Truth in Labeling: Framing the Challenge to Get Results

by | Nov 8, 2011

It’s not earth shattering to say that the world isn’t “getting” climate change. A recent Nielsen report titled “Sustainable Efforts & Environmental Concerns Around the World” revealed that only 69% of global respondents said they were concerned about climate change/global warming — a number that’s actually gone down since 2007.That compares with a mere 48% of respondents in the US – where global warming or even the less charged term, climate change, are considered dirty words.

Grassroots movements, supported by cell phones, Facebook and Twitter, have rocked the Middle East, Europe, Africa and now the US, as the “99%” express their pent up worry and anger over an uncertain future and a world economy that is not producing enough jobs for all who want or need to work, and a governing class that is increasingly out of touch. Decades of outsourcing jobs to lower-wage and lower-regulation regions has emptied out opportunity for well-paying middle-class jobs in US and Europe. Those regions are now suffering from high levels of pollution, overuse of natural resources and worker mistreatment. Excessive debt at all levels (personal, corporate, governmental – from local to national) and speculation in housing and the stock markets has set the world economy reeling.

Our “me-first” capitalism has also extracted resources and created waste faster than biological systems can detoxify and reabsorb it, threatening biodiversity, soil vitality, the quality of water and air, and putting the climate out of balance. Scientists at NASA and UC Irvine now say that the hydrological cycle is speeding up due to climate change. This acceleration is manifest in unprecedented floods, drought, intense storms and fires. The challenges are daunting.

Because environmentalists have been afraid to confront the climate change doubters or discourage the undecided, many have taken the approach of encouraging energy efficiency, alternative energy and other measures based on their immediate economic benefits. After all, if you save money by being efficient and can make money by helping your customers be more efficient, who cares if it also might help reduce greenhouse gas emissions or reduce the impact of climate change? It is obviously the right thing for a smart business (or governmental agency) to do.

Well, the downside of framing sustainability measures solely in terms of immediate cost, is that one loses sight of the need for more profound systemic changes in the ways we extract resources, make goods and services, and handle the waste products of those activities. Redesigning infrastructure and economic relationships to foster cradle-to-cradle design, resource and product use and reuse, can lead to new ways to create wealth and to reduce environmental harm.

In addition, terms like “externalities” mask the fact that these are actually system-wide costs that are unaccounted for. That means that corporations and communities are not preparing for catastrophic losses that might occur if climate disruption affects them (think St. Louis airport roof ripping open; floods in US, Thailand, Japan, Australia and elsewhere; record-breaking wildfires, etc.). Putting the cost of environmental responsibility onto other regions or onto future generations ignores the fact that we are all on this small spaceship, Earth, together and there is truly no “away” to throw things. The coal that is burned in China contributes to the smog that is breathed in Los Angeles. The neurotoxins that are used to control insect pests harm the farm workers and those of us who eat contaminated food, drink contaminated water or breathe contaminated air.

If you were setting out for a hike, you would want to know if you were preparing for a stroll in the foothills, a hike in the Sierra Nevada range or an ascent up Mount Everest. Your regimen for planning, training, equipping and carrying out your expedition would be very different for each scenario. If we don’t face the root causes of the economic, social and environmental crises we face, we will fail to create solutions at the scale of the challenge. The terms we use to describe economic problems and the symptoms of social and environmental distress that result will help us find creative solutions that increase value, prosperity and well-being for humanity and for the natural systems upon which all life depends. Humanity is inventive and resourceful. We can rise to the challenge of the times if we understand it clearly and can discover what we need to change to succeed.

Marianna Grossman is executive director of Sustainable Silicon Valley. This is the first article in a two-part series.

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