Environmentalism Grows Up

Today’s environmentalists are using a more cooperative approach to see a cleaner planet.

Maybe you saw the video of a teacher blowing up her students who don’t volunteer to participate in carbon reduction efforts.

Maybe you noticed this poster:

Perhaps you read from Al Gore that “the future of human civilization is at stake,” or heard doomsday predictions about the near future. This, say, from Paul Ehrlich back in 1970:  “If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.”

Whether succumbed to a desperation to save the planet, enticed by the power of the cause or, as Freakonomics author Steven Levitt would have it, smitten by the ideology that humans must reap suffering because of the damage they’ve sown, such messages put out to the masses by some environmentalists have failed to bring consensus on the issue, much less action.

A Gallup poll conducted in March 2013 asked respondents what the most important problem facing the U.S. today is. The economy ranked first out of 16 choices with 24 percent; the environment came in 13th at 2 percent. (Noteworthy is that when asked about the biggest problem facing America 25 years from now, environment jumps to third place with 8 percent, but even this perceived problem has dropped from number 1 in 2007 and 2008 when 14 percent of respondents chose it.)

Meanwhile, some developing countries — where pollution tends to be worse and effects of climate change more immediately threatening — resist such policies because of their desire to develop. Leaders of these countries aren’t interested in lectures on how to curb carbon use from those who’ve already expelled more than their fair share, and their citizens are simply looking for a better life — as defined by countries that have previously developed. As a result, Lisa Curtis, community builder at Solar Mosaic, a crowdsourcing company that connects investors to solar projects, says that though policy has worked for conserving wetlands and species, trying to lead a culture shift “is something that can’t be legislated.”

So, with ineffective scare tactics, waning interest levels, legislative impotence and a growing global middle class with its heart set on development, many in the environmental movement have adopted new tactics.

Working With Business and Markets

While many environmentalists still find it necessary to block what they deem as harmful development, another arm of environmentalism has taken a more involved approach. Portland, Oregon-based Ecotrust, a development organization founded in 1991, fosters development by investing in communities, organizations and businesses that restore nature, using markets to benefit businesses and habitats across the Pacific Northwest. “Unless you can put your arms around the forces of the economy,” says Oakley Brooks, senior media manager at the company, you’re not going to get the results you want.”

For example Ecotrust’s Forest Management (EFM) differs from typical forestry management organizations, Brooks says, because rather than “cutting and planting one species in shorter generational spans, we raise different species — both soft and hard wood.” And in addition to tree diversity, EFM places importance on a variety of forest services, such as improved habitat and water quality, and sources products like biomass. This “ecosystem management” accounts for the long-term viability of natural resources — something that many companies concerned with short-term goals find challenging.

Building performance specialist Compass Rose in Isabella, Minn., employs a team of engineers and architects dedicated to “cleaning up” our living spaces with new buildings or renovations with the “highest energy standards possible,” says the company’s business director Laura Malwitz. Known for their landmark headquarters — a LEED platinum, two-foot-thick walled, net-zero energy, no-heating-bill building — Compass Rose is a certified B Corporation that clients seek out to “track [their] building portfolios to see how their buildings are doing with efficiency,” says Malwitz.

Ecotrust and Compass Rose blend the lines previously separating the businessperson from the environmentalist. “Labels are breaking down,” Brooks says, adding that the result is “hybrid organizations: business-minded with a social environmental mission baked in.” When Brooks and Malwitz speak of preserving habitats and preventing the destruction of our planet, they sound like environmentalists. Yet instead of seeking ordinances for stricter building codes or legislation to preserve swamplands, Ecotrust and Compass Rose have promoted their cause though their businesses and sales.

This approach has worked, in part, because though the public often seems unreceptive to the dramatic approaches of previous environmental campaigns, they have been open to changing their ways. (Granted, it could be argued that the public has indeed changed their ways because previous campaigns have been effective.) Most of Compass Rose’s business is working with municipalities whose citizens support the renovation of their old, inefficient buildings. “The building that was built 110 years ago needs some serious improvements,” says Malwitz. Meanwhile, 10 percent of their business is private clients who want a top-grade energy efficient home, which reduces one’s environmental footprint, but because of rising energy costs. “They’re not asking for it just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it saves a ton of money,” Malwitz says.

Some of this shift also has to do with the current gridlock in U.S. politics. When Mark Tercek, president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy, sat down with Ensia.com in April, he said, “I think business is more nimble [than government]. And certainly for me, it’s probably easier to persuade businesses to act fast now.”

Indeed, working with business is a priority for Tercek as leader of the largest conservation organization in the world. In his recent book Nature’s Fortune, the former Wall Street executive’s message to the world is that nature is more than just aesthetic and peaceful; it’s invaluable to our economy. And his message to businesses is to invest in nature not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s vital to their survival. He’s taken this message to industrial giants such as Dow Chemical and the mining company Rio Tinto.

Think of nature as natural capital and green infrastructure, he said in a speech to the City Club of Cleveland in April. It is not a luxury to be appreciated by those with disposable wealth, tended to once other necessities are met, but a basic need for humanity to thrive. More than just effective communication with businesspeople, Tercek sees this approach benefiting the environmental movement in general by broadening the constituency of those who identify as environmentalists, bringing in more dollars for conservation efforts, and “perhaps most important, talking about nature this way causes environmentalists to … have a better dialogue with society,” he said. “When we think about ‘natural capital’ or ‘green infrastructure,’ we begin to think collaboratively about solving problems on kind of a win-win basis.”

Specifically, TNC teamed up with Dow Chemical to address wastewater from a chemical manufacturing complex in Seadrift, Texas. Instead of building a wastewater treatment facility, the plant built a wetland. Contained water was ran through a set of three ponds. The water discharged from the wetland meets EPA requirements, required no “grey” infrastructure, and the completion of the project cost far less than a treatment plant would—as does its maintenance.

As a result of experiments like these (as well as addressing why a company would take the time and money to concern themselves about the environment), Mark Weick, Director, Sustainability Programs and Enterprise Risk Management at Dow says that “deploying natural infrastructure instead of, or in addition to, manmade infrastructure can deliver immediate and long-term value to the bottom line.”

So it isn’t just a case governments being difficult to work with but businesses realizing the benefit of investing in environment solutions and environmental health. That means a competitive advantage. Weick added, “We are convinced that companies who don’t get ahead of the curve on understanding how their operations benefit from and impact nature will fall behind the curve in competitiveness”.

The Nature Conservancy also takes their message abroad. When Quito, Ecuador, was facing their own clean water concerns and planning to purchase a plant and equipment to address the problem, Tercek said TNC made an “economic proposal, not an environmental proposal” to invest in nature rather than a plant. They agreed, and TNC formulated and conducted a plan to work with upstream farmers, receiving backing from businesses benefitting from the strategy including a Quito brewery and the Coca-Cola franchiser in the region. Not just exemplifying how to use/benefit nature and involve businesses, this case reveals the tactic of working with developing countries in a way that benefits the environment by also helping the local population meet its needs.

“Nowhere was this shift better illustrated than at Rio+20 where the theme revolved around creating an inclusive green economy,” says Curtis of Solar Mosaic. Developing countries are going to develop. So, in an effort to get in front of that development, many in the environmental movement are moving away from attempting to prevent industrial production toward efforts to replace it by helping to build green economies.

Curtis also emphasizes that understanding people’s motivations is a key force to environmental improvement. “Environmentalism [in the developed world] is different than in poor countries,” she says. “For us, it’s about using less resources; for them it’s about efficiency with limited resources.” While in the U.S., Curtis cites the motivation for work in a down economy. A growing green sector means more jobs in a time when many are unemployed or under employed and, according to Curtis, is also a great way to get people involved in environmental issues who would not otherwise be interested.

In all, these new tactics denote an environmentalism that influences via a participation in business, using markets and realizing the inevitability of development to see that it is done right. Their approach takes a more intimate look at human priorities, human habitats and human economies. And it is through these means that they believe they can achieve the future environmentalists have wanted all along.

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