When government goes dark, who can we turn to for light?

Washington capital building at night
CC BY-SA 2.0 fortherock

In the wake of the shutdown of the US government, one thing has become very clear -- there is no amount of consensus building that can prepare us as a civil society to deal with global climate change and resource limitations. It is not only Washington D.C. that is missing in action: as the clock continues to tick, international agreement on fighting climate change looks about as likely as consensus in Congress. We need to look elsewhere for leadership.

I think this as I sit here at the Global Green Growth Forum, or 3GF, where a small group of leaders are meeting to envision the future. The question on my mind: can people like this make the difference this world so much needs to see?

The Prime Minister of Denmark sets the bar here: we need “real and tangible solutions,” she emphasizes. Her entreaty perks the ears of 200 invitees representing governments, recognized industry leaders in sustainability, and various organizations working towards the same end. The picture in Denmark differs from that in the US: here the government has committed the nation to be fossil fuel free by 2050 (and progress to date suggests they are serious about it). The attendees of this conference -- with a strong emphasis on Danish business partners from China, Kenya, Mexico, Qatar and the Republic of Korea – are the future of growth in Denmark, the consumers of the green technology of which Denmark is a leading exporter.

This microcosm represents how the sustainable future could look: businesses

  • follow the CEO of Unilever to eliminate quarterly profits reports;
  • take to heart the advice of Hannah Jones, VP of Nike, to “position sustainability as an innovation imperative”;
  • commit to follow the credo expressed by Prasad R. Menon of the Indian industrial giant Tata: “What we take from the people must be returned to the people many times over.”

But the shadow of reality haunts each of these optimistic proclamations. Several business leaders note the necessity of stable government policy, so that businesses can scale up investments based on predictable projections. An even more disillusioning meme: optimism that consumers would lead change has dimmed in the face of the reality of complacent consumerism. Which makes the penetrating observation offered by Hailemariam Desalegn, Prime Minister of Ethiopia all the more poignant:

stable government policy can result only when the policy reflects the “vision of the people”.

In short: business cannot lead us out of this mess without stable government policy, and government cannot establish stable policy without the leadership of the people. If that thought dampens your hope that there is a way out of this mess, take heart. Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, invokes the “Rule of 30”: get the right 30 people or organizations together and they will lead the way. If these leaders can inspire a following, then a “vision of the people” may converge on solutions that work.

We will put the solutions being proposed here at 3GF up for your review in a series of articles this week so you can see if there is a lead here that you can follow. After all, to paraphrase Eldridge Cleaver, if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

Tags: Copenhagen | Corporate Responsibility | Developing Nations