I'm not in Tampa. But I was to have been. Until Isaac organized itself into a hurricane, I was to have been on a panel at a forum called "Conservative Thought and Sustainability". This falls squarely into the rapidly growing set of "things I do in my job that I never could have imagined". It also falls easily into the set of the most important things I can do in my job.
Because we can not afford to have sustainability become a partisan issue. We can't let it be stigmatized as a "leftie" or "liberal" concern. I know from personal experience that that is a very real risk:
- The director of a Massachusetts consortium on clean energy, upon meeting me a few years back, exclaimed, "I never would have thought a company whose founder served the Bush administration would care about the environment!"
- An industry analyst to whom I'd just presented our sustainability strategy said, "We're all wondering how this liberal woman ended up in this conservative company." (OK, it's true I’m pretty liberal, but there should have been no reason for him to have deduced that from our strategy.)
It's ironic, though, when you consider that the growing integration of sustainability into private industry is largely voluntary action on the part of corporations - mostly large, mostly public corporations. You know, those heartless villains so often demonized by "the left" as the evil overlords of "right wing" politics? And yet:
- Last year, 404 companies from the Global 500 voluntarily reported their carbon emissions to the Carbon Disclosure Project.
- 367 companies chose to publish GRI reports in the US last year, with no regulatory requirement on the horizon.
- Companies are jockeying for positions on the free market Dow Jones Sustainability Index, Newsweek 500, and other entirely voluntary ratings and indices.
- Organizations like The Green Grid, EICC, and others are formed by companies choosing to collaborate to drive sustainability throughout the value chain of individual industries.
- Take it from me and my co-workers: while EMC is deeply committed to sustainability, we are not really a seething hotbed of left-wing tree-hugging do-gooders.
- The Dow Jones Sustainability index calls a sustainability "a business approach that creates long-term shareholder value by embracing opportunities and managing risks deriving from economic, environment and social developments." In other words, things happens in the world out there and if you want your company to grow, you'd better be figuring out how to get leverage from them and/or mitigate any new risks they create. We also call that "corporate governance", folks!
In preparation for this panel session, I've been talking to a number of "sustainists" who tend to be more conservative than I, and read some papers on Free Market Environmentalism (FME) by Jonathan Adler and others, as well as the book Crunchy Cons by Rod Dreher. Because I'm not going to get on a panel session and espouse anything I don't believe, I'm not trying to get into their heads so much as look for common ground.
And there is plenty of common ground.
My takeaways - some new, some reinforced:
- Obviously, the aspects of sustainability that improve the bottom line are not points of contention. But people who haven't been involved may not realize just how much financial impact there can be in eliminating profligate consumption of energy and resources, or the power of sustainability in attracting and energizing talent.
- Long term shareholder value isn't particularly contentious either, but there is skepticism to overcome - we need to come to this audience with evidence in hand.
- Free Market Environmentalism does not deny that externalizing costs creates incentive for bad behavior. Rather, it promotes the use of fees imposed by those incurring the costs on those generating them, and expanding private ownership of resources so that these fees are shaped by the free market. Now wait - if you don't agree, don't start arguing (this spoken by the voice in my head.) Recognize that civil discourse should (in theory) be possible on the question of externalities and how to account for them. No, I don't know how this would work in the case of true public goods such as the atmosphere and ocean. But instead of arguing, maybe I could just ask with honest curiosity?
- Everyone points out that "conservatism" and "conservation" come from the same root. And I'm inclined toward the argument that maybe we should start using the latter in lieu of "environmentalism". The really thorny issue at the root of this argument is whether you subscribe to the belief that man holds dominion over the rest of the natural world, or whether there is inherent value in nature that is independent of the human race, or some combination thereof. I'm not going there - and we don't need to. Because either perspective leads to a realization that we must preserve our environment, and it doesn't really matter (nor will we ever resolve) whether it's to serve future generations or for its own sake.
- How about values? Values are not the purview of one political party or another. Oh, yes, we act like they are. And there are some tricky ones, I admit. Again - not going there. But what about values such as commitment to caring for our children? I know that's what's driving many conservatives that I know who hold the long view.
This forum may happen yet, and I look forward to the discussion. I don't know, though, if I'll wade into the political morass of discussing the Fundamental Attribution Error, but it has been much on my mind as I've been steeped in the writings of people with whom I have some pretty fundamental disagreements.
The Fundamental Attribution Error is the tendency to overly attribute other people's behavior to their disposition - their beliefs, values, motives, personalities - rather than to circumstances. And it seems to me that when someone's behavior could be ascribed to more than one possible disposition, we assume the worst. Kris Domich, Data Center Visionary from Dimension Data, captures this beautifully in the phrase "contempt before investigation". How many times have you heard that "Republicans are mean-spirited"? Yet I know some pretty darned generous ones. In his book, Dreher says that he is clearly not a liberal because he objects to "the idea that there's nothing wrong with our country that a new tax or a government program can't fix." Really, folks? Do you really know any self-professed liberal who believes that? Do we really have to vilify people who don't agree with us?
Get over it. There's common ground. Let's find it, and make sustainability about a future and not a party.