Our Huge Opportunity

Last week’s midterm elections held less interest for me than probably any in my adult life. It’s not that they weren’t important in determining the fate of our democracy (which survived) and rights of self-determination, or seemingly urgent issues like inflation, crime, immigration, etc., it’s that none of that matters if we don’t deal with the much larger issue of climate change. Inflation is transient, climate change is existential. This may surprise readers who know me well, but rather than watch election night returns I attended a literary event. The abstract beauty of poetic verse proved much more appealing than pundit pontifications and surrogate spin masters, both of whom act like they know something under their carefully sculpted hair while actually knowing nothing (except of course the bald and wise James Carville). Meanwhile, as American politicians were slinging their dung at each other like bored orangutans, the United Nations Climate Conference (COP27) leaders were warning all of us that, as secretary general of the United Nations Antonio Guterres stated, “we are in the fight of our lives and we are losing.”

As a corporate strategist, I was trained to identify what are rather blandly referred to as “key result areas.” Those are the issues that if successfully addressed also knock out the highest number of secondary and tertiary issues. For America and the world, today’s key result area is climate change. Its effects are broad and deep. The economy, our physical and mental health, immigration, national security and, of course, the environment and everything in it—our entire future—depend on addressing climate change. It is a daunting problem, but also the biggest opportunity the world has faced in decades, if not centuries. As a mostly-retired leadership entrepreneur, I believe this represents the biggest leadership opportunity since FDR joined Churchill and Stalin to crush fascism in the 1940s. Seeing threats as opportunities is, after all, the secret sauce of entrepreneurism. In my view, climate change is America’s opportunity to lead the world again and to restore its pre-War on Terror legitimacy and power. As is often the case, the opportunity is as big as the problem. And yet, our political leaders dither about plucking lint from their navels worried more about their Twitter metrics than the future of humankind. They think carpe diem is an exotic appetizer served in the salons of big-dollar donors.

Earth Day is also my birthday, which has given me a little nudge in favor of Mother Nature who has, after all, been my loyal co-celebrant since the day I became a teenager in 1970. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest also played a role in my environmental sensibilities since nature tends to be a little more in-your-face when it envelops you and your home whether you like it or not. Where I grew up, there were no sight lines that weren’t interrupted by a grand Douglas Fir with boughs swaying as if constantly waving at you. Openings only occurred when one of these giants fell in high wind, but these events inevitably downed power lines plunging everything into darkness—a black tar pitch of darkness such that you could neither see the trees nor the hand in front of your face.

Now, I live in the Colorado Rockies where my home is only five miles from town but is situated such that I cannot see another manmade structure. Just trees, majestic mountains, and plenty of wildlife. If I were accused of liking nature better than people, there would be little evidence to spare me from a guilty verdict. But I would accept the sentence and its consequences. Just don’t separate me from nature. Recently, I have (finally) realized, it is this notion of separation that has been bothering me for years as I tried to reckon with the environmentalism movement and, more generally, the challenges of climate change. It also may point to a viable approach—a framing—to address climate change.

I have always stiffened slightly at the orthodoxy of environmentalism. Given my appreciation of nature, it bothered me that I was unable to embrace its orthodoxy: nature is good, humans are bad, and humans must pay for the threat they pose to nature. As a kid, I loved Jacques Cousteau shows, but Greenpeace, not so much. Silent Spring was required reading in junior high school, but its alarm bells felt more like condemnation than a path to reconciliation between people and nature. I recognize now that part of my reluctance to join the environmental crowd was based in that underlying sense of judgment and condemnation which, I suspect, emanated from my innate distrust of the pantheon of condemnation: organized religion. Both environmentalism and religion employ the blame ‘n shame game, which seldom if ever produces better behaviors. I reject the corruption of Jesus and Moses and Buddha and Muhammed as well as Nature to affect manipulation, oppression, and building walls between people, their gods, and nature. Both conventional environmentalism and organized religion just seem divisive and discordant.

I now recognize that separating people from their spirituality and/or from nature is perhaps the biggest problem facing humanity today. This fit of human hubris—of separatism—has made it impossible to address everything from mental health issues to climate change. Seeing ourselves as separate from each other and from nature is the biggest threat to humanity today. Rejecting interdependencies has left us on a collision course with self-destruction. This condition is more pronounced in the Western World than the East largely (and ironically) due to the success of the West in intervening in the relationship between nature and humans as we stubbornly pursue the subjugation of anything and everything that gets between us and our desires. The non-dual philosophy of many eastern spiritual leaders—of the belief we are one with each other, nature, and the world—has historically given those cultures a slight advantage. But, globalization and the pursuit of economic development and power has unfortunately largely eliminated this advantage of the East as well.

This dangerous notion of human exceptionalism—as seeing ourselves as separate from nature—was developed then entrenched in our psyche innocently enough. As the predominant species on the planet, we felt both entitled in our specialness and determined to maintain our dominance by any means possible. Science and technology gave us the means to overcome the vast majority of factors and events that sought to keep us closer to a sense of natural humility where nature might be granted parity with humanity. As biologist, Rob Dunn, illustrates in his excellent book, A Natural History of the Future, “We speak of ourselves as if we were no longer animals, as if we were a species alone, disconnected from the rest of life and subject to different rules. This is a mistake. We are both part of and intimately dependent on nature.” This modality of seeking to perpetuate dominance through subjugation has been seen everywhere that hierarchies exist throughout human history from Darwin’s observations of natural selection to the behaviors of countries, corporations, and schoolyard bullies. It is simply the reality of competition and its sorting capacities that cultivate hierarchies and order. These effects seemed benign at worst and, in the history of humankind to-date, regarded as clear and persuasive evidence of human progress. Until, of course, climate change—a human-driven phenomenon—sought to wake us up to the error of our separatist ways.

We are One (with each other and nature) is antithetical to the historical processes of human progress. I readily admit and embrace the concept that competition is, and has been, a critical element in the progress of humankind. Capitalism thrives as the principal driver of the creation of wealth in the world because of its embrace of competition. And, its opposing variants of socialism, communism, and even authoritarianism have proved no match to subvert its dominance. In the long history of human presence on the planet, winning has been much preferred to losing. The zero-sum mentality that holds that for every winner there is a loser is supported by mountains of historical evidence—particularly when scarcity is the ubiquitous reality. The problem is we are now faced with a dynamic in climate change that absolutely requires both sacrifice and cooperation; giving up behaviors and processes that have produced enormous progress while joining hands as opposed to shaking fists. This challenge requires a monumental shift in deeply entrenched attitudes and behaviors.

Because of where I live, and the opportunity it presents to observe closely the effects of climate change, I have a distinct advantage in seeing the ramifications of this chasm between humans and nature that arguably served us well historically, but has flipped to become the foundation of our potential demise. Frankly, even though I have been perhaps a closer observer of nature than many folks throughout my life, I never expected to see the dramatic changes I have witnessed since making my home in the Rockies. It is simply astounding to observe the year-to-year changes in snowpack—the lifeblood of essentially every plant and animal—that lives anywhere south and west of me, including tens of millions of people in Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and Southern California. In winter, I watch our snowpack decline in annual accumulation. In spring, I watch it evaporate into thin air—creating a barely visible white mist—before it ever runs down the mountain. I see lower elevation soils suck it up before it ever reaches reservoirs and the Colorado River; well before it ever reaches a spigot southwest of me. If you live in any of these areas, you should be equally, if not more, alarmed. Just because there is water coming out of your tap today provides no assurance it will flow tomorrow.

Unfortunately, the entrenched incentives of competition and our preference for growth means that residential and industrial developers and the elected officials who run our governments have no incentive to support the urgent level of sacrifice and cooperation required to save us. On the contrary, there are huge financial motivators—in bigger profits and more property taxes—to protect the status quo of supporting human exceptionalism. Just take a read of all the recent articles illustrating the battles over dwindling water allotments from the Colorado River and the emerging toxicity of the Great Salt Lake to get a sense of the scale of this problem. Then, realize that these same issues exist all over our planet.

In my September 18, 2022 essay, “Picking Winners,” I illustrated the elements of success—resources, intelligence and willpower—arguing that as long as you had two of three and one was willpower you would prevail. Americans have proven over and over that we can accomplish the impossible. On Christmas Day, 1776, when George Washington crossed the Delaware River with a rag-tag bunch of undisciplined, untrained, and terribly under-armed troops, no one in their right mind gave the idea of a United States a chance. But here we are. On June 6, 1944, Eisenhower launched an invasion at Normandy against some of the longest odds in military history. It proved to be the tipping point in ending Hitler, Mussolini and, subsequently, Hirohito’s fascist aims of world domination. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong took that seemingly impossible “giant leap for mankind” as he set foot on the moon. On December 26, 1991, something I thought I would never see in my lifetime actually happened: the collapse of the Soviet Union. These events had many things in common, but chief among them was they were each considered impossible. And, in each, they happened (in part or in whole) because of American willpower. We believed in ourselves. We summoned relentless determination. We proved to ourselves and the world that the impossible was, indeed, possible. I recognize that if you are under about forty years of age you have no direct memory of these accomplishments, but trust your elders (at least) this much: we have and we can accomplish great things.

The stark reality of climate change is that the destiny of humankind lies in the solidity of our relationship with each other and nature. We must find a pathway to reconciliation—to closing the gap by and between ourselves and nature. Indeed, beyond ourselves is where we need to be. We need to check our egos at the door and get to work. Science and technology have served us well, but bridging this gap is not about being smarter human beings, it is about being better human beings. We must consider our destiny as intertwined. We must engage in what I call coopetition: competing to cooperate. We need to set aside our preference for blame ‘n shame for a more enlightened sense of goodwill and benevolence. It is about respecting each other and having reverence for nature to affect our salvation. Respect, reverence, and then (hopefully) salvation. Inspired leaders please raise your hands.

“Save the Planet” is a wrongheaded slogan. This is about saving ourselves and the Anthropocene Epoch we have defined. As we all suffer extreme rancor in America today, the idea of coming together seems impossible. But, is it? Really? Might it actually be possible? I hold little hope that our national leaders will seize the opportunity, and this week even COP27 participants slid from blame ‘n shame rhetoric to schemes of extortion. When the largest group of delegates belong to fossil fuel interests—both nations and companies—it is hard to imagine it will produce positive change. As is often the case, it will be up to the private sector of corporations, non-profits, and inspired entrepreneurs to save us from our politicians and ourselves.

Healthy living—of mind, body, and spirit—requires a healthy environment. The stakes are high, but so is the payoff. Put plainly, failure is not an option.