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Climate Change: Too Many Visionaries, Too Few Grunts

July 22, 2010
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Written by Auden Schendler for the Harvard Business Review. Thanks Chris for posting this on Facebook! 🙂

Auden Schendler

I’m sitting here in Aspen on the heels of the Security Forum at the Aspen Institute, where the best and the brightest pondered, for a few days, how to prevent the next 9/11. As that meeting ended, in came Ideas Fest, with the finest thought leaders in the world on the subject of…well…thoughts. Next up is the Environment Forum, teeming with celebrated green thinkers. Over at Fast Company, meanwhile, the editors have pulled together lists of the 100 most creative people and the “fastest” companies. In fact, these days it’s hard to shake the ubiquitous magazine cover featuring a vaguely European (or smug, or nerdy) looking CEO or president with Daniel Libeskind glasses and a collarless shirt. Headline: “This guy/woman/robot is rethinking the car/potato chip bag/antifungal cream.”

America has become deeply enamored of the “big idea,” the creative genius, the moon shot. Look at TED: riveting talks by remarkable people. Look at how Einstein is so much the man. Coupled with this love of the breakthrough is the fame corollary: if you are not well known you are not successful. This modern metric of success has spawned a desperate subculture of freaks who will do anything to get famous (pretend your son is stuck up in a balloon, turn your political corruption into a reality TV clown show). Anything, that is, but old fashioned and boring hard work.

Not that Americans don’t have good ideas (the internal combustion engine, airplanes, the aforementioned moon shot, computers), ones we’ve implemented to great effect. And we developed a media machine that was so able to effectively celebrate these glories that it created legends and mythical figures as new modern inventions in and of themselves. And those inventions worked pretty well. (Eisenhower being one of the first.)

But none of those earlier breakthroughs and, then, famous people were made under pressure of the world collapsing. These inventions were all cool, fun, great: they changed our lives and made us more productive and opened up opportunities and places and led us in what we thought was a good direction. But they weren’t crucial to our survival.

Our love affair with dazzling inventions and famous visionaries now imperils humanity. It endangers us because we’re in an unprecedented crisis — climate change — that distinctly, even uniquely, requires not new ideas and technological innovation but a regrounding in brass-tacks-dirty-fingernail implementation of what we already know, coupled with enormously hard work almost literally for its own sake. And a solution to the problem emphatically replaces fame, glory, and radical innovation with the same kind of rote collectivism that made settling the West possible.

But wait! you say. Aren’t great thinkers going to innovate us out of this mess with amazing new clean energy technologies?

Well, actually, no. If the best climatologists and most knowledgeable people on climate science — people like NASA’s James Hansen and the IPCC’s chief Rajendra Pachauri — say we have just a few decades, or less, to solve this problem, we can’t wait for innovation.

All the faith we place in innovation and our fascination with famous people hampers our efforts to stop climate change. Waiting for new ideas (and the visionaries that deliver them) won’t work. We need to implement what we have now — off the shelf technology like natural gas plants, wind, solar, and even nuclear power, and unsexy but workable ways to improve efficiency — or it will be too late. And we need to drop our obsession with fame. The work that must be done won’t make anyone famous or rich. It’s boring stuff like insulating buildings, improving public transportation, passing legislation, and changing behavior.

Here’s a pledge we should all take, especially the government officials, academics, writers and editors, and business executives with a stake in stopping climate change: I pledge not to go to another conference until I’ve rolled up my sleeves and started doing the grunt work that can actually fix the problem.

Auden Schendler is Executive Director of Sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company and the author of Getting Green Done: Hard Truths from the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution.

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