That job, leading, is often lost on politicians while risk-taking business leaders are happy to pick up the slack. Pundits all around the political spectrum are bemoaning the lack of leadership in Washington, DC. There is a lot of fuss over missed opportunities to boost clean energy technologies and wean ourselves off of foreign oil. Many clean energy advocates fear that passage of Proposition 23 in California, which could cause the suspension of AB 32, could not only kill developing technologies, but would leave us with even more pollution and environmental problems in the long term
But regardless what happens or does not happen in November, plenty of evidence suggests that we are in the early stages—a Wild West, dare we say, of an energy revolution. You only have to look at Silicon Valley, a region that has taken it in the shins numerous times over the years, only to dust itself off and reinvent itself, as transformed from agriculture to defense contractors . . . to semiconductors and then dot-com to dot-bomb, only to find a spark in clean energy and other technologies. Many of these entrepreneurs have failed more than once, but are able to bounce back.
And that is the difference between entrepreneurs, business and social, and politicians. Leaders of a business and even a non-profit can hit a snag, perhaps even flop, but then recover, unfazed by the fact they followed the wrong strategy. Politicians, however, often feel they cannot make that choice—one wrong decision and they or their party could be tossed out the next election cycle. Therefore, politicians are often risk adverse, as Byron Kennard, Executive Director of the Center for Small Business and Environment, mused in a recent article.
Politicians need votes, which is why they often mute their core beliefs and often try to please all sides. There is the tale of the northeastern congressman who voted for every tax cut but also for every spending program. When asked why he would vote that way, he just answered, “Because I can.” Or because he felt he had to. Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, at some point have to answer to the bottom line, or their company—and the livelihoods of others—could be adversely affected.
Which leads us to clean, renewable, alternative energy—however you want to phrase it. If you believe in peak oil, or the science in global warming, or that the pace of energy consumption cannot keep up with the growing global demand, you would think something has to be done. But there is a cost. Even free-market espousing The Economist, the editors of which want to see something done about this risk—point out that such a cost would be 1% of the world’s economic production.
And therein lies the problem: few politicians in the US wants to tell his constituents that at some point, well—let me just quote Kennard:
Entrepreneurs embrace risk while politicians – most of them – are risk-adverse. Or, maybe, to be fair I should rephrase this observation to state that entrepreneurs can afford to take risks that politicians cannot. Too many voters crave reassurance that cheap and abundant energy will be available always and forever, and too many politicians are ready, willing and able to provide it. (“Drill baby, drill!”).
Too many politicians embrace clean tech when they are lame ducks or have nothing to lose, like Charlie Crist and Mark Sanford. Others run away from the topic when it seemed too volatile, like Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004.
The passing of Prop 23 would be a setback, but could be a bump in the road on the way towards energy independence. If oil spikes in price again, and these technologies could scale, become cost effective, and improve—and some would argue they already are—we would have to thank such entrepreneurs, who are masterful at pursuing their dreams and goals while many around them say it cannot be done.