Environmental Politics and Strategy
Five years later
- By Richard MacLean
- Sep 01, 2006
In a 2001 Manager's
Notebook article of the same title, I wrote about Washington D.C.'s influence
on environmental progress. Three future scenarios were described: Scorched Earth;
Build-up Breakthrough; and Same-Old-Same-Old. Five years later, let's examine
which of these scenarios tracked true and the relevance of environmental strategic
One of the great things about life is that it affords all of us opportunities
to look back and marvel at what has transpired -- the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The past five years have been nothing less than remarkable when it comes to the
environment. Who would have guessed? Certainly not me. Yet, the three scenarios
I described in a June 2001 Environmental Protection article fall well
within the boundaries of what has occurred and, more significantly, what appears
to be shaping up on the horizon for the next five years.
First, some background. "Developing scenarios" is a planning technique
where stories are written that describe how the future may unfold. Starting with
the present, a team examines a range of possibilities and identifies markers along
the way that may signal the eventual direction and outcome. Once the scenarios
are developed, the group "wind tunnels" the strategic plan against each
of these future scenarios. Typically, these may include a worst-case, most-optimistic,
and most-likely outcome. Finally, the group "lives in the future" and
determines if the present plan is robust enough to address each scenario.
Since no one can foretell the future, the team inevitably will be wrong on the
specific details; but if they have done the exercise correctly, they will have
built into the plan enough resiliency and flexibility to succeed, no matter what
the outcome.1 With strategic planning it is not always the precise
details that matter, but rather the big picture.
Now, back to the 2001 article.
To recap, Scorched Earth was a scenario in which the Bush administration acted
in such a Neanderthal manner that it "would galvanize more activist actions
than ever imagined. The public response may force Congress to act and woe be it
to any companies that stumble and harm people or the environment. The Democrats
are just waiting to spring into action. Probably the first concrete signpost in
this scenario would be Christie Whitman's resignation after seemingly endless
policy reversals and regulatory reversals."
An epilogue as the article went to press stated, "The general public might
conclude that the Administration is clearly on the 'Scorched-Earth' scenario path
. . . The last several months have shown top Bush officials that they had better
get this environmental stuff right. Even good PR will not extract them quickly
from the mess that they created."
At the time, I was still optimistic that the administration would turn it around.
They, I predicted, would face a major backlash à la the Watt/Gorsuch era
where there was a national revolt against Reagan's environmental policies. The
environmentalists would be all over them with a vengeance.
What developed was a combination of the third scenario, Same-Old-Same-Old (i.e.,
nothing much changes) together with a good deal of Scorched Earth in the form
of regulatory rollback and stagnation -- but without the anticipated revolt. What
changed everything, of course, was 9/11, re-focusing the nation's attention on
terrorism. The pushback was muted. The third scenario, Build-up Breakthrough of
major environmental progress led by Washington, never even remotely developed.
I hit one key marker dead on -- namely,
Whitman's exit (complete with her book, It's My Party Too: The Battle for
the Heart of the GOP and the Future of America, chronicling her frustrations).
The most revealing action on the part of the Bush Administration was to fill
the EPA administrator position -- previously filled with high-visibility, national
leaders -- with a faceless bureaucrat. In business as well as politics, if you
want to totally stall action and innovation without calling major attention
to it, this is exactly how to do it. Totally brilliant, if that was the Administration's
true objective. Readers can decide for themselves. As for me, I look at the
At the time, I thought that environmental activist organizations would be effective
in pushing an environmental agenda in Washington. This turned out not to be
the case, and Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, in the seminal 2004 essay,
"Death of Environmentalism," described why. Their controversial view
(but accurate in my opinion) is that environmentalists are still living in the
glory days of the past. The world had changed (literally and figuratively),
but the environmental activists' generals in the United States were continuing
to fight the wars with obsolete strategies. The full impact of these ineffectual
strategies is only now becoming apparent.
So where does this all leave us?
Scenarios are typically developed for time periods of five or more years into
the future. Short timeframes are covered by forecasting and trend analysis.
Indeed, Peter Schwartz's classic on scenarios is titled, The Art of the Long
View. We are at that tipping point now and, viewed in this context, the Scorched-Earth
scenario appears uncannily accurate.
It is not just pushback now, but political payback time. For example, as I write
this article today, the front page of the Wall Street Journal contains
an article on the midterm elections stating: "Democrats are hoping that
Iraq, gas prices, immigration and the environment will boost turnout for their
side."2 Turns out I was on target in my 2001 article, just off
in the precise timing.
Although the environmentalists still
struggle to respond and rethink their strategies, the media and the entertainment
industry are in full-attack mode: an unprecedented number of front-page articles
-- five in major national magazines between January and June 2006 plus a major
motion picture, An Inconvenient Truth.3 And these are just
the high-visibility events. In recent editions of BusinessWeek, headlines proclaim:
"Green: The Next Big Thing," "Green is good for business,"
and "Design for Living."4 In the heyday of the environmental
movement, I do not recall such a deluge.
Behind much of this is, of course,
Washingtonian politics. Al Gore is clearly making points with his new movie,
such that even a leading contender for the 2008 presidential race, Hillary Clinton,
is trying to out-green "Ozone Al" in recent speeches on the environment
and energy conservation.
The Bush Administration has so aligned
itself with "big oil" and tepid energy conservation policies that
the Republican Party, as a whole, will have a tough time shaking off the image.
Even President Bush is starting to back away from some of his views on climate
change, an issue that has grown to international importance as the warning signs
have transformed into warning billboards.
While Washington dithered on the
environment over the past five years, the rest of the world moved on. The global
supply chain and marketplace are very much the reality today. Currently, multinationals
are more concerned about what is happening in Brussels than what goes on in
Washington when it comes to emerging environmental regulations. (See WEEE, RoHS,
REACH, and so on.)5
The Utility of Scenarios
While these battles unfold, the editors of the Wall Street Journal
remain on script with statements such as: "Mr. Gore's narrative isn't science,
but science fiction."6 On Earth Day, the Wall Street Journal's
lead editorial claimed that we can "breathe easier" because "the
world is getting cleaner." But elsewhere on these pages you will find dramatically
different stories by their reporters.
Two days prior to the good news on
Earth Day, there appeared a front-page article on how mercury used in remote
gold mining camps is polluting the globe; not just some backwater village, but
the globe.7 Elsewhere you will find articles such as: "In China,
More Facilities Go Green" reporting on international environmental trends
For me, these conflicting articles
are more than just an interesting example of business cognitive dissonance.
They epitomize the confusion and lack of understanding of the emerging environmental
dynamics within business leadership. Executives read the individual articles
-- the dots -- but they seem unable connect them into a coherent picture of
what is emerging.
The only picture that they can relate
to is one that developed in their minds during the 1980s and 1990s when U.S.
regulations, Washington lobbyists, and environmental activists ruled. In that
picture, the battle has been won, we can breathe easier now and there is no
need for resources (read: "you and your group") to fight any new battles.
The best tool available to connect
the dots is scenario planning. What if you had developed a plan five years ago
and continued to track events and update your business management? What would
be their impression of you, if you had been telling them that one of the three
scenarios -- Scorched-Earth -- was tracking true and it was just a question
of timing before issues surfaced that could result in business threats or opportunities?
Maybe management would think that
you are strategic. Maybe they would insist that you be at the table when strategic
decisions are made. Maybe they would use it to their competitive advantage as
BP and GE have. Maybe they would be more receptive to your requests for resources.
Maybe they would realize that climate change could have much broader implications
than just energy conservation. After all, they already know that the last environmental
movement was not just about birds and DDT.
So, do you have a future strategy
or just a short-term tactical plan to hopefully get you to next year's budget
1 For more about scenario planning, see P. Schwartz, The Art
of the Long View -- Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World (Doubleday,
NY, NY, 1996) and G. Ringland, Scenario Planning -- Managing for the Future
(John Wiley & Sons, NY, NY, 1998).
2 J. Calmes, "Midterm Tea Leaves Signal Hot Water for Republicans,"
Wall Street Journal (June 6, 2006) page 1.
3 Fortune -- January 2006, Time -- April 206, Wired
and Vanity Fair -- May 2006, U.S. News -- June 2006.
4 M. Bartiromo, "Green: The Next Big Thing," BusinessWeek
(May 29, 2006) page 108 and J. McGregor, "Design for Living," BusinessWeek
(June 12, 2006) page 18, T. Thomson, "Green is Good for Business,"
BusinessWeek (May 29, 2006) page 124.
5 Waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE); Restriction of
the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment
(RoHS); Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals (REACH).
6 H. Jenkins, "Warmed Over," Wall Street Journal
(May 31, 2006) page A13.
7 J. Fialka, "How Mercury Rules Designed for Safety End Up Polluting,"
Wall Street Journal (April 20, 2006) page 1.
8 A. Batson, "In China, More Facilities Go Green," Wall
Street Journal (May 2, 2006) page A8.
This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2006 issue of Environmental Protection.
Richard MacLean is president of Competitive Environment Inc., a management consulting firm established in 1995 in Scottsdale, Ariz., and the executive director of the Center for Environmental Innovation (CEI), a university-based nonprofit research organization. For Adobe Acrobat® electronic files of this and his other writings, visit his website at http//:www.Competitive-E.com.