At SXSW Eco in Austin last week, there was a common thread among many of the talks - an undercurrent in the conversations that we are losing our will to fight in the cleantech industry. Among the great topics from entrepreneurs and industry veterans, some felt that its time for the gloves to come off in sustainability (a position shared by many thought leaders in the space) while others lamented that we have become a data-focused group of teachers rather than doers. Annie Leonard suggested, quite rightly, that many of us have lost the ability to mobilize as a society on important issues like the environment. Jigar Shah may have said it best at SXSW Eco by noting that "it's time to get angry - you can't change the world by 'liking' something on Facebook".
So very true.
Over the past few years in cleantech, we have focused far too much time on convincing those who really can't be convinced. The far-right's stance in America on climate change is a great example. Regardless of how much research, data, and scientific consensus there is on climate change and causes, these people choose not to believe it, at least officially. Facts, like experts, have become a boring non-issue to these people, yet we still focus a considerable amount of effort on convincing them. My only question at this point is, why?
I've long stopped caring that my neighbor doesn't believe in recycling, or that Rush Limbaugh doesn't believe in global warming, or that my friend thinks carbon trading is just another tax from Obama (the fact that a carbon market was a republican idea falls under the "non-issue" category above). All are completely ridiculous notions and sure, it would be great to convince them otherwise. Those of us in cleantech have tried to do so for many years. We stacked study upon study, fact upon fact, data upon data to bolster our position - only to have the facts and expert analysis dismissed on par with laypersons' uninformed notions. This is the equivalent to a child plugging their ears and babbling over your voice so they can't hear you anymore. It's a fool's errand and we - as an industry - need to move forward and focus on what's important.
It's not about what they do. It's about what you do.
Just like the old joke - if it hurts when you do something, you should simply stop doing it. Do something else. Rather than trying to convince, mobilize to get your point across to the people who really matter. Don't waste your energy trying to convince the neighbor, the friend, or the radio personality. Chances are you'll fail anyway. Focus your energies on the big picture: the representatives, the business leaders, and the people who can actually effect change. The fact that three-quarters of the US population knows that climate change is a significant problem but at least one of our political parties completely dismisses the idea shows you that, as Annie Leonard said, we have lost the ability to mobilize.
And if your're curmudgeonous like me and the idea of "mobilizing" or "social" conjures up visions of Occupy Wall Street, then do what I do: build. Build and Build and Build Build the tools people need to understand how things can be better with less energy, how much money can be saved (or made) through various green policies, or how much return on investment can be made from doing the right thing vs the wrong thing. Build things that will solve real problems and enhance quality of life in the process. I do this through building companies, but you can also do it through building anything.
The key is to do something, rather than talking about doing something or trying to convince others they should do something. Ideas and innovation are great - they abound in cleantech. But you need to execute if you want to make it real. And that's where the industry is again finding it's feet. So yes, the fight is still alive, we just need to remember how to do it.
Michael is the former CEO of the Global Reporting Initiative, Carbonetworks, and other sustainability organizations. He has been an advisor and CEO in sustainability for almost 20 years, and writes about technology, sustainability, and social innovation.