An entrepreneur’s reflection on the Climate Movement
1. User need: What I want from the Climate Movement
The climate movement is losing, and badly. Biblical punishments of fires, catastrophic storms, heat deaths and starvation, the consequent waves of desperate migration – all that has already started, of course. It is certain that things will get worse.
Yet the oil companies continue to scout out new drilling projects, emissions go up every year, and governments worldwide find reasons to avoid the kinds of regulations and laws that might slow down our collective descent to hell.
You know all of this, of course. It is practically cliché to talk about it.
It might seem odd of me, in the midst of this planetary meltdown, to share with you all a very selfish reflection, an ego-centric prism on the subject. But follow me for a minute here.
I am frustrated because the options available to me, as a normal human concerned about climate change, are totally unsatisfying. This is a complaint about what I want as a foot soldier in the climate war, not necessarily about the proper overall strategy in the war.
I am frustrated because I wish I felt like part of a movement, like the uprising against climate change was bigger than me, like my voice was magnified by echoes in a powerful choir. But I don’t feel like that. I feel alone, even though there are tens of millions of people like me, and even though there is plenty of media that supports my views. I think this is because all of the community is virtual and because it all feels so powerless.
Walking around town last weekend, I felt jealous of the anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers who were out protesting. They seem to have a community at their weekly protests, protests that are broad-based, highly visible, and as regular as the sabbath. Even if their cause is misguided and doomed to failure, they are exercising power, together. Leaders of society are forced to listen. The Climate movement had regular protests in the past with Friday for Future, but all that stopped two years ago with the pandemic. I miss it. The climate cause is weaker because of it, and in the meantime I feel alone in the face of constant bad news.
I am frustrated because I wish the next steps in the fight were clear and participatory, like I could get to work on the next battle that will ultimately, indirectly but certainly, move our side closer to victory in the war. But the battles are hidden and confusing and all I see, as a regular guy, is the big war being lost. I am more informed than most people, I think, because I spend a lot of energy searching for the small battles. But even when I find them, I cannot figure out how to help. Alone at my computer I am closely tracking the proposed law to fight deforestation on the EU level, which may or may not pass in the coming months; the legal battle to suspend new drilling projects in the Gulf of Mexico; the activist investor campaign to reform Exxon Mobil; and a few other meaningful projects. There is no question that I’m missing the vast majority of battles being fought today in my own town, country, and continent, unaware and unable to lend my support. When I speak to other folks as concerned as I am about climate change, very few of them know about battles-in-progress. Those that do are just as clueless as I am about how to help.
So here is my selfish complaint: I am ready to fight but I cannot find my troop, the directions are not clear, I don’t even know where the next battle is. I finish every day with the feeling of potential energy unspent, wasted.
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2. Competitive analysis
I will mention, briefly, the options that are available to me that feel so unsatisfying.
I am encouraged to be an eco-conscious consumer: to buy products that are manufactured sustainably, to avoid air travel, to drive an electric car, and to eat vegetarian or vegan. I do most of these things because I take myself seriously, so I believe in the importance of my actions. But I am painfully aware that the impact of my sustainable consumption is infinitesimal, that the percent of the population that shares my habits is teeny-tiny and growing far too slowly. That this kind of action is individualist and fails to meet my desire, my need, to feel part of a powerful army.
And worst of all, I know that the whole idea of “eco-friendly consumerism” plays into the strategy of the oil companies and most polluting industries. As Marc Bain documented so powerfully in his excellently article in Quartz, the companies emitting the most greenhouse gasses are determined to prevent government regulation of their businesses. So they conspired, in the 1970’s, to invent the narrative of “consumer responsibility” (yes, a real conspiracy theory!). If consumers like you and me are responsible for the impact of our purchase choices, then the manufacturers and supply chains are free of blame, they are just meeting consumer demands, as they should in a free market. This narrative has caused so much damage.
Responsibility for our collective future is, obviously, collective. We must use all of the collective institutions we have – corporations and especially the government – to exercise that responsibility. The idea that individual lifestyle choices are of supreme importance is implicitly and subtly undermining the case for corporate responsibility and government regulation.
In addition to ethical consumption, I am also encouraged to be an eco-entrepreneur, to invent the products, services and technologies for a sustainable future. I do this, too, it is how I spend my days: I try to find and nurture innovations to save the spaceship earth. But I know that it is not sufficient, it is only one piece of the puzzle that must also include activism. As I’ve expressed in the past in this newsletter, I am tired of living in the future. I know that it is possible, with the technologies and companies that already exist, to reduce emissions significantly, if only we would fight for political and corporate change.
My actions as an entrepreneur in the business world are meaningful and I hope will make a difference. But even though I work on this stuff every day, I still feel alone, I still feel lost, I still feel like I have more to give as an activist.
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3. Design research
As an over-earnest adolescent I was obsessed with the resistance fighters in the Second World War. I envied their moral courage. I was fascinated by a time when the stakes were so high, a time that brought out the worst in people, yes, but also the best.
In the early years of the war the French resistance was disorganized and ineffective. Groups of partisans competed with each other instead of fighting the enemy; missions were ad-hoc without serving a larger strategy. Recruiting was hard because the infrastructure for communication and meetings was not yet built, and ordinary people felt powerless to mobilize.
That started to change when De Gaulle established himself as the leader with his regular radio broadcasts. His leadership inspired alignment and cooperation. As the British and American spy agencies sent organizers to the field to train partisan groups and airdrop supplies, the infrastructure developed that would enable real organization.
With more structure and strategy, the resistance planned early missions to inspire the people that resistance was possible. Small, quick wins were targeted: hanging posters, blowing up a single military truck, delaying a movement of troops. These small missions gave the partisans a feeling of power, of morale, and they dramatically accelerated recruitment.
With leadership, morale, and new manpower, the resistance was ready to fight and ultimately win the war.
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OK, I know, the comparison of climate change and World War II is perhaps strange or unpalatable to many. And even though some thinkers in the Climate movement are truly suggesting guerilla warfare as the next step, I am not.
I do want to suggest, however, that the stakes in the Climate change war are as high as it gets. Present circumstances are bringing out the worst in people, and the best. Those fighting to save the planet are battling a system, and leaders, who are well-installed, have superior resources, and are actively crushing dissent.
And when I think about my personal, selfish complaints as a regular guy who wants to be more active in the cause, I can’t help but think about the strategy of the Resistance.
The climate movement needs a leader who can inspire alignment and strategy. The power of Greta Thunberg should not be underestimated here. Her presence on the world scene has helped the Climate cause, no doubt about it. I wish she was even more outspoken and active in setting the strategy. We need more like her.
Bill Gates has tried to position himself as a worldwide leader, and published an open roadmap for everyone to follow to save the planet. But, aside from his very-public marital indiscretions that make him unsuited for moral leadership, he also presents a vision that is purely dependent on technological innovation. His roadmap does not call upon regulation, laws, or unprofitable changes in corporate strategy. I find his plan helpful but insufficient.
We need clearer roadmaps about the overall strategy, and better communication channels. We need to get back into the streets on a regular basis to feel the power of the community.
We need to focus on quick wins in the short-term that will build morale, inspire confidence, and rally more people to the cause.
These are just some ideas, of course, some hypotheses about the solution to my personal problem. There are surely more specific ideas, and better ideas, about how to meet the needs of potential-activists like me. There are surely some sources of inspirations other than World Wars to draw upon.
But I am convinced that by solving the needs of the individual activist in the short-term, the movement overall will become more powerful in the long-term.
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5. Testing ideas
As you may have noticed, and as the title & subtitles of this essay suggests, this kind of reflection is basically what I do in my day job as an entrepreneur. With the help of my talented colleagues, I try to understand an unmet need in peoples’ lives. Through dozens of interviews and studies, and also personal introspection, we try to understand why the need exists, where it comes from, and how it manifests. We study the options already available and try to understand why they are unsatisfying.
Then we try to imagine new and better solutions. What would truly scratch the itch, if only it existed? We test our ideas quickly, we learn, we iterate. We use business-y tools to conceive the bigger organizations that could provide those solutions: how would the finances work, what kind of team would be needed, how would the inner machinery turn?
Then, if and when the planets align, when we see a viable path to build a big business with a new solution to a real problem, we get to work.
Is this one of those times? What do you, readers, think of this whole reflection?
I admit that I do not see an opportunity to build a for-profit business to serve the Climate Movement, but maybe it exists. The more obvious opportunity seems to be some kind of non-profit activist project, or multiple projects in activism, political and corporate lobbying, and public-service communication. Right?
Can an entrepreneurial approach be useful in these non-profit realms? Can user-driven design and agile development be effective in politics, lobbying, and social organizing? How would it be financed, how would success be measured? Should it be run from existing activist organizations, or are new ventures needed?
These are open questions that occupy my thoughts these days. As any good entrepreneur would, I’m out here testing my ideas with you all. If you have any thoughts, I would love to talk about it.
Dear Rob, once again your thoughts are surprisingly meeting my mood.
The more I am informed, the more I am anxious about loosing the war and the more I felt guilty about not acting enough. My daughter use to say she will "give water and food to people that need it" and "clean the planet". I would love to tell here "don't worry sweetie, daddy is doing the job for you" but for now, I failed.
I firstly acknowledge your comparison between current environmental crisis and WW2 because sometimes I feel like a resistant in my house, looking at my neighbourhood who cooperate with the bad big companies (not only oil companies) to burn the planet. But I do think the situation is very different because of the enemy's nature : our enemy is Humanity. Fortunately, we don't have to kill the enemy to win the war, in fact we have to make it live but differently.
Saying that, what are the possible positions in the army ?
1/ Activism : Some of us need to act right now, to scream, to show how determined they are to change things. As you said, Greta Thunberg has been a great leader for activism. This is, from my point of view, the energy we need to smart moving.
2/ Lobbying : OK, OK, this is a bad word but why can't we use the same weapon than the enemy ? Some peoples are very good at explaining, repeating, convincing. I have two examples : Jean-Marc Jancovici (Engineer, Teacher and Speaker about energy and climate) and Cédric Ringenbach (Climat fresk founder). They both have steady discussion with state representative to spread the word. Lobbying is a mid-term solution to ensure that politics are following people's way.
3/ Entrepreneurship : You know that part and I'm glad to see a huge community of entrepreneur that fight everyday to win the war. Several of them are trying to "lead" that community even if I frequently notice some infighting. I personally appreciate "Impact France" because of the eclectic composition of the board. What do you think about Eva Sadoun and Jean Moreau as leader for entrepreneurship ?
4/ Nonprofit commitment : This is the other side of the coin. Complementary to entrepreneurship, it may be suitable for people that need to act very concretely. As Audren said in his comment, "word cleanup day" is not sufficient but at least, that day I'm very proud and more optimistic about our capacity to change. What about a leader ? Well, the ones I'm thinking about are dead but they still inspire me today : Coluche for example.
5/ Day-to-day commitment : This is not only about being eco-conscious consumer as you said, this is about looking at living things for what they are and not only as resources for humans. Some friends of mine advise me to learn more about permaculture principles in order to go a step further.
Soldiers are everywhere but they are acting undercover because being an ecologist seems to be negative in 2022 but this is another debate ;-)
Once again, thanks for sharing your thoughts with such authenticity, it helps me think about my personal commitment.
I also feel alone, lost and like I have more to give as an activist. So, you're not alone! 😊 But you're right - for the Earth to avoid catastrophe, many systems have to change at a level that's way bigger than any of our individual control. The Quartz article you linked was excellent (I was gratified to see the author dive in a bit on neoliberalism).
Some of what I think is missing is a realistic vision for what we want the end state to look like. It's pretty easy to understand what the French resistance was fighting for. But even on podcasts dedicated to pushing back against neoliberal economics, I'm not sure I'm hearing a coherent philosophy that should come to dominate the future. Is it degrowth? The green new deal? Higher minimum wages?
Given a clearer north star, I agree that we need some (probably non-profit) activist project(s) to rally our efforts on getting there. From the Quartz article: "sustained change will likely require a mix of policy and corporate cooperation, with consumers also making some effort to show support through their purchases." Finding a way to achieve that within the bounds of the current incentive structures (or perhaps finding a way to break out of those) seems like a tough nut to crack, but I would expect the entrepreneurial tools to be quite useful in the endeavor.