Why Your Business Should Ignore the Noise and Instead Act
April 11, 2023
As I’ve written before, humans have a bias towards the status quo. Stability is important to us as a species. We create systems of government, laws, finance, and social hierarchies to preserve how things are done. And generally, these norms help us to feel more at ease and able to access the world. It puts us on surer footing.
But norms are also very powerful. They stick with us for decades and centuries, even when they’ve outlived their usefulness. Ask any activist how difficult it is to get the general public to question established norms and you’ll almost certainly get, in a voice laced with exasperation, a lesson on persistence. Norms often change through slow, grinding pressure over decades. Norms typically change through evolution. In the United States, the civil rights and women’s rights movements are examples. We still haven’t achieved equality in those fields, even though everyone alive has been familiar with the problem their entire lives. And politicians play upon those emotions all the time to delay the change that needs to happen. Our current political conversation – for lack of a better word – has many scoundrels selling that fear. It can feel like the existing state of affairs will remain forever.
However, sometimes norms change through revolution. Things happen rapidly and never return to the previous norm. The scoundrels are pushed out of the conversation. And there is evidence that climate is about to undergo just such a change. In short, failing to act on climate now will put you, your company, and the people you care about at significant disadvantage to those who will.
Revolutions in norms frequently have:
A precipitating event that forces change.
They tend to have a dedicated core of people who are passionate about changing the status quo and rising awareness in the general population.
And they often have some technology that enables the change to become permanent, though the change is rarely total.
For the most recent example, we all are in the midst of a minor revolution about how we work. Forced into existence by the global coronavirus pandemic in 2020, accelerated by the arrival of the tech-native Millennials as the largest generation in the labor force, and enabled by supporting technologies like Slack and Zoom, there is no doubt that the way people work and live has permanently shifted. It may not be as complete as the corporate projections Zoom and Peloton would have suggested, but anyone in real estate can tell you that the likelihood of returning to the previous status quo is effectively gone.
Moving a little further back, one can look at the social desirability of tobacco. As a member of the transitional Xennial generation, I am old enough to remember when smoking was legal on airplanes, in restaurants, and more. There were piles of misleading and dishonest “research” that denied the negative and legitimate health impacts of cigarettes. And then, a generation of people came of age tired of their loved ones dying and of the same, obviously specious arguments, and led by anti-smoking advocates like Stanton Glantz, had enough. The collective attorneys general of the various US states sued the tobacco industry and won. In the span of about 10-15 years, smoking went from being legal almost everywhere to being forbidden almost anywhere in public. And though smoking continues to persist, smoking rates and the social acceptance of smoking have never and will never recover.
Even further back, the institution of chattel slavery in the United States, a far more entrenched and wicked institution, once seemed to be unable to be removed from our country. In 1855, the associated capital value of the humans enslaved in the United States exceeded the value of this country's railroads. And it was going up. By 1865, the institution was mostly gone, driven before a wave of passionate abolitionists and their rising political power, the secession of southern states in defense of the economic system of slavery, and the ensuing American Civil War. Many of the enabling norms of slavery persisted – manifested in Jim Crow and the sharecropping system – but no longer would capital value be attached to a human life in the United States.
With the knowledge you have now, temporarily remove the moral arguments from each example. Were you to have a time machine, would you invest in downtown real estate in 2019? Tobacco in 1990? Slavery in 1855?
Now, add back in the moral case for each scenario. You know that the moral case is inseparable from the business because our decisions have real consequences that we’re responsible for.
Would you invest? Absolutely not.
We are now on the cusp of a revolution in norms around climate. And while the moral case is obvious, this isn’t just about doing the right thing for its own sake. It is about getting ahead of an obvious and irreversible trend.
We have a series of environmental calamities that are driving shifts in public perception. Events like the burning of California, the disappearing of the Great Salt Lake and the Colorado River, and coastal flooding even on sunny days across the southeast. There will not be social license to continue the behaviors causing these things as lives and property are lost. You have your instigating events.
Add a rising and highly engaged climate generation that is prioritizing climate when choosing where to work, whom to vote for, and where to buy from. A generation whose oldest members are turning 40 and are just entering the peak of their social and economic power. Here is your dedicated group, ready and willing to fight for climate justice.
Mix in regulatory demands from every level of government, at home and abroad, requiring decarbonization in utilities, buildings, supply chains, transportation, and more. Top it with financial market pressure with 40% of the world's wealth - $130 trillion – committed to a net-zero future. This is driving the blossoming of technology investment in renewables, electric vehicles, sustainable fuels, enabling software, and a million other things great and small. There’s your enabling technology in spades.
It can seem that systems of our world are not built for the world we are creating. And you’d be right. But it misses just how quickly things are changing in a revolution of norms.
The die has been cast. Rapid, revolutionary change is already underway.
And delaying on climate is stupid. The brands of the future are being decided as we speak. And failing to act is to choose to be relegated to playing catch up.