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Please Don’t Call Your Sustainability Program a ‘Moonshot’

Words by Leon Kaye

With the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing fast approaching, we can add “moonshot” to the list of jargon that’s at risk of becoming embedded in the sustainability lexicon, and not necessarily in a good way. The list is already getting long with “collaboration,” “radical transparency,” “purpose” and to some people, yes, even “CSR” (corporate social responsibility).

Don’t. Please, just don’t. For several reasons:

First, for every advocate of space exploration, there is also someone who questions whether the funds used to visit the moon, or what is now funding an eventual trip to Mars, is money well spent. In fact, during the late 1960s and 1970s, many Americans opposed spending federal money on visiting the moon; though in fairness, there was a misconception about how much money was spent on space exploration, analogous to the false debate over whether the U.S. spends too much money on foreign aid. Nevertheless, concerns about social issues at home, not to mention the roaring inflation that marred the 1970s, were among the factors that eventually led to the mothballing of the Apollo program after six missions to the moon.

Nevertheless, when considering the technology available in 1969—not to mention how divisive that era was as the U.S. was mired in a controversial war—the Apollo 11 mission was an incredible achievement. The buildup during July 1969, up to the time the two astronauts landed on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility, still resonates with citizens who to this day still remember where exactly they were crowded around a television the moment Neil Armstrong strung together some of the most famous words ever said. It was a moonshot the world had never experienced.

There are other moonshots that deserve mention. Researchers involved with cancer treatment and prevention breakthroughs? Consider that a moonshot, no questions asked. The scientists and activists that pushed for compassion, research and coming to terms with AIDS during the 1980s, despite a presidential administration that was apathetic and even joked about the epidemic? Their work and fearlessness together comprised a moonshot.

The word “moonshot,” however, doesn’t apply to an athletic apparel brand that suddenly decides to work on its environmental footprint. A coffee cup that is compostable and recyclable? Well, considering how many are already stewing in landfills, describing this maneuver falls short of a moonshot. Perhaps it could be considered more of an earthshot. Energy-efficient data centers? It wasn’t exactly the heaviest of lifts to power them by solar or to buy renewable energy credits to cancel out their carbon emissions, so comparing that effort to launching three people in orbit for eight days, and doing so 50 years ago, is a stretch. A garbage collection company that strives to accomplish a “moonshot” mission of cutting its carbon emissions? Refer to the events of 1969 noted above.

To be fair, it’s not as if every Fortune 500 company on the face of the earth is stepping over each other in the quest to out-moonshot each other. But at a time when many companies, and the communications teams that represent them, insist their sustainability plans can turn back climate change, push the circular economy forward and stop deforestation, it is tempting to cut in line and score some attention by describing such a plan as a “moonshot.”

But don’t. However, do savor the nostalgia and coverage surrounding the half-century since Apollo 11. Because that was a moonshot which even today, is still very much worthy of its hype.

Image credit: NASA

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's worked an lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.

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