inspired us with a hopeful vision born of the tragedy we'd just
endured. We would have swallowed hard to pay a dollar extra tax on gas,
maybe more, knowing it was going to a worthy cause. But he told us to
go shopping and left it at that. Eight long years later, we'll have
another chance.

To quote Van Jones one more time: "Barack Obama helped us take America back. Now we have to help him take America forward."

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