Climate Change: Too Many Thinkers, Not Enough Doers?

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?

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

8 responses

  1. In 1.

    Though the irony of the posting and my reply being an element of still talking, even in favour of more walking, is not lost.

    At least the rest of my day I do try and find ways to reuse stuff, so I figure I'm covered.

    In the UK we now have the Big Society. I am just hoping its acronym does not allude to the vast industry that simply serves to stir money around (less cut) will not simply rebrand and carry on, business as usual.

    In homage to Douglas Adams, I fear there are too many thinkers paid too much to pontificate, and deserve priority on the 'B' Ark.

    Doers, sadly, tend to be better at doing than selling, which today is the priority. Most thinkers don't get that, and as they control the money, it does tend to end up pouring into some very odd places.

    1. Thanks for your comment–I prefer, too, to just walk, and figure living and not just talking or walking is doing a lot. I felt Schendler was harsh–I know plenty of people with services, ideas, and products that have a positive effect on ESG issues–it's just hard to get the word out–anyway–thanks for reading. LK

    2. A defendant in a lawsuit involving large sums of money was talking to his lawyer. “If I lose this case, I’ll be ruined.” “It’s in the judge’s hands now,” said the lawyer. “Would it help if I sent the judge a box of cigars?” “Oh no! This judge is a stickler or ethical behavior. A stunt like that would prejudice him against you. He might even hold you in contempt of court. In fact, you shouldn’t even smile at the judge.” Within the course of time, the judge rendered a decision in favor of the defendant.. As the defendant left the courthouse, he said to his lawyer, “Thanks for the tip about the cigars. It worked!” “I’m sure we would have lost the case if you’d sent them.” “But, I did send them.” “What? You did?” said the lawyer, incredulously. “Yes. That’s how we won the case.” “I don’t understand,” said the lawyer. “It’s easy. I sent the cigars to the judge, but enclosed the plaintiff’s business card.”

  2. Oh wow, am I relieved to see someone else talking about this. Having worked in the time of Howard Dean and grassroots action, I say that the thinkers vs doers debate is hyper-accurate. In the beginning pro-Dean bloggers just wanted to blog their thoughts, not share key information with their readers or come out to support our efforts. Younger volunteers mostly wanted to work on policy positions, while 60 yr old campaign veterans with senior level jobs were more than willing to do whatever was needed – even if it meant standing on a street corner handing out flyers and talking to strangers in 90 degree summer heat for 6 hours.

    What do I see now? Twitter seemed like an awesome way to identify people who were interested in similar issues, and a far more time efficient way to galvanize their support. But in fact, that is not what happens. I will grant it that we are on information overload, but when someone directly reaches out to you via phone, email, tweet – is not rude to ignore them? It appears that indeed, it's about celebrity, scratch my back and I'll consider scratching yours. That is not how social change works, that is how business works. Very different concepts.

    As a communicator in the space I do paid work for clients on related topics, and in my spare time I do the same work for free as a grassroots advocate because I recognize that there are gaps and things that are broken that no one is going to pay to have addressed. The work eases the nagging sense of burden that I feel, (so maybe I am still motivated by personal gain?), but it's complicated by the fact that it is becoming harder than ever to get people to take direct action when the call comes in.

    I do not wish to create hostility or anger. I could have continued keeping this to myself, but I bring this up and into the open because I am very concerned about our ability to organize and create real and meaningful change in the future.

    1. Just want to note that indeed the comparison I mention addresses a different aspect of this conversation. I do think that innovation is key and that a motivating position from leadership are critical. I wish Obama was using big language and ideas to push the American public towards the shift to renewable energy. But there is a fundamental shift at other levels of the change process and what Schendler identifies is relevant to these other aspects as well. I would even ponder that these ideas reach beyond just climate change, to how the world of interaction and getting things done in general has changed.

  3. Thanks for your comments, everyone. I stalled at even covering this lead because I tend to focus on events or technologies–it's been years since my liberal arts student days, so taking on these philosophical discussions was a challenge. There's something to be said about the thinker vs. doer debate.

    I don't want to go off on too big a tangent, but my take on social media is to promote the ideas of others rather than just being a crass self-promoter–not quite a doer function, but it's more than a thinker–anyways, just my 2 cents. Off to write my 3 articles for tomorrow! LK

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