Lately, I’ve been enjoying several books about early American history. Most recently, I picked up Team of Rivals, which explores Abraham Lincoln’s presidency and leadership approach. This led me to think about the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are three unalienable rights promised by this country’s founders in the Declaration of Independence, and are at the heart of Lincoln’s famous speeches and policies. But why is that relevant to a sustainability advocate?
I believe the confluence of current events in the political, economic and environmental domains is creating a perfect storm that is shaking our faith in these values.
As our world becomes more interconnected through technology and economics, the actions of one nation impact the ability of people in other nations to pursue health, wealth and happiness.
It is time to consider a Declaration of Interdependence, and a coming together to solve these global challenges while we work to solve our nation’s own.
Life Comes from Nature
The founders of our country were, by and large, landowners and self-made men. They were grounded in social communities that lived off nature’s bounty. Nature was an integral part of industry, and everything was tangibly connected.
In this light, the right to life can be interpreted to include the right to life’s abundances. Nature, in the then wild, great forest, was an inalienable right of the citizenry. If that was true then, why wouldn’t it be true today?
And if it is true today with a population that is over 100 times larger than in 1776, wouldn’t it be logical that our natural resources would need more protection than ever before?
What happens when nature suddenly stops providing a bounty of water, the source of all life, causing severe droughts in California? Or, when rising ocean temperatures drive commercial fishers in New England out of business as cod migrate to colder waters? Or when industrial pollution causes brownfields that cause sickness and suffering for unlucky neighbors?
The founding fathers were wary of centralized power, which was, after all, the source of their struggle. Yet they also realized that without a combined effort, a federation of state communities, there was no likely way to separate from England.
Thus it follows that centralized leadership of adaptation to climate change makes a lot of sense. Tornados and droughts and fires largely follow weather, topography and hydrology of our national geography, not state borders.
Adapting to a New Narrative
I recently heard Colonel Mark “Puck” Mykleby (Retired) speak at the Verge conference in San Francisco. In the whitepaper “A National Strategic Narrative” published by Wilson Center, the Colonel makes a compelling argument that the U.S. needs to adapt our strategic narrative to the 21st century.
As the world becomes more interconnected, Mykleby argues that the U.S. can no longer control events through dominance, deterrence and defense.
Global political and economic systems are too complex and interdependent (think the Middle East, or the Crimea politically, or the EU economically) to contain and control. There are simply too many external events disrupting these systems for one nation to ensure stability.
The authors further argue that while containment of threats was appropriate in the 20th century, we must shift the narrative to our own times, and re-orient on sustainment of our nation’s resources and abundance. This requires an internal focus on setting our house in order before we recommend what others should do. We need to walk our talk.
The Interdependence of Urban Communities
The idea of moving from containment to sustainment is an evolution of thinking we have seen before in the green building movement.
Early green building performance was concerned with site based energy and environmental performance: a kind of containment of the “bad.”
Now we have well buildings, living buildings, net zero buildings, eco-neighborhoods and 2030 districts – buildings and communities that are not just doing less harm, but actively creating good.
State and city governments are leading the way where the federal government has not – another benefit of our federalist system. Regional and local governments provide valuable experiments, and by people invested at the community scale.
For example, New York City is one of the first and few cities taking a long-term approach to accomplish green goals for future sustainable and economic impact.
PlaNYC sets goals for 2030 that prepare the city for climate change, a growing population, aging infrastructure, and an evolving economy with increasing inequality. Mayor Bill DeBlasio also recently embarked on a green building campaign, “One City, Built to Last: Transforming New York City’s Buildings for A Low-Carbon Future,” an unprecedented commitment to retrofitting the city’s buildings.
The trend nationally is toward more compact, urban communities and away from the suburban development. Empty nesters are moving back to the city into smaller, more efficient houses or apartments where they can age better in place near medical care and access to public transportation.
They recognize the value of interconnectedness, and of being part of a community that helps one another. And now, instead of two cars they need only one or none.
At the same time, Millennials are also choosing to live closer to urban cores, sacrificing space or sprawling yards for neighborhood amenities. They want to be where the action is, and value purpose and experience over the traditional markers of prosperity—the house, the car, the garage full of stuff. Sustainability is built into their DNA and their new definition of prosperity is also a sustainable one.
The Role of Business in an Interconnected World
By 2025 – only 10 years from now – 75% of the workforce will be Millennials. These purpose driven digital natives are literally wired for collaboration, another 21st phenomenon. Collaboration is the work style that will form the framework of how things get done in the future.
It requires employees to interact with more diverse people in the workplace to solve problems and set the direction of organizations. The very nature of this work style is based on sustainment of human relationships.
This group also cares deeply about social change. One study showed that in the prior year, 91% of Millennials had donated money, goods, or services. Another 70% had educated others about a cause or issue.
Millennials are a force behind companies behaving in more responsible ways. Corporate social responsibility isn’t simply a slogan anymore. It has infiltrated the corporate culture in profound ways.
Every Fortune 500 organization now has senior executive managing sustainability to reduce its energy footprint and adopting the core values of the three P’s: Planet, People and Prosperity.
Companies like Coca-Cola, Microsoft and Proctor & Gamble, among others, provide sustainability reporting yearly, which have evolved from simply environmental reports to include measures of both economic and social performance.
While the private sector may lag behind federal efforts to bring sustainability into the conversation, good business practices fundamentally reflect our American values of honesty, integrity and fairness, along with a growing emphasis on collaboration and interdependence.
What’s Next for Sustainability?
We need a national narrative as suggested by the Wilson Center whitepaper to guide us through this period of rapid and tumultuous change. Without a new game plan that focuses on long term sustained growth and prosperity, we are doomed to make the same mistakes, again and again.
Placing preservation of our natural resources higher in the priority list is coming. Nature’s intervention with increasingly catastrophic events has exposed us to the risks of relying on what used to work.
Yes, we enjoy nature’s bounty, but we must never take it for granted. Conservation International has produced several fantastic, moving videos in their Nature is Speaking series that remind us of how much we rely on Mother Nature for our very existence. How can we accelerate nature’s normal direction of abundance? The answer may lie in the renewed desire for city living, and living well.
The changing of the guard from analog to digital will continue to accelerate social engagement. Moore’s law suggests a doubling of computer capability every two years; all that computing power will accelerate how we interact with each other, globally. How quickly can we turn the tools of social media to solve the problems of our times?
And will collaboration be enough? Nature creates, and destroys, and creates in an endless cycle of renewal. Humans on the other hand, get comfortable and don’t like change. Where will our leaders come from, and how will they lead in the integrated, collaborative 21st century?
For Lincoln, it was inconceivable that the founding fathers statement of ‘all men are created equal’ excluded slaves. Lincoln believed that slaves were human beings before God, and within that simple equation he did not believe one man could morally have dominion over another.
While the Civil War effectively ended slavery, inequality still exists in our society. It took until 1920 and the enactment of the 19th Amendment for women to gain the right to vote. It wasn’t until 1964 that the Civil Rights Act was enacted forbidding discrimination against a wide class of people.
These long timeframes put into the perspective the ongoing and fractious debate about climate change. But we don’t have the luxury of time to debate this issue endlessly as we further pollute our waters and our atmosphere.
What we need is cities, states and nations agreeing to a Declaration of Interdependence in which we come together as a global society for the health and well being of our people and our planet.
Tom Paladino is CEO and Founder of Paladino and Company.