[Blogger's Note: I began this sometime last fall before COP15, but lost track before the holidays; despite my time management ineptitude, these topics are still as timely as ever.]
James Murdoch, son and heir-apparent to conservative media magnate Rupert Murdoch, argued near the end of 2009 in the Washington Post that conservatives and conservationists make natural allies...or at least they ought to. It's a refreshing read, too, because with both major parties playing Alinsky politics it's easy to forget that, aside from the sum of our available natural resources, our future economic growth and cultural-historical legacy are on the line. In the interest of full disclosure, I have been a fisherman since I could hold a rod and reel, I'm a habitual recycler-reuser-reducer, I really appreciate having had the good fortune to visit some really cool places during my short time thus far on the planet, and I firmly believe that there's an economic opportunity here - involving the free market - that we don't (or shouldn't) want to miss.
Follow me: author David Pink argued in one of his books that right-brained people will rule the world one day. Certainly we can't get along without the analytical types, but it's the creative ones - the technological innovators - that have ushered man through various epochs across time and which policy makers seem to agree are the backbone of the American economy (this, by the way is true; small firms' marginal costs of production are lower than those of larger firms). Pink's argument goes something like this (and I'm paraphrasing here, not directly quoting):
Raise your hand if you own an iPod.
Lots of you? Good. Keep your hands up.
Now, keep your hands up if you knew you wanted one before they ever had been invented.
No more hands? I didn't think so.
How could you possibly know you'd want a thing before it came to be? It's the people thinking about what you want before you know you want it who really transform society - these are the people that reshape and redefine paradigms in a society.
This argument extends to green products, technology, and sustainable services. Glenn Beck may have assassinated Teddy Roosevelt's character on live television at CPAC this year, but like my good friend J.R. Lind (@jrlind on Twitter) at Nashville Post Business once reminded me, sustainability is good business. Something tells me ol' Teddy would be awfully proud of today's Republican Party if they could find a way to get on board with sustainability-as-economic-policy ethos. It's just going to require re-framing the debate to some degree.
Personally, I liked the way President Obama put it in his State of the Union address:
I don’t like the way the President and progressive Democrats are going about shaping and “solving” the problem…but I liked the way the President put it: whether or not the science is settled is not the chief issue here – there’s an economic opportunity to be had, and in the wake of an unemployment around 10%, it’s time for the Congress to act. We on the Right agree that bad science should not inform policy, but it’s equally important to remember that policy activists and elected officials are NOT scientific experts (unless by coincidence), and to paraphrase Dr. Richard A. Muller, PhD (Physics) the falsification of one area of data does not discredit an entire theory en masse. The Right is terrified that going green will mean capitulation to a radical socialist agenda [sic]; the most devout opponents of anthropogenic warming theory will reject any and all green movements. Of course, new regulatory schemes should be opposed, but it’s possible to look at conservation through our own lens.
Republicans won a major concession in the State of the Union, when President Obama included nuclear energy in his energy strategy. Nuclear power plants will help provide safe, renewable energy, and will create some jobs. Wind and solar will take a similar nibble out of the jobless numbers – but wind turbines are expensive and inefficient, and solar panels will get more expensive before they get cheaper.
The Right needs to go further. Falling back on small government and low tax rhetoric, too, simply won’t fill the bill – the average American doesn’t take our high polemic seriously anymore (beyond sharing our disdain for the sitting Democratic government – we should recognize that this could only be temporary). Republicans have plenty of momentum in their favor, and, like Rep. Paul Ryan, can seize this opportunity before sliding backward into campaign mode this year. Here’s the good news: it’s entirely possible to be green and pro-business all at once.
The government contracting apparatus provides the perfect setting for a pilot program to see the benefits of sustainability, with minimal impacts to the private sector. Last fall, President Obama signed an executive order establishing sustainability goals for greening up facilities and processes across the federal government, including prime and subcontractor goods, facilities, and practices. Contracting and procurement reform in this area – since it has to take place anyway in order for businesses to comply with as-yet undetermined standards and definitions – is our chance to establish a tiered, incentive-based approach to green business. Rather than allowing the federal government to bludgeon businesses everywhere by standing up new regulatory apparatuses with cap-and-trade schemes, the Right should prop up a reformed procurement system which gives preference in the awards process to contractors who meet certain tiered sustainability goals.
This is also a nice way for traditionally pro-Big Business Republicans to throw a nice-sized bone to small businesses, since the marginal costs of pollution abatement are lower for small firms than they are for large firms; the costs of risk-taking in green innovation are also smaller. The conclusion of this policy approach is a set of sustainability practices in the contracting environment (no pun intended) which can be voluntarily extended into commercial markets by companies who see real long-term benefits from sustainability in procurement space – just like John Q. Public who never knew how awesome the iPod would be before it was invented. Small businesses thrive, costs are lowered, small and large businesses collaborate, and the government is largely kept out of interfering with commercial markets – we merely reform a legacy process for the purpose of achieving a policy objective that has several fringe benefits. There are long-term political benefits to this strategy as well, as there is clearly a well-expressed demand for green products and investments/practices.
We – and certainly I – are a long way off from having an exhaustive, comprehensive approach for going green, framed within the context of our own ideological narratives. But it’s not altogether impossible with a little bit of creative thinking. We don’t have to agree on the science of global warming, but we should probably start from the same basic assumption that sustainability is good for business. Finally, we need to remember that we have a real chance to wrestle this issue away from the Left, but we have to act quickly and intelligently, and remember that committing to this policy arena is not capitulation if we come to the table with our own detailed approaches. Here’s hoping we have a champion on to take the reins and lead the Right into a new era.