BY COLE WILHELMI
In the 1960s and 70s, the U.S. environmentalist movement was in its heyday. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring generated a whirlwind of popular support for the defense of Mother Nature. The Environmental Protection Agency was founded in 1970, and the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts were passed shortly thereafter, signaling the government’s newfound willingness to tackle environmental problems with national policy.
But it’s 2014, and the days of Silent Spring are long past. The traditional environmental movement is slowly losing its vitality. Americans are becoming apathetic, even hostile to a campaign that seems increasingly disconnected from anyone outside academia. Meanwhile, overconsumption of resources, global climate change, overfarming, and pollution threaten to destroy the planet.
But as the old environmentalist movement fades to irrelevancy, a new one is coming to take its place- a group of investors, policymakers, entrepreneurs, and other powerful figures who don’t just discuss environmental issues; they actively integrate them with economic development and national security. By making the environment relevant to government, business, and ordinary people, this movement might just be what the world needs to finally acknowledge and address some of the most critical issues of our time.
Most people have a strong preconception of the typical “environmentalist”: a hipster or a shoddily-clad Greenpeace member screaming epithets against deforestation, global warming, GMOs, or the government in general. Terms like “hippie” and “tree-hugger” most frequently come to mind, and studies confirm that most Americans have a heavily negative opinion towards environmentalists.
But it’s now time to cast aside the “20-something fringe activist” stereotype- instead, picture a 70-year old British investor, donning a freshly-pressed suit and talking nothing but assets, profit management, and securities. Not your typical hippie, but this is exactly the character of Jeremy Grantham, regarded as the world’s most powerful environmentalist. Grantham is the co-founder and chief investment strategist for Grantham, Mayo, van Otterloo investment management firm. He currently controls 112 billion dollars in assets, and was on the list of Bloomberg’s 50 Most Influential in 2011. He is also revered as a virtual prophet of the investing world- he successfully predicted the 1980s Japanese equity crash, the Internet bubble of the 1990s, and, most recently, the 2008 American housing and financial crisis.
But Grantham has already predicted the next major economic crash, and it’s turned him into a devoted environmentalist. When Grantham visited UNC in February, he warned of the impending economic crisis, generated by the world’s unsustainable consumption of resources. Grantham is a self-proclaimed Malthusian: he understands that humans will eventually reach biological limits to growth and agricultural production. Oil and coal resources are running out, climate change is increasing the volatility of the weather, and food yields are starting to plateau. Combined with China’s recent ascent and ravenous appetite for resources, Grantham understands that these problems aren’t going to resolve themselves. If investors and governments don’t develop new strategies in consumption and development, the world market and the environment are on a violent collision course.
As Grantham puts it, we’re now the unwilling participants of “The Race of Our Lives”, a dead heat to adopt alternative energy, lower fertility rates, and curb environmental damage before it’s too late. In today’s society, it’s somewhat surprising to see someone with such financial influence advocate so strongly for sustainability and environmental protection. What’s even more eye-opening is that Grantham presents his case in terms that policymakers and the American public can relate to: economics and national security. He frames the discussion in ways that put his investors first. His confident, matter-of-fact tone, combined with his tremendous financial clout, convince the public that environmentalism is an obvious economic choice. Most importantly, Grantham debunks the notion that consumers and governments must choose between environmental consciousness and economic progress. He’s showing the world that sustainability and financial security are inextricably linked, and if we want to win this “Race of Our Lives”, we have to acknowledge this fact and react to it.
Powerful investors like Grantham command the financial resources, political influence, and public attention that the environmental movement so desperately needs, that environmental fringe groups and Greenpeace campaigns could never provide. These “new” environmentalists are reinvigorating a struggling movement, integrating the health of the planet with the pocketbooks of consumers and governments.
The new brand of environmentalism still needs time to gain momentum, but UNC has been taking steps to encourage collaboration among policymakers and experts. On Feb. 26, the university hosted the North Carolina Clean Tech Summit, a conglomeration of the state’s leading researchers, policymakers, activists, and entrepreneurs in the field of green energy. Their goal? To foster public-private partnerships, share expertise, and ultimately, transform North Carolina into a world leader in sustainable technologies.
Last year, North Carolina was the 3rd leading state in new solar installations (trailing only California and Arizona), and 5th in total solar energy capacity. Prices for solar panels are falling rapidly, unlocking vast potential for industry growth. Lee Anne Nance of the Research Triangle Regional partnership identified clean tech as an emergent sector that has generated $700 million in revenue and thousands of new jobs.
The Triangle needs to “align regional assets to establish [itself] as U.S. leader for clean tech, research, innovation, and economic development,” she said. “Connecting corporate venture capital with innovation industries” is key.
If state and local policymakers heed the observations of the summit, the Triangle area has the potential to become the Silicon Valley of environmental technology: a breeding ground for innovation, magnet for young talent, and economic powerhouse. Most people don’t suspect that environmentalism could power a regional economy, but that’s just what it’s poised to do.
If this vision of a new Silicon Valley is to come true, however, we have to make some fundamental changes in the way we process information and solve problems. Key flaws exist in policymaking systems and education programmes, even here in the Triangle, that limit the success of the environmentalist movement. The Nexus 2014 Conference on Water, Food, Climate and Energy convened to debate matters of environmental protection, food security, resource management, and international development. Their message? A complex network of interactions, a nexus, combines all of today’s critical issues, and environmental concerns are an integral part of that network.
But most governments and universities don’t think in terms of the nexus- academia and policy making are compartmentalized into distinct “silos”. The Department of Finance worries about finance, the Department of State worries about national security, the Department of Agriculture worries about agriculture, etc. Government programs are developed mostly within their own silos, with little interdepartmental collaboration. It’s easy to see how silos that deal with more publicized issues, like foreign policy and economics, can become more influential than weaker silos (e.g. the environment).
Bringing national attention to environmental problems requires a paradigm shift, one that adopts the intersystem nexus approach rather than the silo approach. Logically, it makes sense: of course agriculture and the economy are linked, as are energy, public health, and virtually every other major government issue. But the public is slow to accept that the environment should be treated with the same urgency as other issues, and the government is even slower to respond.
It’s something that the new environmentalist movement is focusing on, but even UNC is struggling to make the transition. There is little partnership between departments- everything “environmental” is taught within the university’s Department of the Environment. Even though engineering is a vital component of innovation in solar development and clean energy, UNC has no strong engineering program, and makes little effort to collaborate with NCSU and Duke to fill these academic gaps. If UNC and other academic institutions want to get on board with the new environmental movement, they must make interuniversity and interdepartmental networking a top priority. Creating a nexus community, rather than a collection of silos, reflects the understanding that the environment influences nearly all areas of study.
The old environmentalist movement focused on sentimentalism, “Saving the Animals” campaigns, and morality. They isolated themselves into a fringe group, and failed to bring the environment to the forefront of policy discussion. The new environmentalists, however, are transforming environmental protection into a desirable component of economic vitality, global security, and public health. In short, they’re making environmentalism matter, and that’s just what mankind needs to save our exhausted planet.