Plenty of conferences, webinars, and virtual events can fill anyone’s calendar easily. If you are involved or interested in the sustainability movement, whether that entails renewable energy, organic food, or corporate social responsibility, you can easily book yourself for the next several months. But more and more professionals and advocates (no, I don’t mean for these terms to be mutually exclusive!) are questioning the need of all these events. More want action, not words. We are confronting issues such as climate change and peak oil, which engender great ideas and theory. But we are still waiting for a solution—or solutions.
Big thoughts. Big ideas. Americans are particularly guilty of focusing on the big, grand picture. It starts from the top: Franklin Roosevelt had the New Deal, JFK the New Frontier, LBJ the Great Society. Some Presidents have flopped: remember Bill Clinton’s New Covenant, or the younger George Bush’s New World Order, or his father’s “Thousand Points of Light?” (I do, mainly because of Saturday Night Live’s Dana Carvey). Some would argue that focusing on the next great , grand idea is a waste of time. Auden Schendler argues that a preoccupation with fame is actually hindering the work necessary to tackle problems resulting from global warming.
In a recent posting on the Harvard Business Review, Schendler argues that rather than waiting for the next big idea, Americans should focus on what can and should be done now. Improving transportation, retrofitting buildings, and adopting current energy technologies like solar cannot wait another generation—they have got to be implemented widely now if mankind is going to survive. But instead, we are preoccupied with sharing ideas, either by social media or at live events, and all this dithering is getting us no where.
Is Schendler right? He does bring up some valid points. But based on events I have attended, I see many folks who are not just thinkers, but inventors. Plenty of contraptions are flooding the market—many of them work well, but are just too expensive or cannot scale. Many of these entrepreneurs are motivated by a chance to do good, as well as making money or finding fame—I question whether that combination is a bad trend, as Schendler implies.
One issue is that many “green events,” which Schendler has vowed to avoid, often lack focus and just do not offer value for the price. Some are one-off events, some are separate pavilions within an event focusing on anything from electronics to building materials. The events end, along the ideas that emerge from them.
In the end, while apathy does often reign, I would argue that much of the inertia that advocates like Schendler find frustrating is structural. Government moves slowly because of all of its layers, it cannot move slowly. Executives are checked by legislatures, which in turn are balanced by the courts. A fissured political climate does not help, either. And on the business side, many ambitious folks I meet are hampered by a stagnant economic climate that paired with a tight credit market makes it difficult to expand any business. So are the thinkers overthinking, or are the doers just not doing enough? Or are there larger forces at work?