06/19/2012 03:45 pm ET Updated Aug 19, 2012

Rio+20, Clearwater+40: Who Leads Now?

It was a beautiful weekend for the annual Clearwater Festival founded by Pete Seeger, the legendary folk musician who used his talents and corralled his friends over 40 years ago to save the Hudson.

Gazing at the sparkling river, enjoying the music and the environs, it is hard to imagine the depth of the pollution that led Seeger to "build a boat to save the river." The tall ship he launched with his wife and buddies, like those that sailed the Hudson in the 18th century, allowed passengers to see the river up close and personal: "rank with raw sewage, toxic chemicals and oil pollution; fish had disappeared over many miles of its length."

Five thousand miles south of the Hudson, the next chapter of the environmental odyssey is playing out on a different continent, with a very different set of players than the gentle souls who launched that ship in 1969.

Rio is crawling this week with 50,000 participants in the once-a-decade UN Conference on Sustainable Development, or "Rio+20" as the global gabfest is known. Twenty years after the inaugural event, environment is now big business. Climate change and water scarcity have taken over the headlines. CEOs and corporate sponsors and even B'school Deans have long replaced the folksingers. NGOs propagate like flies and many more global citizens are involved in the subsidiary and unaffiliated conferences that incubate the official proceedings than attend the main event.

We love a hero, and while negotiations continue and new issues arise every year, it is no exaggeration to say that Seeger and his activism saved the Hudson -- maybe even spawned the environmental movement.

Who is the modern day equivalent?

Among corporations, whose impact on the environment is profound, the closest candidate today is probably Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, widely admired for bold environmental commitments. Or, ironically, Jeff Immelt, CEO of GE. The company was much reviled by the Hudson River rats while Jack Welch ruled the roost. It did not take Immelt long to part ways with his mentor and pledge to clean up the GE-released PCBs that were buried in the Hudson river silt. GE's notable Ecomagination business strategy and marketing campaign is a by-product of the decades-long protests.

The problem with hero-myths however, is two-fold. One, when the targets of our fantasy are running big messy, multinational corporations, they are bound to disappoint, eventually. Think BP, the darling of the industry less than a decade ago. Or Walmart, which surprised its critics with a radical effort to "green" the supply chain of the world's largest corporation. It was a contender for CEO-envy before the story alleging corruption to buy influence in Mexico blew open. For good reasons, business leaders are coached to keep their heads down, lest they be cut off when the news turns against them.

The second problem with waiting for a new hero to emerge is that the problems that confound us today cannot be addressed by any single massive corporation, much less an individual, no matter how inspiring, or how compelling his celebrity. No way, no how.

That was already true when Seeger launched his ship. Seeger built an enduring institution that became part of an industry. But it took dozens of like organizations, and thousands and thousands of acts of citizens and courage and commitment by politicians and elected leaders to pass the Clean Water Act.

What will it take to stem the rapid decline of species and climate calamity?

One is supportive policy. The P-word is out of favor. But nothing else will sufficiently raise the bar and level the playing field. Law is required to internalize costs and send the right signals to change behavior. Only then will we see wide scale change and allow markets to do what they do best. Citizens need signals that hit their pocketbooks and polluters need to plan with confidence.

Second, we need collaboration on a scale that today is unimaginable. I am specifically talking about business to business collaboration that captures the extraordinary capacity embedded in global enterprises.

Interestingly, CEOs can be heroes on both fronts. Corporations already have out-sized influence on policy in their industry. They have the access and they have the money to get the job done. And two, the kinds of collaboration needed to stem massive environmental disaster exist in abundance in companies, but are not often directed at building alliances with competitors and as well as the more typical public-private partnerships. Yet interesting models have begun to emerge -- like Alcoa's work to galvanize all of the players who touch aluminum cans from manufactures to retailers, or a partnership among Coke, Pepsi, Nike, Ford and P&G to boost supply of plant-based plastic.

Stories and legends inspire us to be our better selves. Let's hope for a good story out of Rio.