I wrote this article for the Huffington Post. You can read it in its original context here.
The Old Mantra
For a long time one of the defining mantras of the environmental movement has been “Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.” It’s the kind of simple message that is easy to remember and makes for fantastic bumper sticker reading, yet it’s also a message that utterly fails to inspire. The problem with the “Three R’s” of environmentalism is that they are representative of flawed thinking: 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’t begin to scratch the surface of global climate, energy, poverty, water, and health issues.
A New Mantra
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. We simply won’t “Reduce. Reuse. and Recycle” our way to Utopia. The scale of global problems requires a message that invites big thinking and reaches all segments of society. So I propose a new mantra, not just for environmentalists, but for all those working toward the common good. It is a mantra that just so happens to still be simple and concise enough to fit on a bumper sticker: Invent. Invest. Implement.
Why the Three R’s Have Failed
Despites decades of pleas for consumer self-abnegation from environmentalists and others, consumption rates in America and around the world have been consistently on the rise. 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.
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.
All these new ideas and products will need lots of money to be effectively and quickly brought to market. Meeting Al Gore’s challenge of 100% renewable energy within a decade, for instance, will involve a massive investment in transmission lines, as well as in all the wind turbines, solar panels and biomass plants that will generate clean, free, American-made electricity.
Enabling investors to earn a healthy return by putting their money into projects that are healthy to society is the only way of achieving sustainable and just economic growth. At present, it is hard to find so-called socially responsible investments that are truly responsible and provide strong returns. In part, that is because so much money is being made in an exploitative manner. There is no reason, however, why investors cannot be both greedy and ethical; we must simply make ethical enterprise far more profitable than unethical enterprise through policies such as a carbon tax.
We will not see a renewable, ethical economy unless large numbers of people become involved in its creation. Fortunately, hundreds of thousands of new jobs will allow people from all walks of life to put their hands and minds to work towards realizing this goal.
A Contrast in Messages
Whereas the Three R’s ask consumers to voluntarily change their behavior through guilt, the Three I’s provide a strong financial incentive for actions that are good for the individual and good for society. The Three R’s say “human activity is harmful and should be restricted whenever possible. Thus, strive to be less bad.” In contrast, the Three I’s say “human ingenuity and goodness can prevail over injustice and ignorance. You can make money and make the world a better place.”
Which message do you prefer?
More on the Environmental Movement
A New Ethics of Consumption
Environmentalism is NOT a Religion
New Wave Environmentalism Focuses on Issues Beyond Eco-Tips
The Resurrection of Environmentalism
Quote of the Day: Paul Hawken on the Environmental Movement
Bringing Environmentalism Back Home
‘Environmentalism: Biggest Threat to Freedom’
Jerome Ringo: A New Face for Environmentalism?