In a way, modern environmentalism, which is pragmatic, businesslike, collaborative, and climate-focused, has been hamstrung by historical environmentalism, which was often shrill, exclusionary, irrational, and microfocused. Being mis-characterized as a tree-hugger is something that makes my job, and the jobs of others in my field, much more challenging than it would be otherwise. In 1997 I attended the first American intensive training in the "Natural Step" in Santa Fe. The Natural Step is a Swedish approach to sustainability. The meeting was filled with hard-core businesspeople, scientists, and some equally hard-core "environmentalists." At the end, one woman stood up and said, "I cry for the earth every day" and broke down in tears. It was horrifying to me. Get this woman out of this room and out of the environmental movement, I thought. If she got out in the world, she was going to make my job all that much harder because people would think all enviros were wackos like her. And clearly, to this day, many do.
Many smart and successful businesspeople have been turned off by the historical environmental movement. A good example is T. J. Rodgers, the president and CEO of Silicon Valley chip-maker Cypress Semiconductor Corporation and chairman of SunPower, one of the leading manufacturers of solar panels in the United States. Rodgers told Fortune magazine that "the group that is most vehement about global warming represents to me some of the worst people in the world. I dislike them so much it's difficult to listen to what they have to say objectively."1 And yet this response is coming from a man who is doing more to develop renewables and energy efficiency technology than most people. He calls most environmentalists "coercive utopians" who want to force companies and individuals to do what they think is right for the earth.2
Rodgers argues that "environmentalism should be a science in which the collection of data and analysis of it dominates decision making. At this time, especially in government and university circles, I see environmentalism literally as a secular religion in which a set of beliefs that are not required to be supported by fact are used to tout the intellectual and moral superiority of a cult. . . . The ultimate state of enlightenment of members of the Church of the Holy Environment is to internalize that humans are evil and bad and that they only pollute and destroy things that are good, namely the environment. 3
Ouch. Talk about a hangover from the seventies! In fact, the old environmental movement was very much as Rodgers describes it, and it's still alive and well in many circles. On a plane recently, a grandma from Ohio who was sitting next to me asked what I did. When I told her, she said: "Oh, you're an environmentalist."
Thinking of the woman in tears hurting for the earth every day, I said, "Ah, no, uh . . . not really . . . I mean, not in the sense you mean, not with all the baggage that comes with the term." The grandma had flashed on exactly what the manager did: righteous, unwashed, and unshaven street protesters calling for a ban on business and radical cuts in the quality of your life, maybe even depopulation. I told the Ohio grandma that I really thought of myself as a businessman, nothing more. And yet, even in my business, people think of me as the environmental stereotype: the bearded old man living in the forest, the naturalist, the radical. I get called "tree-hugger" every day.
After my presentation to senior management when I put the COO, John Norton, on a bike, a manager came up to me and said: "Tell me about mountain lions. . . . I want to learn about mountain lions at the next meeting." I was dumbfounded. He might as well have asked me about postImpressionist painting for all I knew about lions. But the perception of an environmental department's role was that it was established to educate management about things like mountain lions. If I wanted to succeed, I had to change that perception fast.
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Do we really want the one thing that gives us its resources unconditionally to suffer even more than it is suffering now? Nature, is a part of our being from the earliest human days. We respect Nature and it gives us its bounty, but in the recent past greedy money hungry corporations have made us all so destructive, so wasteful.