09/11/2013 12:07 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2013

NASCAR and NRDC Join Forces

Today at a ceremony in Chicago I will be joined by former Vice President Al Gore and General Wesley Clark at the NASCAR Green Summit, where a formal partnership between the Natural Resources Defense Council and NASCAR will be announced. The NASCAR-NRDC collaboration is focused on promoting energy efficiency, the use of renewable energy, recycling and composting of wastes, the marketing of healthier food, and fan education.

History shows that influential innovations are often instigated by people outside of the industry that needs to change: Charles Darwin was trained as a minister, not a biologist. Sir Isaac Newton was trained as a mathematician, not a physicist. Car seat belts were invented by a neurologist, not an automotive engineer.

Everything is pregnant with its contrary: Could it be that NASCAR, the most popular motor sport in the world, a sport disdained by many environmental advocates, will be the unlikely agency that most effectively educates mainstream America, and the business world as well, about the need to address our urgent ecological issues?

Environmental advocates have worked for decades trying to educate business leaders, government officials and the public at large about the need to address our urgent ecological issues, especially the threats posed by climate change and biodiversity loss. And yet, too many government leaders continue to ignore their obligation to address these issues, and the failure to do so has been bipartisan.

The single most important thing we can do to address the urgent ecological challenges we face is change cultural expectations and attitudes about how we relate to the planet. However, lessons from previous cultural shifts that have moved society forward suggest that the change needed today in our thinking about the environment will not be led by government. The Civil Rights Act was not enacted because Congress led the way on race relations, and the same is true of other social issues like gender and marriage equality. In each case, government did not lead on the reforms we needed, it followed. The same is true about environmental stewardship.

To instigate the cultural shift we need to heal our increasingly damaged planet requires collective action, embracing all forms of cultural and economic diversity. The embrace of ecological stewardship by NASCAR in its unorthodox partnership with NRDC offers the encouraging prospect that millions of sports fans and businesses will be positively influenced about responsible environmental behavior.

The genius of the NASCAR-NRDC collaboration is its recognition that to solve our ecological problems we must align our call to action with mainstream social values, and with a focus on protecting our heritage, whether that heritage is a NASCAR race, an outdoor little league game, college football or youngsters playing hockey on a frozen lake.

To tens of millions of Americans, NASCAR is a trusted and widely embraced form of community engagement. Trusted community networks provide the safe space needed to help people change their minds and behavior. NASCAR provides this kind of influential and non-political "trusted network." The NASCAR-NRDC collaboration will build on where people are at: the trusted network that NASCAR provides to tens of millions of Americans, regardless of political or economic affiliation.

While climate deniers like Senator James Inhofe can ignore science and attack the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change with impunity, he and other climate deniers cannot attack NASCAR with impunity. NASCAR's culturally influential embrace of the need to address climate change will help end climate change denial.

To advance sustainability, NASCAR, like all businesses, will need to be greener. Perhaps one day NASCAR races will shift to all electric vehicles charged by the wind and the sun. Perhaps, but not yet. What is clear is that while improvements need to be made, there is no single business undertaking or governmental law that can solve our many ecological problems. However small our day-to-day actions may seem, our collective purchases add up to meaningful regional and global impacts. Most individuals and businesses, including NASCAR, can only do relatively small things, whether it's buying products made with recycled content, buying renewable energy, driving a fuel-efficient car, composting, or conserving water.

What is clear, however, is that everyone and every business has to do something to address the ecological pressures we collectively face, regardless of how small it might seem. NASCAR, like the other sports leagues, teams and businesses that NRDC is collaborating with, must continue to shift its operations to ecologically preferable approaches. I am delighted that NRDC will be there, guiding NASCAR as it greens its operations nationwide. The many small ecological initiatives being implemented throughout the world of sports are adding up, and the NASCAR-NRDC collaboration, while unorthodox, offers the hope that we can turn current dire ecological trends around.