David De Rothschild on the Green PR Problem

By: Carla Rover

David De Rothschild’s career as an environmental activist has taken him around the world, including a recent stint in the Brazilian Amazon observing preparations for the creation of a massive hydro-energy project. According to De Rothschild, the dialogue between environmental activists and industry has become unnecessarily divisive and the vilification of both sides is hampering collective progress on critical issues.

Triple Pundit: You were recently involved in an expedition to bring attention to energy issues in Brazil. In addition to creating employment and building infrastructure in developing countries, what are some equally pressing issues Brazil is facing  in this area?

DD: Brazil, like any country, is incredibly complex. It has the unbelievable natural ecosystems of the Amazon, and they are beginning to be exploited for their resources.The issue here is one about hydro-energy. There are misconceptions around the greenness of hydro-electricity. This particular case– The Bello Monte Dam — is important as it was earmarked for development years ago, prior to any environmental analysis. Still, today very little environmental analysis has been done. When you look at it in black and white, it’s very clear that the output and the infrastructure required are basically nonsensical; it just doesn’t add up. What this expedition was about was creating a way to say that whatever happens, this will set a precedent, for the 20-odd dams that have been slated to be built in the basin, which will have irreversible impact on the ecology of the ecosystem and will basically cause untold damage to it. When you actually go in and dig a little deeper, you see that Brazil could simply save 14 times the amount of energy that would be produced by building this dam, by changing the kind of lightbulbs used for example, by using more efficient appliances in the home, and by creating a smarter energy grid. The chance to do that now is better than ever, because there is a lot of knowledge that simply wasn’t available before.

3p: So how do we inspire a healthy debate about these questions in newer, developing economies that are just now beginning to grapple with new energy requirements?

DD: Well it’s not about being a condescending developed country and saying to a developing country ‘you can’t have the same energy as we do for the requirements that we have.’ What we ought to say is ‘please learn from our mistakes, because what we built was created when we thought we would have cheap, unlimited resources, and it isn’t working now.’ The systems that we have in the US, the UK and Europe are very dirty, very inefficient. So when you’ve got a country coming online, and it’s also very energy-hungry, we need to say ‘don’t repeat the old mistakes, maybe leapfrog the old systems and apply the knowledge that we now have to the new technology that we didn’t have before.’ Then these developing countries can effectively surpass everyone else in terms of becoming an educated energy consumer.

3p: Why is the idea of being environmentally-conscious so often viewed as being anti-business?

DD: I think it is ultimately about communication. It’s a problem of miscommunication from the green party, from the green movement, and also from industry. It’s not about one side saying that its black or green, it’s about many stages of green, about implementing even small changes so that progress can be made. Even in those small changes there are benefits to our society and to our economy. The green side has often been about stopping something damaging to the environment, and it has often been predicated on guilt- such as ‘you’re wrong or you’re right, you’re green or you’re not’ and it’s not that black and white. The other side of the argument that has been propagated by the business-as-usual crowd is that it’s easier to discount an environmental issue when it’s presented that being green is a massive blow to the economy and to the country, that it will increase your taxes. We’ve had a lot of miscommunication and it’s come at the detriment of our being able to evolve our thinking.

3p: So how do we communicate the relevance of environmental impact to the objectives of major corporations?

DD: Well, it’s not just the corporations that have to be won over, I think it’s everyone. It’s a really a complex issue. We’ve created a system within which there are a number of interdependencies, between businesses and consumers and businesses and various points of industry. We’ve created a series of relationships that are very hard to break apart without breaking a few eggs. We as a species are very ill-adapted to change- we don’t like change. It’s very intimidating. We have to look at these codependencies that we have and find a way to create the right narrative for change. That’s the first thing, making these issues less scary for corporations. In order to do that, you have to find narratives and touchpoints that gel with various corporations. If you were to say to a company like Levi’s, you need to do the right thing because everyone is going green, that’s kind of interesting for them. But if you say you need to become a conserver of water because it is a scarce resource, and the product that you use is very dependent on water, it makes financial sense. As water becomes more scarce the price per unit of your product goes up. So then we are saying to them that conserving water is a way of stabilizing your income and the profitability of your business. We can present the economic upside as well as the upside in terms of the consumer messaging. But you have to find that touchpoint, and present it as a win-win scenario for business and the consumer.

3p: There seems to be an inexhaustible list of environmental concerns, how do we combat compassion fatigue?

DD: It’s a good question that doesn’t really have a simple answer. When I think about it, I see my own fatigue decrease when I hear stories that have a positive outcome. When I hear a story about a program that was introduced to try to lessen the footprint of a particular service on a particular ecosystem and its working- I feel more inspired. We’ve become very good at telling stories around the issues, and the disaster stories have become the fodder of the media, but we haven’t been quite so good at is articulating the solutions and the potential for change. For me, I think if we want to balance out people’s enthusiasm, we have to come at it from both sides. We have to come at it with a narrative that shows the issue as well as the fact that somewhere a positive change occurred. That becomes a driver of enthusiasm and I think people become re-energerized when they actually hear a story that’s positive. The positive stories are not being told as clearly and as often as the negative stories.

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