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Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins

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In Defense of Progress: Pushing Back the Ideologues

Posted: 03/09/11 01:09 PM ET

Progress is a slog. It always is: occasionally pushed forward by a burst of energy; often knocked backward by opposition. In politics, it's an evolutionary process that depends on gradual re-alignment and re-consideration of views.

Consider pollution. At the beginning of the 20th Century, the new factories driving the Industrial Revolution emitted a constant stream of smoke and soot, turning the skies over and surfaces of many cities black and hazardous.

Consider employment. In that same time period, children worked fourteen-hour days to bring home a pittance to perennially impoverished parents. The advent of unions that could provide a voice on the job was met with brutal, fatal hostility.

And consider the interim. In the first case, the establishment of pollution standards and the Environmental Protection Agency; in the latter, the elimination of child labor, the growth of protections for workers, the advent of the minimum wage. Public policy shifts that ensured a better America.

But our views of those practices aren't contingent on the public policy. It's now generally accepted that child labor is reprehensible and that belching soot and poison gas into the skies over urban areas is a terrible thing to do. It's safe to assume that most people would continue to feel that way even if the laws preventing them were removed. In the early 1900's, public attitudes started to shift in a positive direction and the policies followed -- moving the baseline of acceptable behavior for the last hold-outs, making the old polluting, damaging ways no longer possible under any rationalization.

This is, of course, what we're seeing today in the fight over the regulation of greenhouse gasses: a continual shift away from the pollution that's heavily contributing to -- if not entirely causing -- the most significant change to our climate in recorded history.

And it's a slog. In part, this is because business, a sizable and powerful segment of America, is divided in how to respond.

On the one hand, there are the opportunity-seers, those businesses that recognize a national and global market for solutions to greenhouse gas emissions. The solar panel makers, the wind turbine manufacturers, the energy effiency programs. This, it's safe to say, is the national policy of China: building -- and selling -- the components for a clean energy economy.

On the other hand, the reactionary ideologues: those so committed to preserving the status quo that they deliberately seek to misrepresent the science, they pour millions of dollars into lobbying efforts, and they defend their position by any means necessary. We'll come back to this group.

In the middle, a growing group of businesses that sees imminent risk and seeks ways to reduce or eliminate it. They understand that their existing practices may not be sustainable, or are threatened by the disruptions that will accompany shifts in resources, and are taking steps to address it.

A number of major corporations, for example, have built sustainability systems in partnership with the World Wildlife Federation, understanding that they need to act to ensure a long-term supply of resources. Others are buying land in Africa to ensure food supplies. There is a very real effort on behalf of corporations inside and outside the United States to ensure that they can continue to be profitable even after the impacts of a changing climate become more pronounced. This isn't trying to make money from climate change -- it's trying not to go out of business.


 

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