A New Mantra
For a long time now one of the defining mantras of the environmental movement has been “Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.” It’s the kind of simple message–wrapped in alliteration–that makes for fantastic bumper sticker reading. Unfortunately, it’s also the kind of message that utterly fails to inspire anything other than guilt and limitations, a fact clearly demonstrated by unabashedly rising rates of consumption in the U.S. and around the world despite decades of pleas for consumer self-abnegation. And regardless of what one thinks of our American bumper sticker culture, the fact remains that the “Three R’s” of environmentalism are representative of a much broader message: that in order to reconcile humans with nature, humans must restrict themselves while engaging in several select token activities, such as recycling, changing light bulbs, or buying hybrid cars. Yet these activities are just that: token. They can not begin to scratch the surface of global climate, poverty, water, waste, toxic materials, health and deforestation issues.
All this is not to say that we should not do what we can in our personal lives to affect change; rather, it means that we need a new, inspiring message, one that presents global problems as opportunities, galvanizes people to action, and unleashes human potential and creativity. Oh, and it just so happens that the new message is simple, wrapped in alliteration, and fits on a bumper sticker too: Invent. Invest. Implement.
That the Three R’s have failed as a message is not surprising given how out of touch they are with the American narrative about entrepreneurship, creativity, the can-do spirit, and the self-made man or woman. That is to say, Americans view themselves as energetic drivers of change. They pride themselves on being able to take on a challenge, such as landing on the moon, and overcoming it. They believe that hard work and good ideas are all that one needs to be successful. And while they are willing to sacrifice in difficult times, as in the Second World War, they do not like to be told that they must restrict their creative talents and instincts.
The Three R’s might have worked in the India of Gandhi, but not in post-industrial America. Given that most Americans never experience global problems first-hand, it is hard to imagine them marching in the streets in protest the way they did during the civil-rights movement. But it is not hard to imagine them taking on a challenge that fits into the narrative they tell about themselves, especially if that challenge is tied to American competitiveness, security, pride and might.
Invent. To deal with global problems we must come up with new ideas, new products, new ways of doing business, new markets, new services and new technologies. Americans will invariably step up to the plate as they realize there is money to be made and good to be done.
Invest. In order for Americans to feel connected to often distant and complex global crises, they need to have a stake in the solutions being created to solving them. And in order for those solutions to be rolled out on a massive scale, they need capital and, hence, investors. Providing Americans with numerous choices for positive social investments means that they become increasingly tied to and interested in their success. An investor in wind energy, regardless of her motives, is rooting for the success of wind energy. Many balk at the notion that one should make money while doing good, but it is far easier to guide natural human instincts than to eradicate or change them entirely.
A socially aware investment, unlike a donation, is a win-win for everyone involved. And something that makes money is much more likely to be replicated than something that relies largely on altruism, and is therefore well suited to tackling large-scale problems quickly. And while it is true that one can just as easily invest in nuclear power or clean coal as in wind, it must be remembered that these investments are part of a larger narrative that speaks to solving global problems, and not simply making money. The question is how to make money in a manner that is in line with the broader goal. Not everyone will care to answer that question, but the challenge is to create a message inspiring enough that people will feel compelled to seek uncommon greatness, an aspiration that is part and parcel of the American character.
Implement. Private enterprise alone is insufficient to tackle so many varied and serious issues. Governments must provide incentives for, and assistance to, the implementation of new ideas and technologies so that they are put into place as quickly and effectively as possible. This is also where individuals can most directly feel like they are taking part in a movement, be it by purchasing solar panels, low-flow toilets, fair-trade products or the most fuel-efficient vehicles. But most importantly, implementation is where the kind of jobs that bring lower class American on board the green economy can be created.
As Thomas Friedman and others have pointed out, the green economy will create hundreds of thousands of new jobs that cannot be outsourced: solar installation, windmill maintenance, energy auditors, etc. The green economy will also create numerous high-paying jobs designing, marketing and distributing new products and services. For many, the “Three I’s” are insufficient. They will ask how it is possible to accommodate nine billion people on the planet, and how to do so in the context of rising affluence, consumption and carbon emissions. But given that population levels are projected to level out at nine billion, and given that rising affluence almost invariably means a rising standard of living, it is both unimaginative and unjust to ask that developing countries reign in their growth.
If we say that the earth cannot support nine billion people, then does that mean that the next 2.5 billion people are worthless, anomalies, or simply that their existence is a burden? And if rising affluence means greater opportunity and freedom for hundreds of millions of people, then should our message be that the poor should not get richer because that invariably that means they will consume and pollute more? Or can we look at these trends as positive opportunities? After all, nine billion people on earth means that much more unique human creativity, passion and ideas. Indeed, Mao Tse Tung used to say “one mouth, two hands.” In other words, everyone has the capacity to do work and create. And if bringing people out of poverty means that their rates of consumption and carbon emissions go up, then why not delink affluence from emissions, rather than ask that people remain poor?
It is fundamentally unimaginative to say that we cannot supply nine billion people with enough food, water, security, opportunity and materials goods to enable them to both survive and thrive. It is in this context that I propose the Three I’s. In my view, they provide an inspirational framework for creating a just, equitable, prosperous, clean, healthy and beautiful world for nine billion human beings and the myriad flora and fauna on our planet. Someone is going to step up and recognize that burying our heads in the sand and restricting ourselves will not solve anything. Whoever can do so in the most efficient and innovative manner will have a competitive edge going into the future. Why not ensure that America lives up to its promise of being a land of greatness, of hope, of opportunity, of freedom?