THE BLOG
09/23/2014 01:22 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2014

A Rough Week for Capitalism and a Time for New Leaders

Hundreds of business executives and heads of state, including President Obama, have accepted UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's invitation to the UN Climate Summit, which starts today. Heads of state are critical actors, but his focus on the business sector is a smart strategy. Real business executives are allergic to out-sized risk and see the need to seed the change now. Once on board, they know how to get things done and build coalitions to get there.

And from the vantage point of the public, we could use some new examples of business leading on what the Secretary General calls "the defining issue of our time." It's been a rough week for capitalists.

Last Thursday, Scotland rejected independence from the UK in a vote that could have gone either way. While the "Yes" vote carried many aspirations and concerns, the feeling that London and a finance-centric economy was no longer delivering a fair shake to the people of Scotland was a significant factor in a too-close-to-call campaign to exit the United Kingdom.

And then on Sunday, it seemed like the whole world turned out to protest the frighteningly slow progress on greening the economy. Again, many points of view were represented in the mass of citizens who took to the streets in New York and around the globe, but the real heat came from the section of the march that walked behind the banner "WE KNOW WHO IS RESPONSIBLE" -- and they weren't talking about the heads of state that are converging today on the UN. They were talking about the 1 percent -- be it bankers or reviled oil executives.

Just when the economy seems to be waking up from a deep slumber, the Occupy-like-protests are taking on new forms and new life. The reasons are pretty clear -- it stems from what the New York Times labelled "a crisis of faith in the global elite" and, as Neil Irwin writes, the fact that "you can't eat G.D.P." The disillusionment of those falling further and further behind is a global phenomenon but the numbers here in the US tell the story: An overwhelming percentage of people are disappointed in both parties and no longer trust leaders to act in the interest of the commons. They believe, and they are not wrong, that decisions made are in the interest of the few, not the many, and that those who benefit most are insulated from the real costs of their decisions. They see money in politics as the root of our failure to act.

On the eve of the People's Climate March, I was part of a standing-room-only crowd that filled the sanctuary of a church on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to hear from some big names in the climate protest. Environmentalist Bill McKibben was there representing the 350.org Divest campaign. So was author Naomi Klein, whose new book places the blame for inaction on climate squarely on capitalism. US Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont (the only Independent in the Senate) spoke and so did Kshama Sawant, a Socialist member of the Seattle City Council -- who is just off of a successful campaign to raise the local minimum wage to $15/hour. The biggest applause of the evening was in response to her call for public ownership of the oil sector. "You can't control what you don't own," she invoked. Other speakers quoted Karl Marx and called for revolution. It was not a night for nuance about how important business could be to solving our long-term concerns.

After the climate rally that drew a remarkable 300,000-plus to the New York City streets, the action moved Beyond the March to #FloodWallStreet where protesters wearing blue were prepared for civil disobedience and arrest in their campaign to upset the status quo.

These protesters want us to follow the money to understand why the capitalists continue to ignore the long term consequences of fossil fuels for the system on which they depend. There are winners and losers in any big change. Among those with a lot to lose are financial intermediaries and deal makers who respond to short-term incentives and decision rules that favor what we are experiencing now: a remarkable disconnect between the investments required to turn the ship around, and those that continue to make people rich today. (And, as usual, behind the name-calling is a much more complex system that involves all of us who enjoy our creature comforts and want our 401(k)s to rise more quickly.)

How will the change take place? If anything, the global nature of the protests this weekend points out that we are in this mess together -- capitalists, communists, environmentalists and We-the-People. My favorite sign along the path of the People's Climate March was the one -- who knew? -- from the Communist Party of the US, with a picture of the planet labelled: "Too Big to Fail."

Yet real change is afoot. And sometimes, thank goodness, the money leads. On the eve of the UN Climate Summit, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund announced its pledge to divest from fossil fuels. The fact that their patriarch, John D. Rockefeller, founded Standard Oil in the 1880s makes this decision front page news and is a shot in the arm for the divest movement.

I think that if Rockefeller and his fellow industrialists who benefited so greatly from coal mining and oil production were still around today, they would actually be leading the green parade. JDR didn't succeed by dragging his heels. He was a trend spotter. He was a pragmatist. He hated waste. Surely he would have figured out a way to capitalize on the change we so desperately need now.

Who can take his place?