02/08/2012 12:44 pm ET Updated Apr 09, 2012

The Politics of Sustainability

Whenever I work with companies and organizations that seem to have disagreement on direction, I find it helpful to go back to their foundational documents to reestablish the connection between their past and their desired future.

When we return to America's foundational documents we find many of the principles and values that our founders held dear support the mindset of sustainability; and that they transcend political party and ideology. Building an economy that endures, based on the principles of sound fiscal management (financial responsibility), a sense of shared values (social justice) and environmental stewardship ought to not be a political issue. However in the United States the issues relating to sustainability have become so politicized that phrases like "climate change" have become anathema to the lexicon. Instead we talk about clean energy, energy security and energy independence.

It is ironic, as my friend Cerphe Colwell, host of Cerphe's Progressive Show at pointed out that "conservatives argue against conservation."

It is time to review our foundational values and documents and establish why sustainability is very much based on American values that transcend today's politicized political climate.

Courage -- It was courage that sent the pilgrims in the tiny Mayflower across the vast ocean on a quest for a better life in an unknown land. It was courage that compelled 56 men to defiantly sign their names to the Declaration of Independence. Courage accompanied Lewis and Clark through unknown and hostile territory. That is why it is ironic when people talk about being so far behind that they question whether or not they can catch up with German engineering, Japanese production and the competitive edge of the Chinese. Some felt the same way when the Russians launched Sputnik, too. Fear of the unknown -- or even the known -- has never been the American way.

Optimism -- The author H. U. Westermayer famously made the point that "the Pilgrims made seven times more graves than huts. No Americans have been more impoverished than these who, nevertheless, set aside a day of thanksgiving." Thomas Paine declared, "We have it in our power to begin the world over again." And change the world America set out to do, and did. We are at a critical crossroad that will define America's path forward. Optimism comes with the belief that we are doing the right things and it translates in confidence in the future that needs to spread to every state and every city. Too many people - and businesses - have succumbed to irrational pessimism (following irrational exuberance) which has created paralysis and that is why optimism is needed now.

Environmental Stewardship -- Those who made their primary living off the land -- like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and many others, understood and respected the importance of caring for the environment. George Washington took pains to plant native trees -- some of which still live today -- on his Mount Vernon estate. Despite the seemingly endless munificence of the new continent, he also experimented with the use of living hedges, or dense thorny shrubs, to keep animals from destroying plants as a way to conserve timber. We have lost this value before, such as when Americans decimated the massive herds of Buffalo on the Great Plains. Environmental responsibility did not come along in time to save the Passenger Pigeon which once darkened skies in numbers so great that their migration blocked out the sun. Theodore Roosevelt understood the importance of preserving our natural wonders, founding our National Park system by declaring the preservation of natural habitats like Yosemite as not just a "good thing," but in the public interest.

Ingenuity -- The ingenuity of the founding fathers is evident in the creation a bicameral legislature 'the great compromise' that reflected the duality of states' and individuals' rights to representative government, the creation of three branches of government with their checks and balances to ensure that the president would never become a king. Our government was based on the principles of dynamic tension between the branches, and even within the legislative branch as an assurance that we have "a government of the people, by the people, for the people."

Determination -- and more than a little assistance by the Native Americans -- brought the Pilgrims through their first, horrific winter on the North American shore. Determination brought soldiers through the freezing nights in Valley Forge and kept the Star Spangled Banner aloft over Fort McHenry. Wagons moving westward toward California crossed the seemingly endless plains were not stymied by the Rocky Mountains. The farmers and ranchers who eked a hardscrabble existence from western wilderness are not far removed from the settlers who landed at Plymouth or Jamestown. That same grit was behind Thomas "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work" Edison as he worked to perfect the light bulb, the building of the transcontinental railroad, Hoover Dam, and the Apollo missions to the moon. And it is determination that is needed to get this country back on track. It is about people power, democracy and the spirit of freedom that will empower those who are left behind. Isolation, frustration and loneliness need to be replaced by engagement and pride to unlock the power of a determined work force and society.

Diversity -- Both of America's most fundamental foundational documents -- the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution -- reflect an understanding of the power of diversity and including multiple perspectives. The Declaration is headed "In Congress... " meaning that the document reflected the combined wisdom, passion, ideas and perspectives of a group of people. The Constitution begins with the powerful phrase "We the people... " deriving its basis from the combined will of the people within the country. Thomas Jefferson, in his writings about the role of representative government stated "All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression." The founders recognized, as progressive companies have, that bringing to bear a wealth of opinions and differing perspectives is the key to competitive advantage.

Compromise -- While we decry the depths of gridlock and rancor in our current debates on Capitol Hill, and the campaign trail, it is worth noting that the hallowed halls of Congress are actually more civil today than they have been in the past. In 1850 Senator Henry Foote of Mississippi pulled a pistol on Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. Six years later Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina, outraged at anti-slavery remarks by Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts beat him with a cane so brutally that Sumner had to be virtually carried from the Senate chamber -- and was not able to retake his seat for three years. These assaults -- as horrific as they were -- came as the nation debated heavy issues of the day. Today rather than fisticuffs, we have stalemates. While we face the largest economic crisis since the 1930s, people are frustrated that our elected representatives seem to put the interests of their party ahead of the those who are unemployed, the hungry and the suffering. We must remember that compromise is the only path to consensus and finding common ground for common interests, recognizing that this is the purpose of representative government. "Democracy," observed Winston Churchill, "is a terrible form of government, but all others are worse."

Moral authority -- "An army of principles can penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot," wrote Thomas Paine. The lofty idealism that a country could find justification based on the will of a higher power is not new in our national mindset. In the very beginning the founders cited divine inspiration for their desire to create a separate nation. The Declaration of Independence boldly asserts that there is no need to justify their actions to man (even a King) "We hold these truths to be self-evident..." Certainly the moral authority was on full display when Washington resigned his commission as commander and chief, thereby relinquishing his command over the armed forces that he had led in the revolutionary war in an act which solidified the moral principles behind the revolution.

Shared fate -- The concept of a shared fate was very much on the mind of the founding fathers as they set about to declare independence from the British Crown. Benjamin Franklin, as he prepared to sign his name the document stating that the colonies ought to be free declared "We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately." The document famously concludes with the powerful statement that "And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor."

Long term vision -- After the United States earned its independence, the founders again convened to draft the Constitution of the United States. This document makes it clear that the purpose of our nation is not only for the benefit of our current citizens. Indeed the preamble states that the purpose of the document is to "secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." It remains the seminal foundational document for the nation. When our president takes the oath of office, he (or she) swears to preserve, protect and defend it (rather than the nation).

In short, we have a strong argument that the very foundation of America is rooted in ideas and principles that support the sustainability mindset and efforts. Thus we have to come back to fulfill the first principle of our constitution and our democracy -- to serve our people and to provide a vision and leadership which serves as a catalyst for change.

Special thanks to Björn D. Fischer for his assistance with this piece.