Environmentalists must shed their nagging "serious treehugger" image and become "hip and sexy" if they are to gain the public and political support required to tackle climate change.
That was the central message from Californian Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's keynote speech at a global warming conference at Georgetown University yesterday, and while it is a bit bizarre to be taking advice on what is "hip and sexy" from a man who regards bodybuilding and posing pouches as attractive he may well have a point.
It is no coincidence that the environmental movement has got closer to the mainstream than ever before at a time when its PR strategy has finally got its act together and helped establish green issues as part of the zeitgeist. Old school environmentalists may sneer at the marketing machine in action, but the truth is that political and economic change is impossible without the marketeers' ability to mobilise public support. In many ways turning solar panels and other green products into desirable consumer items is just as important as making them more efficient and cost effective.
Encouragingly there is also plenty of evidence to suggest that environmentalists' reinvention as members of the in-crowd could be sustainable in the longer term. The green movement has always resonated with the young meaning it speaks to the demographic that ad men and women love more than any other; it is centred on new technologies and innovation which is inherently glamorous; it has ethical behaviour at its core at a time when the idea of doing good is riding high in the zeitgeist; and most importantly the burgeoning green business movement has access to the arguably greatest aphrodisiac of them all – money. Given this context it is surprising it has taken until now for the green movement to throw off its hemp and sandals image and emerge as a sexy and vibrant trend.
This may all seem pretty frivolous to the traditional treehuggers, but Schwarzenegger is right that getting rid of the killjoy image is one of the last big hurdles the environmental movement must leap if it to finally reach the political and business mainstream. As he observed: "I don't think any movement has ever made much progress based on guilt. Guilt is passive, guilt is inhibiting and guilt is defensive. ... Successful movements are built on passion, they're not built on guilt. They are built on passion, they are built on confidence and they are built on critical mass."
Hyperbole aside there is an important message here for any firm looking to implement green business models. Sustainability projects will only work if those implementing them are empowered and positive about the changes rather than feeling obligated and guilty. People are more likely to turn their PCs off at the end of the day for example if they are encouraged rather than ordered to do so. Developing a strong financial and risk case for any green business initiative is of course essential, but the branding and marketing of a project both internally and externally is just as important to its success.
Whether its installing building insulation or reengineering a whole supply chain environmental best practices need to be branded as part of a positive, innovative revolution rather than as a necessary chore if they are ever going to gain widespread support.
However, if Schwarzenegger is on the money with his highlighting of the importance of a "sexy" image to the success of the environmental movement he could not be more wrong about what should be done once it has gained mainstream influence.
It appears that the main reason Schwarzenegger wants environmentalists to throw off their nagging treehugger image is because they spend a lot of their time nagging him.
Talking about the criticism he has received for running a fleet of big cars he argued that their criticisms were misguided and pointed to his converting of his cars' engines to run on biodiesel as evidence of how investment in technology rather than living "the lives of Buddhist monks in Tibet" is the answer to curbing carbon emissions. "We don't have to go and take away the muscle cars," he said. "We don't have to take away Hummers or SUVs or anything like this, because that's a formula for failure. Instead we have to make those cars more environmentally muscular."
In essence, what Schwarzenegger and many other politicians seem to be saying is that environmentalists should stop behaving "like prohibitionists at the fraternity party" because technology will ensure everything will be alright without anyone having to make any major sacrifices or fundamental changes to their lifestyles and business models. According to Schwarzenegger, he doesn't need to get rid of his private jet after all.
But while this "technology will save us" message makes for great political oratory it is a recipe for long term climatic disaster. Schwarzenegger is right that the development of green technologies are likely to deliver more environmental benefits than prohibitionist regulatory measures – but why does it have to be an either or equation? Why can't you run a car on biofuels and still replace the SUV with a model that is greener still? Given the scale of the global warming crisis we are simply not in a position to regard these two different strategies for fighting climate change as mutually exclusive.
Under pressure from voters it is very hard for politicians to be honest about the scale of the challenge posed by reducing carbon emissions and in fairness to Schwarzenegger he has done more than most to begin the transition towards a low carbon economy – most notably in his proposals to put a legal cap on car emissions as part of a plan that will force manufacturers to invest more in greener technologies.
But there is a danger inherent to this approach of reassuring people and businesses that they do not have to make fundamental changes, because failing to face up to the fact that certain products and behaviours are simply unsustainable will only make it harder for politicians to push through the necessary changes when they realise we are not reducing carbon emissions fast enough to stabilise the climate.
For example, Schwarzenegger has publicly vowed to support the Hummer and the SUV by claiming that biofuels or hydrogen cells can make them environmentally friendly, but where does he go if, as many scientists believe, biofuels are proved to be more environmentally damaging than conventional fuels or hydrogen cells fail to make the transition from the lab to the production line? Does he change his position and urge people to avoid gas guzzlers or does he allow them to continue to pollute and see his environmental credentials go up in smoke?
Environmentalists do indeed need to become sexier and they must work harder to paint green lifestyles and business models as a positive choice rather than an onerous necessity. But they must also use their new found glamour and influence to push for the real changes necessary to deliver a low carbon economy and not kow tow to politicians who are unwilling to make the difficult long term decisions required to accelerate the green revolution.
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