Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Challenge of Accepting Change

When we look back on world history, we usually find that great societal or economic improvements came about through major changes in attitudes or actions.  What we often do not see is how disruptive those changes were for many people.  The idea of maintaining the status quo is very comforting for many people even when, in doing so, it may lead to decline, calamity or worse.

On this past Fourth of July, I was watching the excellent HBO series, John Adams, and I was reminded of the challenging reality that took place as the original framers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution wrestled with the revolutionary birth of a new nation.  Behind those patriotic images we all grew up with as schoolchildren were many men of good intentions who were resistant, perhaps terrified, of change, even when maintaining the staus quo meant hardship and oppression from a patron government across the Atlantic.

It took the finesse of politics and diplomacy to get all the leaders of the, then, colonies to agree on a radical change in their lives as representative statesman.  To think beyond the self-interests of a colony and look at the broader, greater good as states united - well, that did not come easy and many times stood on the verge of collapse.

That can also be said of the many environmental issues we face today.  Whether climate change, ocean acidification, overfishing, or plastic pollution - just to name a few, we as environmental advocates must always be aware of the impact our goals and objectives might have on the status quo mentality of those who will be impacted by our conservation desires.  We may firmly believe in our logic and in the scientific data that supports it, and we may be firm in our resolve that to not proactively address these issues would mean a significant decline in the quality of life on this planet.  But at the same time, there are others who firmly believe in the opposite because by doing so, they are able to maintain the staus quo for themselves, either socially or economically.

The development of alternative energy is a good example.  While the oil and energy industry giants make token gestures to alternative energy research, fundamentally they would prefer to maintain the current system that has been established over the past 100+ years; that of refineries, pipelines, drilling installations and distribution networks that represent an incredibly huge financial investment.  It is a steamship of gargantuan proportions whose course is very difficult to change, regardless of any icebergs that lie ahead.

But many icebergs do lie ahead.  And its course must be changed.  The oligopoly that is the oil and gas industry is missing an opportunity to shift gears and become the titans of a new industry.  They will have to abandon their current ways at some point and, between waiting until later - when it will be forced to do so because of a lack of natural resources - or taking the bold initiative to make a concerted effort in a new direction, the latter is actually the greater risk, the scarier of the two scenarios for an industry with such an entrenched economic mindset.

So, we, the environmental opponents who represent a threat to their economic status quo, must plan our strategies carefully.  We see a sense of urgency supported by scientific evidence but we must be diplomatically clever in how we sell our argument to both the people and the politicians.  Near the latter part of the Bush administration,  government funding of alternative energy companies began, and it was continued and expanded under the Obama presidency.  It was chided by many who support the status quo, but in a recent editorial by Dan Primack in Fortune magazine, it was pointed out that the program has attained more wins than losses.

"...the overall loan portfolio seems to be in good shape.  Well-publicized losses like Solyndra represent just 2% of total commitments.  Around half of the remaining projects are operational, and the recipients have begun repaying their loans." 

By supporting the development of new alternative energy companies and, by their success, advancing the technologies that promise cleaner energy, the oil and gas industry is being put on notice - either embrace the future wholeheartedly now or watch your power erode even before your current supplies of raw materials run out.  I, for one, would not care if the titans of the oil and gas industry shifted gears and became multi-billionaires once again but this time using alternative cleaner energy as their ticket to wealth.  As long as the environment is spared in the conversion and we have cleaner air and water as a result, I am fine with that.   

Environmentalists will have to be equally as clever in getting the consumer to rethink how they use energy.  Sometimes society's resistance to changing it's consumption habits can be just as daunting as industry's intransigence to altering it's established revenue models.  Confrontation often has to give way to leading by example, providing acceptable alternatives, and making information freely available.  Sometimes by positioning new approaches or actions in terms of personal benefits - making benefits to the environment seem almost frustratingly secondary - one can win over people to a new way of doing things, a new status quo. 

In John Adams, you saw the protagonist agonize over how he had to massage, cajole, flatter, and convince his opponents to change the course of history, all for the greater good.  That was how a great nation was formed.  The future of the planet requires no less from those who wish to conserve and protect it for generations to come.  Change is inevitable; it's all a matter of how you go about it.   

Source: HBO's John Adams  
Source: Fortune/Dan Primack