Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Divestment 4: Risk & Big Green

While the initial press-splash of the divestment movement seems to have calmed for the time-being, hundreds of campus groups -- 234 to be exact -- are working to encourage their schools' endowments to divest from fossil fuels.

A couple of developments that caught my eye:

This recent (and brief) report from Aperio Group concludes that the impacts of divestment to a portfolio's risk and return profile is likely to be negligible. 

And students at Dartmouth have entered into the fray with a push for divestment.  With a very dedicated alumni base -- full of investment professionals and sustainability professionals, it will likely spark a lot interesting and important dialogue. 

Stay going. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

We Made Ourselves Anew

While it seemed the inauguration crowd was pretty subdued today, the President's speech included many hopeful ideas.  From a sustainability perspective, the lines that will most likely stand out are these:

"We the people still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations... The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it." 

It was great to hear Obama continue to break the climate silence.  The first big test to see how much substance is behind those words is coming up with how he approaches the Keystone Pipeline, and other proposed alternative pipelines - and whether or not he has the courage, strength, and wherewithal to take a stand and own up to the science, which says to really "respond to the threat of climate change" we must leave that tar sands oil in the ground. The civic engagement of "we the people" on this issue is building - with Keystone protests (Feb. 17), an upcoming action in Portland ME (Jan. 26) to protest a Northeast pipeline, and the growing "Idle No More" movement among First Nations groups in Canada.

But while many still associate "sustainability" with energy, climate, and environmental issues, it is as much about people, health, safety, and social issues.  The focus in Obama's speech on civil rights, gender equality, gay rights, poverty, community, and civic engagement were all strong sustainability statements.

For me, the most sustainability relevant parts of the speech were those that referred to leadership and active engagement in transformational change. In reference to eliminating slavery, the President said: "We made ourselves anew." To create a sustainable society we will now need to make ourselves anew once again.

He emphasized the need to work together throughout the speech and articulated how consistent principles can guide us through constant change:

"But we have always understood that when times change so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action."

We must make great changes -- to our energy systems, production systems, lifestyles, laws, policies, and perhaps most importantly, our mindsets. And we must engage in this tough work together. Regardless of how we get there -- whether it be through strong government leadership and policy, or elegant market-driven solutions -- we must all keep the bigger picture in mind: that we'd all like to see humanity continue on and flourish without destroying this beautiful home with which we are completely integrated, and which we rely on absolutely for our survival.

Stay going.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

America the Possible

I recently read Gus Speth's new book, America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy. It's a good, fresh read on where we are in terms of achieving sustainability -- the massive challenges that remain, and the kinds of transformations that are needed to get there.

Many in the sustainability field will recognize the references and concepts explored, but I certainly picked up some new insights, as well as new authors, books, organizations to check out. The explicit focus on the US and the current challenges give the book strong direction. After running through the big challenges (with good coverage of the social dimensions of sustainability, not just environmental) and the possible solutions, Speth lays out the transformations that need to take place to achieve sustainability - transforming communities, corporations, consumption, measurements of well-being, finance and foreign affairs.

Like his previous book, The Bridge at the End of the World, this one calls for dramatic changes to our economic system and ways of thinking. It wrestles with how to get ourselves out of the growth trap, so we can increasing value and well-being without constantly needing to produce and consume more energy and materials. It also spends quite a bit of time on important technical changes that need to be made to the economy, like better ways of measuring success than GDP. As the subtitle suggests, much of the book is focused on creating the new economy, which I think is probably the most critical leverage point for achieving sustainability.

But Speth recognizes that these types of changes to the economic system, will require deep social and political change. The book wraps up with chapters on realizing democracy (from campaign finance reform to increasing participation in voting and other aspects of civic life); and the need for a more coordinated, broad movement, where groups historically focused on specific issues (e.g. 'environment' or 'tax reform' or 'equity' or 'trade') align efforts to create a prosperous sustainable future. Addressing the need for these changes up front, he states early on: "the prospects for systemic change will depend mightily on the health of our democracy and the power of the social and political movement that is built." 

He notes (as many have, particularly in the past few years), that "we environmentalists have been too wonkish and too focused on technical fixes. We have not developed the capacity to speak in a language that aims straight at the American heart, resonates with both core moral values and common aspirations, and projects a positive and compelling vision... Now we need to hear more from the preachers, the poets, the psychologies, and the philosophers." 

A strategic approach to sustainability is built around building compelling visions, and the belief that a positive "pull" towards something desirable is more effective in making big changes over the long term than negative "push" away from something scary or bad.

All in all, well worth the read. I recommend checking it out.

Stay going.