Copenhagen: Empty Gestures or Real Action?

Walking Uphill

The UN Copenhagen Conference to negotiate a new global environment treaty begins today. And my mind wonders north and east across the entirety of the Atlantic Ocean. I imagine these political types gathering, making great statements and pronouncing real hope. However, as CNN reported this weekend, the gathering is unlikely to yield a new world pact.

While every person in attendance at Copenhagen will surely admit the severe nature of the environmental crisis, few will be empowered to act. That includes Obama. Politically speaking, economic prosperity and “defense” still outweigh eco-initiatives in most every country. Individually, we have not brought enough pressure to bear on our governments to cause movement.

I recently saw Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh speak about Copenhagen, and he had an interesting perspective. From the politician’s point of view, it would take great courage to take strong measures. It would mean acting against the general will of the people. For while we are aware of the problem, people don’t want to stop consuming. In the U.S.A. we consume well beyond our needs, while throughout the world in developing countries like India, Brazil and China, people strive to match our consumption.

The environmental problem remains second to our individual welfare. Instead, economic prosperity and national defense – protecting our well being – comes first. The environment is a weak cousin we choose to pay attention to when its convenient for us.

We have not awaken to the terrible impact our consumption is having on the world. With 6.8 billion people consuming as Americans do, we need five earths to match our current consumption… Imagine how much we will need in 30 years when there are 9.2 billion of us?

Yet, these things need not be disparate. Imagine if we invested more in green technologies and transitioned to sustainable, renewable energy sources. Just ¼ of our defense monies reallocated in this fashion would make a huge impact on carbon emissions. In the U.S. consider all of the actions we are currently engaged in… What would make a better contribution to world peace, sustained action in Iraq or investment in next generation renewable energy technologies?

What if we reviewed our Western eating habits and moved towards more mindful consumption of our land resources, reducing carbon producing industrial poultry and beef centers and ate more vegetarian? I’m not suggesting abstinence, just moderation. Do we really need to eat meat at every meal?

Yes, to act in such a fashion at Copenhagen would be courageous. Perhaps, its simply too much to hope for… At least until we as individuals across the globe wake up to the severity of this issue and start making changes within our own lives.

Today, I am leaving Buenos Aires for El Calafate in Patagonia. There I will begin a two-week ecotour. Every time I am out in nature, I see beautiful things that just astound me. And increasingly, I see the signs of climate change on our most precious resources making the trips somewhat bittersweet.

When I return, the Copenhagen conference will have ended. I will be curious to see how things turned out, and what lies next for the environmental movement. I will never be a George Washington Hayduke, preferring nonviolent action and pressures. May the politicians negotiating our environmental future have the courage and the heart to act before we realize how much general public and personal apathy has hurt our collective future.

350 – Combatting the Climate Change Crisis

350, the number of parts per million, the level scientists have identified as the safe upper limit for CO2 in our atmosphere. It’s also the name of an open-sourced campaign to create an international day of climate action on October 24. The goals are simple:

  • Lifting public awareness on the need for an international climate treaty to reach 350
  • Assembling a coalition of hundreds of organizations committed to this vision of a more sustainable world
  • Connecting people within their local community and across the planet who are building this movement
  • Providing on-line resources and tools that make pulling together an event easy
  • Linking hundreds of actions at iconic places around the world
  • Leveraging the day of action for meaningful political change
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The campaign has already organized more than 2000 events, and has won the attention of climate-action heavy weights like Al Gore. As we move through Blog Action Day this week and into next week’s Day of Action, the group and its movement is sure to pick up more steam.

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What strikes me about 350 is not its political tone, rather its motive of raising interest and connectivity amongst climate-change minded individuals throughout local towns, regions and globally. If there’s one thing I’ve learned working with environmental organizations over the past year, the greatest battle is not the politicians, rather the everyday citizen and his/her apathy towards climate change.

More about the topic on Blog Action Day this Thursday, but in the interim it’s outstanding to see 350’s work. If you don’t have plans yet for October 24 find or create an event in your area.

Social Cause Innovation Needed… And Inevitable

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Since when did Americans discourage starting new enterprises (image by hoyasmeg)? But sure enough, I found myself reading a great conversation sparked by Kristin Ivie’s Social Citizens post encouraging nonprofit entrepreneurs to pursue different paths and work — even merge — with existing charities. At the heart of the issue is an overcrowded cause marketplace with many already existing charities PLUS the fact that many entrepreneurs don’t effectively administer Change programs.

Yet, if we shut down entrepreneurial approaches we would be denied Steve Case’s American Giving Challenge, Lance Armstrong’s Foundation, and Scott Harrison’s Charity Water. Who wants to deny the effectiveness of these efforts?

An Overcrowded Marketplace

Let’s parse the issue into two parts. First the overcrowded marketplace needs to be addressed. Overcrowded markets are always ripe for fresh approaches, for or non profit. Bigger organizations lose the fresh innovative approaches to their mission that made them exciting and new. As they become staid in their ways, bureaucracy takes hold. In actuality, small organizations drive innovation.

I have many friends in large nonprofits who complain about processes and the inability to actually do effective work. While big nonprofits can achieve things smaller ones cannot, they often fail to move quickly enough and meet major market shifts.. like social media. That’s why the suggestion to channel and consolidate charitable efforts into larger nonprofits struck me as a disaster in waiting.

If we become placated with the status quo, innovation becomes stymied. In the cancer market, we would only have the American Cancer Society’s point of view. Instead we have an exciting LiveStrong and Alex’s Lemonade Stand fighting children’s cancer in new innovative ways.

In the for profit market, we saw the same thing with telecom. The government had to break up AT&T’s monopoly in the 80s to foster innovation. That occurred with the rise of MCI and Sprint, and then wireless networks. Now wireless is surpassing landline telecom as the primary method of access.

Innovative approaches force all markets to change and adapt, becoming stronger and more effective. Just because we are talking about causes does not mean we should abandon innovative new organizations! On the contrary, we should encourage them. They make for better results, and forces larger charities to stay nimble. Consider what 350 is doing right now for climate change!

Still, Kristen’s point that a lot of entrepreneurs start nonprofits that fail or are inept is accurate. And that means dollars are going to waste. How do we prevent the crazy entrepreneur from going off the rails with an ineffective effort?

Encouraging Smart Innovation

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As an entrepreneur, I can tell you one thing (image: The Green+WIRED smart home is built on innovative new approaches to energy conservation). You can’t stop us from starting. It’s an inevitable part of our chemistry; it’s in the blood. I just wrapped up my first start-up as an owner, but keep in mind it was my fifth start-up experience!

Entrepreneurs look at things, see how they can be improved, tear down models, and rebuild them. So when we’ve experienced enormous successes in the for-profit world and then turn our eyes to higher causes, it’s only natural to think the same approach will work.

Granted there is ego at play, but are you going to tell someone who successfully sold a business or took a company public, that they can’t win again in a different sector? Good luck with that one!

The failure for entrepreneurs is in mission. For profit enterprises are not social causes. Changing society is different than selling product!

Discouraging new approaches and organizations is not the right way to handle this. Because in reality telling the entrepreneur not to start will only goad us into doing it even faster. Sorry, folks, it’s the nature of the beast. Further, the innovation, the new approaches that entrepreneurs can bring to bear in the industry should be harnessed!

Instead, embrace innovation, but know the problem. The problem lies in education, and as an industry we need to focus on educating new entrants on how to successful administer social change. In that sense, Kristin’s colleague Eric Johnson had it right. Let’s coach the new cause entrant and make for an even stronger industry. Organizations like Ashoka are already starting this process of social entrepreneurship.

Smart innovation through education means a much more robust cause market. We all want a better world. Whether we choose to align ourselves with a larger enterprise or start anew, let’s keep the end goal in mind and give everyone the latitude and encouragement they need to succeed.