There is a wonderful opportunity here for a rising leader to embrace the future — and with it the people who are doing their best to drive it in more sustainable directions.
By John Elkington
JFK’s Question, Obama’s Answer?
Fifty years ago, in one of his best-remembered speeches, President John Kennedy uttered the immortal line: “Ich bin ein Berliner.” In his speech marking the anniversary this year, President Barack Obama failed to rise to quite such rhetorical heights. Instead, he chose to focus on nuclear disarmament—but in doing so he missed a trick that JFK managed to pull off repeatedly.
The first time we paid real attention to JFK was on January 20, 1961, when he made his inaugural speech. Many remember — or have heard — the line: “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” But how many of us recall his next sentence? It ran:
“My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”
In the same way that his inaugural speech stirred the rising Baby Boom generation, so JFK’s Berliner speech cut across borders and resonated with those who wanted freedom rather than what would increasingly be seen as the iron yoke of Communism.
There was a moment when candidate Obama seemed to be inheriting that mantle, rallying some 200,000 people in Berlin and apparently teetering on the edge of some truly global message. But history will probably judge that he didn’t get anywhere near Kennedy’s 1963 benchmark.
Obama’s Legacy On The Line
Meanwhile, the Obama Administration is signalling that it is prepared to have a go at tackling one of the great overarching issues of our time, indeed probably the overarching issue: climate change. With his main legislative priority — a comprehensive reform of the immigration system — apparently making headway in the Senate, some media commentators see the President as casting around for another way to ensure a lasting legacy.
“The effort to slow climate change requires bold action,” President Obama told a Berlin audience on June19th. And then he warned, according the Financial Times, that “the grim alternative” would be “more severe storms, more famine and floods, new waves of refugees, coastlines that vanish, oceans that rise.”
With his environmental reputation on the line because of the impending decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, linking Canada’s controversial tar sand operations with Gulf of Mexico refineries, there are already warnings that he should not view proposed carbon controls of coal-fired power stations as a suitable trade for a pipeline go-ahead.
Tom Steyer, a billionaire former hedge fund investor and environmental activist, warned that such controls — even if aligned with stimulus measures for energy efficiency and renewable energy — would be meaningless if the pipeline goes ahead.
Obama’s so-far-missed opportunity is to reach beyond the status quo to a new generation — or to appeal to people around the world who increasingly sense that capitalism-as-usual, and even change-as-usual, will endanger all our futures.
If the President had been better briefed, he might have take a leaf out of the book of Monday Morning’s Erik Rasmussen — and tried to speak to, even on behalf of, the citizens of the emerging independent realm of Sustainia, where Rasmussen was a founding father.
By selecting and celebrating 100 sustainability solutions, evolving across 10 sectors and being deployed in 128 countries, the 2013 round of the Sustainia survey provides probably the most interesting assessment of progress toward the sort of triple bottom line outcomes I had in mind nearly 20 years ago when coining the terms triple bottom line and People, Planet & Profit.
To make it into the Sustainia100 listing, solutions have to be readily available, producing positive impacts, improve the quality of life, and be both financial viable and scalable. The main virtue of the survey, said Connie Hedegaard, European Commissioner for Climate Action, is that it demonstrates that “sustainable solutions actually work. That they are profitable. Beautiful. Desirable.”
Emerging Economies Global Green Innovation Hubs
One of the most striking trends identified, as Rasmussen told me after the launch, is that “emerging economies look to be the green innovation hubs of the world. Around half of the initiatives are deployed in Africa, Asia and South America. Their basic needs of today can be their economic opportunity of tomorrow.”
That’s also the spirit underlying The B Team, the new venture founded by Sir Richard Branson of Virgin and former PUMA CEO Jochen Zeitz. This is a not-for-profit initiative formed by a group of global business leaders to create a future where “the purpose of business is to be a driving force for social, environmental and economic benefit.”
Significantly, the founding group includes a significant proportion of leaders from the BRICS, among them Ratan Tata of India’s Tata Group, Guilherme Leal of Brazil’s Natura, African cellphone entrepreneur and philanthropist Mo Ibrahim and—joining just before the launch—China’s Zhang Yue, founder of the extraordinary sustainable building company Broad Sustainable Building.
Also joining The B Team as honorary B members are Mary Robinson and Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, representing People and Planet. Among the priorities of The B Team are the future of the bottom line, of market incentives and of leadership. The B Team’s wider Plan B agenda is summarized here.
It is hardly surprising that past Presidents and Prime Ministers like Mary Robinson and Gro Harlem Bruntland are only really able to join such platforms when they are no longer in office. But there is a wonderful opportunity here for a rising leader to embrace the future — and with it the people who are doing their best to drive it in more sustainable directions.
Obama seemed to get his mojo back with his very welcome climate speech on June 25th. But how long before President Xi Jinping asks, ”What is ’I am a Sustainian’ in Mandarin?”