The cliché is that every day should be Earth Day.
We’ve all become more attuned to the ways in which all of our actions—individually and collectively—can create environmental costs.
In the nature of things, we also have more opportunities to serve and lead as environmental stewards.
21st century environmental leadership is emerging in distinctive ways from its 20th century antecedents.
10 Trends in 21st Century Environmental Leadership
1. Traditional Environmental Challenges Remain Front and Center. The United States and other developed nations have made great progress in reducing and cleaning up pollution that is visible (think smog in Los Angeles, rivers on fire in Ohio). That said, the traditional work remains far from complete. China and other developing nations face extraordinary environmental and public health challenges. The tragic BP oil catastrophe on the Gulf Coast is a reminder that America, too, must remain vigilant and greatly improve our regulatory performance.
2. The Culture is Changing for the Better. The time is long past when environmental protection as an ideal is a matter in controversy. There are outliers–but they are just that, outliers. Individuals, corporations, governments are all searching for ways to serve more effectively, to engender innovation. The evolving culture aligns the self-interest of enterprises with the protection of the planet. On any given day, TriplePundit, Environmental Leader, GreenBiz, Sustainable Business, Grist, and other publications report breakthroughs and identify opportunities. The significance of this cannot be underestimated. The culture change has various causes, including political leadership in earlier decades, civil and criminal liability and enforcement, the support of Hollywood, increasing spiritual and religious linkages, and so on.
3. Breaking Silos. A truism of environmental awareness is that everything is connected to everything else. This is also apt for environmental protection. As in other arenas, the divisions between public, private, and not-for-profit are being breached in order to create value. Corporations are exhibiting various organizational and ad hoc arrangements (sometimes to the discomfort of incumbents in designated environmental-health-and-safety functions). Inasmuch as this fosters creativity and innovation, it’s a welcome trend.
4. Collaboration. Cloud-based interaction is the latest among many new, Information Age opportunities for extraordinary collaboration. Where one or more stakeholders falter, new capacities to collaborate can occasion alternative means of problem-solving. Ideally, various challenges may be redefined and more effectively addressed. Through the Internet, power imbalances in local conditions can be redressed through collaboration across the world.
5. Transparency. In a world of Google Maps and universal access to smartphones, there is no corner of the earth that can be plundered in the dark, out of sight. Basic information, let loose in a world of rising environmental consciousness, is transformative. Actionable transparency is being advanced by the ongoing adoption of global reporting standards by leading companies.
6. Cities. One of the momentous changes in our time is the urbanization of the world. This presents momentous challenges. The mass movement from countryside to cities will be accompanied with rising expectations for motor vehicles, consumer goods, etc. There are also positive indicators. In an age of decentralization, cities are proving more politically adept and adaptive than regional and national governments in many aspects. So, too, the innovative engines of cities are being harnessed in new ways, such as the Rockefeller Foundation’s international crowdsourcing cities challenge. That effort will doubtless have after-effects, as various jurisdictions learn and adapt successful approaches.
7. Generational Change. For good and for ill, first-wave Boomers have set the frame of public and political discussion of environmental protection since the 1970s. As with any political impulse, what worked at one time may become limiting amid changing times. There has been a great amount of gnashing of teeth in some quarters, concern that the Millennials do not share the environmental ethos of earlier generations. In my experience and observation, such pessimism is misplaced. In fact, Millennials tend to presume environmental protection as an accepted value (which, in itself, is no small tribute to the work that’s come before them). They tend to be results-focused, and aren’t wed to institutional and political arrangements solely because they’re familiar or purport to speak in the name of environmental protection. This augurs well for a new era of innovation.
8. Environmental Politics Are a Lagging Indicator. In the 20th century, environmental politics (and law and regulation) were the leading edge of positive change. In the 21st century, environmental politics have receded to become a lagging indicator. In one sense, that’s a positive thing—politics should catalyze change, as has occurred in cultural attitudes toward the environment. In a larger sense, it’s become problematic. In the United States, environmental politics—at the national level—are broken. A generation has passed since the last major federal statutory overhaul, the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. Various partisan configurations of the executive and legislative branches in Washington have each, in their turn, failed to reverse this baleful trend. It’s not as if change isn’t needed. The landmark national statutes are based on the politics of the 1970s and 1980s—and on thinking from even more distant times. Foundational scientific policy issues require review and reform. There are significant consequences from these lapses. Regulatory focus is arguably misplaced at the EPA, particularly with respect to toxic substances. History suggests that presidential leadership is necessary in this field. The regional and interest group divisions that arise in major legislation can hinder or obstruct congressional efforts. The division of labor among government entities is ripe for reconsideration. Consistent with the decentralizing trends of the time, the federal government might well stand aside, empowering cities and states to assume rising roles. In turn, that would enable the national government to take on matters where it has unique responsibilities or capacities. It’s striking that there is not a national discussion on long-term energy and environmental stewardship at this time when the United States is resuming its prior role as a world leader in oil and gas production. It’s difficult to imagine a more advantageous moment for undertaking such deliberations, with all their implications for the rising generations.
9. Effectiveness in Environmental Realm Is Increasingly Transferable to Other Endeavors. As with any new value, environmental advancement can be institutionalized in various ways. In many companies there is a dedicated environmental, health and safety unit. Others consolidate regulatory and/or stakeholder relations functions, including related areas such as pharmaceuticals or energy. In others, the responsibilities are reposed with a chief sustainability officer. In still others, it may be presumed that the entire organizational culture is suffused with environmental awareness, without a specific unit or position as such. This variability has prospective benefits (as does, in some cases, the trauma of reorganizing simply to reorder things, reawaken innovation in environmental approaches). Some who seek to professionalize environmental management express concern about this multiplicity of approaches. One can also see it as a positive in many ways. For example, there is great value from the capacity to effectively engage highly motivated stakeholders in high-stakes situations involving technical questions of widespread public concern—and to do so in the shadow of prospective government action, amid universal communication. Such challenges, long familiar to those in the environmental field, are increasingly valuable in other endeavors. The Information Age demands such skills across the board.
10. One Person Can Make a Difference. All in all, with Information Age tools as a foundation, individuals have the potential to serve—and lead—as never before. On their own, on teams, in organizations, in networks, committed individuals can come together, adapting as necessary to best address environmental challenges. This may be the most important trend of all.
10 Trends in 21st Century Environmental Leadership