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Obama and the Vision Thing

Posted: 01/14/09 12:34 PM ET

There's long been a fundamental problem with the green world -- the myriad companies, activists, evangelists, politicians, clergy, thought leaders, and others who, each in their own way, have prodded us to address our planet's environmental ills. And it explains why, after four decades of the modern environmental movement, only a relative handful of companies and citizens have joined in, while many more have dragged their heels to slow, or even reverse, environmental progress.

The problem is this: No one has created a vision of what happens if we get things right.

That seems odd, when you think about it. We have a crystal clear picture of the consequences of getting things wrong (thank you very much, Al Gore). We know well the potential devastation of unmitigated environmental problems: the droughts, floods, hurricanes, tsunamis, resource wars, famine, and pestilence. We know about epidemics of childhood asthma in inner cities, toxic rivers in impoverished lands, and depleted fisheries that may never fully recover. We see for ourselves the rampant development in formerly verdant landscapes. There are vivid pictures of denuded forests, strip-mined mountains, and strip-malled farmland. We read about these things, hear Hollywood stars fret over them, and may even experience them firsthand.Point is, we know what business as usual looks like.

But what about success? What happens if we get things right? What does that look like?

This, as much as anything, is a vision I'm hoping President Obama can portray to America and the world. Yes, there is a list of necessary policy prescriptions as long as my arm (and, fortunately, a corps of green policy geeks much savvier than I who know how to get them enacted). But without the vision thing, even the best policies can only go so far.

This is no small matter. For decades, environmental leaders in business, activism, and government have expressed frustration that the public isn't behind them, except in disappointingly small numbers, despite a litany of increasingly dire environmental problems. These same leaders express bewilderment at the painfully slow uptake of green products and personal habits, from buying organics to recycling to energy conservation. Even when people understand the issues and consequences of everyday actions -- the direct relationship between inefficient light bulbs and the threat of global climate change, for example -- they usually fail to act.

We've long known that fear is a limited motivator. Think of how persuasion has changed. A generation ago, we were told by advertisers to worry about ring around the collar, iron-poor blood, waxy yellow buildup, and the heartbreak of psoriasis. Madison Avenue believed that driving fear into the hearts and minds of the public would unleash a wealth of sales and profits. No longer. Today, profits come from imbuing visions of sexual appeal, personal freedom, and a life without worry. Those positive images are the ones that inspire people to take action and, for better or worse, make choices in the marketplace.

What is the positive image of "green" that will inspire a nation -- indeed, the world -- to transform itself in the way that Obama and others are hoping: that create jobs, build economic opportunities, engender energy independence, attack climate change, improve public health, reduce environmental degradation, and ensure national security?

Ask yourself: What does a world look like where former autoworkers and steelmakers are employed in well-paid jobs to manufacture turbines and solar panels, and where mechanics, electricians, truck drivers, and plumbers are working fervently to build the smarter, upgraded electricity grid needed to distribute all this home-grown energy? Where a new generation of smart buildings and electric vehicles are operating in concert on cheaper, less-polluting energy, and a new generation of technicians is needed to build and maintain them and infrastructure necessary to power them? Where every home, office, factory, and store is retrofitted or rebuilt to be as energy efficient as possible, made so by armies of newly trained workers from local communities? Where entrepreneurial companies are mining landfills in order to turn waste back into raw materials at a fraction of the cost and environmental impacts of mining or manufacturing new ones? Where food is grown and distributed regionally, reducing transportation emissions and ensuring food security, creating a wealth of jobs for local farmers, food processors, distributors, and others?

I could go on, but you get the point. It's a pretty compelling story. Who's telling it?

Van Jones is. The author of The Green-Collar Economy and one of my personal heroes, Jones may be the only one who has learned how to inspire people with the vision thing. And not just any people: Jones is providing hope to legions of the economic underclass who have largely been left out of the environmental movement to date. He's telling ghetto kids to "Put down a handgun and pick up a caulking gun," and that, "Somebody's going to make a million dollars figuring out a way to get solar panels made and deployed in our 'hoods. I think it should be you." (Elizabeth Kolbert has a terrific profile of Jones in the January 12 issue of New Yorker.) Another Jones classic line, about Obama: "It's not that we have a President who's black; it's that for the first time we have a President who's green."

Jones has the ear of Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and others, but beyond Jones, not many others have his vision or voice. Precious few others can spin a positive, exciting story about a world in which thinking and acting green becomes a pathway through the thicket of so many seemingly intractable economic, political, and social problems. And that lack of voices, itself, is a problem.

Can Obama incite and excite the populace by painting an enticing picture of a greener world? Of course: Yes, he can. But will he? Amid the many pressures he'll have -- to cure an ailing economy, world strife, and, God knows, the common cold -- will he be willing and able to place his political currency in the green vision thing? If he can, it could be one of the more profound exercises in the audacity of hope.

And what about the rest of us? What's the uplifting story each of us is willing and able to tell? How much of your own personal and professional currency are you willing to expend to help not merely portray this good, green vision but also to ensure it becomes reality?

Without that vision, the notion of a greener economy is destined to be seen as a "nice to do," not a "need to do." It will be easily countered by the incumbent interests who hope to continue to profit from the existing model, and who will warn that this is no time to tinker with radical, untested ideas about how our world works. And our political leaders will follow the money, and the votes, watering down the green ideal until it becomes yet another tepid policy soup.

We've seen vividly what happens when presidents squander opportunities. After 9/11, President Bush could have inspired Americans to demand energy independence as a means of avoiding future terrorist attacks, enacting a wealth of policy directives to promote more efficient buildings and vehicles and develop oil alternatives. He could have inspired us with a hopeful vision born of the tragedy we'd just endured. We would have swallowed hard to pay a dollar extra tax on gas, maybe more, knowing it was going to a worthy cause. But he told us to go shopping and left it at that. Eight long years later, we'll have another chance.

To quote Van Jones one more time: "Barack Obama helped us take America back. Now we have to help him take America forward."