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World Business Forum: Al Gore Comes Out Swinging for Sustainable Capitalism

RP Siegel | Thursday October 7th, 2010 | 0 Comments

For those of you that read my post on day one of WBF, I’m happy to report that the conference took a sharp turn into green space, at least while Al Gore was on the stage.

The former VP showed some of his Nobel Prize-winning class right off the bat by acknowledging that the people most affected by the recession were not represented in the room, a perspective that he alone took during the two days of the conference.

He proceeded to present an updated synopsis of material covered in his groundbreaking book and movie, with some additional comments that reflect on events since that time.

In response to those recently exposed purveyors of disinformation and others like them, who claim that it is unfathomable that mankind could actually have that much impact on the planet, he offered the following three observations that differentiate our present era from times past:

  1. The world population has quadrupled in the past 100 years
  2. The amount of power available to humans has increased 1 million-fold
  3. Changes in both capitalism & democracy have led to dramatically shorter planning horizons

The first two add up to the fact that our ability to pollute has increased several million times in the past century, a fact that is probably about as unfathomable as the idea that we could indeed change the climate. His third bullet really goes to the question of how we could have allowed this to happen. This he explains in some detail, going after the notion of what he calls “short termism” as a particularly egregious aspect of a system gone wild, or what he calls the “structural problems that distort the way that capitalism is practiced.”

He goes on to cite a study that found when CFO’s were asked if they were given a proposal that would meet the company’s IRR standard, make the company stronger and more sustainable, but would cause them to slightly miss the next quarter revenue projection, 80% of them said that would not accept it. The rapid movement of capital in and out of markets that has taken this kind of short term thinking to an extreme, like stock trades where the assets are literally held for milli-seconds. This trend makes it difficult to fund the kinds of longer term investments that are needed to transform our economy into one that is not so terribly dependent on fossil fuels. It also is the reason why the US, alone among developed countries has not been able to pass meaningful climate legislation. We need more meaningful reform of the financial system for this to happen,  and campaign finance reform, before we will ever get that. “It’s important to change the light bulbs,” says Gore, “but it’s more important to change the laws.”

Although, the climate bill passed through the House of Representatives, Gore explained that it is much easier to stop change and reform in the Senate. Why? For two reasons. One of them is the filibuster law, which requires a super-majority to override. The second is that for a politician to run on a statewide level (as opposed to running in a congressional district) one needs to raise a lot more money for TV ads (the only campaigning that has mattered since Kennedy beat Nixon in 1960). This means that they are forced to accept contributions from the organized business interests that are going to expect to be repaid when it is time to vote on the issues. He should know, he’s been there. And, so he says, “some of the most irresponsible voices in the business community are under-cutting the vast majority, who would like to see healthier rules of the road.”

He closed with an impassioned appeal to the business leaders in the room to get involved in the political system, advocating for the kind of reforms that will build sustainable capitalism, improve our democracy and help us solve the climate crisis. Citing an African proverb, he said, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Then, after a beat, he added, “We need to go far, fast.”

Kind of makes you wish we could go back ten years and try again.

***

RP Siegel is co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails. Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though can we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.

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