AXIS Performance Advisors

Demystifying sustainability

Is America Ready to Change?

Copyright 2008 AXIS Performance Advisors

Is America finally ready to change?

Reflections on the summer of 2008

By Darcy Hitchcock

Courtesy scottchan,

Courtesy scottchan,

I’ve been reflecting on some of the developments this summer and they make we wonder if America is more ready for sustainability than I give our society credit for. Let me share with you a couple examples.

What’s up with WALL-E?

Did you see the Pixar animated movie WALL-E? At least until the latest Batman came out, it was a favorite at the box office. In the movie, the only two things still moving on earth are a cockroach and a solar-powered robot, WALL-E, who constructs skyscraper-size piles out of compressed trash. Earth is a gray, barren wasteland. A small contingent of humans got sent off to a space station where they have become blubbery from lack of exercise, constantly bombarded with ads for sticky soft drinks. In past Pixar movies like Finding Nemo (about barrier reefs and the tropical fish market) or DreamWorks flicks like Over the Hedge (about suburbia and sprawl), the message was swaddled in a compelling storyline; at least the characters were cute and/or furry. This is stark and in-your-face. What stunned me the most was not that someone would make a movie like this. It’s that people would flock to it! Some repeatedly. The audience even applauded at the end of the film, something I’ve rarely witnessed since the 1950’s. I can’t believe I’ve worried about sounding too dark sometimes!

Reaction to high gas prices

In the past, when gas prices have risen quickly, the uproar was about when they’d come back down and whose fault it was (big oil, of course) that they had gone up. But this time, while there was some of that, there’s a new recognition that oil prices are likely to stay high, that we’ve passed a threshold. General Motors publicly used the term peak oil. It’s as if Americans knew all along that they were living high on the hog, having a blow-out party, but recognized that the hangover was soon to come. And now that it’s here, people are dumping their SUVs even when it doesn’t make rational, economic sense. (SUV values have plummeted so much, trading one in for a Prius isn’t likely to save you money during the life of the car.) Apparently, few people now want to be seen driving one, and public transit ridership has exploded.

Free marketers take a beating

Suddenly, those who have most loudly advocated for letting the markets handle things haven’t been so willing to let that happen, at least not with firms with two names: Bear Sterns, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac. That is, of course, unless the first name is Lehman and the last name is Bros. And long-time advocate of globalization, New York Times foreign correspondent Thomas Friedman has just come out with a new book called Hot, Flat and Crowded. I saw him on Charlie Rose recently where he was practically screaming about the need for the US to lead the Energy Technology (ET) Revolution like we led the Information Technology (IT) Revolution. He sees this as being the next big worldwide opportunity and countries that ‘get’ that are going to do better and their populations will be better off. He admitted that up until recently, he hadn’t thought much about global warming but that after September 11, he started to give more thought to energy policy, how we were funding both sides of the war on terrorism by funding the military and buying gasoline at the same time. He’s had an epiphany that climate change, petro-states, population growth and consumption patterns are on a collision course. He wants governments to put in place strong incentives to promote renewable energy, to shape the market. He and others are starting to connect the dots. What we’re learning is not that markets work; it’s that prices work. Even Business Week in their recent article, “The Real Question: Should Oil Be Cheap?” advocated creating a floor for oil prices and using taxes to keep prices above $90 a barrel.

Beyond the bombastic election rhetoric

Sure, the Democratic and Republican Conventions took potshots at one another. That’s their role. But if you edited out the sniping and just looked at the platforms, there is remarkable similarity. Both parties want a decent energy bill. Both want healthcare and better education. Both talk about repairing our standing in the world and to improve governance. And both candidates are on the record wanting a cap-and-trade system to address climate change. These cover economic, social/governance, and environmental issues, the triple bottom line. Sure, there are substantive differences about how they see addressing these (like drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—trust me, it’s neither flat nor a wasteland; I’ve been there). But many of these fundamental concerns are shared by people on both sides of the aisle as well as the middle, the Independents, who will likely determine the election.

Wayne Rifer, one of the founders of the Green Electronics Council, likes to say that America is like an adolescent: we want everything now; we don’t take full responsibility for our actions; and we underestimate the risks associated with our behavior. That does sound like America in the past. But I take all these developments this summer as hopeful signs that we’re finally ready to grow up as a society, to take full responsibility for our actions and impacts. Or at least more ready. That’s good news for the world.


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Instructor: Bob Willard, author of The Sustainability Advantage and a founding member of ISSP

November 2008. Webinars will be held on Mondays in November. Other assignments can be done at your convenience during the week. To register or for more info:

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