The Long View, Sustainability and President Trump

The Long View, Sustainability and President Trump

Eban Goodstein
Director, Bard MBA in Sustainability


At a moment when the future of America seems to hang in the balance, it is critical to take the long view.  Whether President Trump crashes and burns, or digs in for eight years, nevertheless, we remain standing at an extraordinary moment in the history of the human project. The last ten thousand years are smashing into the next three decades, and collectively, we still have got to figure out how to meet the needs of soon-to-be ten billion people where everyone is aspiring to a better quality of life; where we are already fighting over water, and oil, and topsoil, and fish, and forests and biodiversity; where the oceans are rapidly acidifying; and where it is getting hotter all the time.

Sustainability has engaged the human imagination in anticipating these challenges, and changing the future. Taking the long view of a Trump presidency requires that we first refocus on what needs to be done, regardless of the politics of the moment. Sustainability offers a powerful way to thread the needle, to see humanity and the creatures of the earth safe through this bottleneck, towards a just and prosperous future. And across the world, we have been making rapid and surprising progress in service of that vision.

Trump is the first US president untethered from the support of any political party. He rode to power by solidifying a new political base, folks left behind by globalization, empowered by media echo-chambers, and ready to rally behind a white ethnic nationalism. Humans are hard-wired to respond to a narrow tribalistic politics, with insiders pitted against outsiders. Masterfully stoking these emotions, Trump won a narrow victory in the electoral college. Now many fear that his divisive politics will take America far down a dark and destructive road.

The sustainability vision stands in sharp contrast. With its roots in the idea of sustainable development, sustainability seeks to expand tribal identity, to the whole of humanity alive today and in the future, and to the natural world beyond.  The Trump experiment will determine which concept of tribe, divisive or inclusive, will define America’s direction in the coming four years and perhaps, for decades to follow.

At the end of the day, Trump’s challenge to a sustainable human civilization does not lie in the details of policy change and regulatory rollback. Instead, it is where he may take the politics of division that could overwhelm the future.

The Way Through

Sustainability offers a very concrete roadmap for thinking through, and perhaps getting through, to a sustainable future.  A simple version comes from Paul Hawken,  in his seminal 1992 book The Ecology of Commerce. His central point is that if we are actually to do this, sustainably meet the needs of ten billion, then we have to re-invent our business systems to mimic ecological systems. Nature has been producing sustainably for four billion years. Can humans avoid a civilizational collapse otherwise imminent in the dynamic of so many people chasing so much stuff given the resources and pollution sinks of just our one planet? Yes– if we can learn to radically redesign by natural principals, and apply ecological lessons to our own production and distribution systems.

Hawken emphasized three particular imperatives necessary to move to sustainability. Nature, he said:

  1. Runs on direct solar energy (not stored-up solar energy)
  2. Processes all waste as food (no pollution)
  3. Depends on diversity and thrives on difference

Call #1 the clean energy imperative and #2 the circular economy imperative.  These ideas are now well understood.

By #3, Hawken was talking in part about the rising business monocultures of the late twentieth century: the offshoring of manufacturing and the big-box assault on local economies of retail and supply.  The hollowing out of rural and smaller-town America due to globalized supply chains in turn became fertile ground for candidate Trump. So call item#3 the regrowth of local and regional economic ecosystems, or community revitalization. Clear in imperative #3 is the idea that sustainability requires inclusive prosperity. Unless we create conditions within our business and political system for all to thrive, then the collapse of those systems will ultimately return to impact us all.

Progress and Possibilities

How have we been doing on these three fronts since Hawken wrote twenty-five years ago? On clean energy: amazing. Just ten years past, the vision of a de-carbonized economy powered by renewable energy and an electric vehicle fleet was just that, a vision. Today we can actually see the Promised Land.  Wind and solar are the fastest growing energy sources on the planet. On a good day, the biggest industrial power in Europe, Germany, gets 90% of their electricity from renewables, and the German government just called for the end, by 2030, of the internal combustion engine.

The renewable transition has been truly remarkable. To transform a global economy powered by cheap fossil fuels required a tag-team, forty-year push from the US, Germany, and most recently, China.  Government research and support for nascent industry drove the cost declines that have finally pushed solar and wind, and will soon push electric vehicles, into dominant competitive positions in the market.  And while the revolution will now continue regardless of what the US does, the pace at which it advances, and the places in which it advances most rapidly, will still be affected by regional and national policy.

By contrast, achieving imperative #2, a truly circular economy, is largely a business challenge.  At the end of the day, business has to pioneer a set of radical redesigns that dramatically reduces ecological footprint, and makes money off of these approaches. If they are not profitable, the new techniques will not spread rapidly and sustainably across the global economy. Driving this effort, in the last two decades, we have also seen the remarkable rise of a business sustainability movement. Hawken’s book famously inspired Ray Anderson of Interface Carpets to become the first major CEO convert to building a “purpose-driven” firm. When Anderson died in 2011, the company was half-way to “Mission Zero” of no negative environmental impact. More recently, Paul Polman CEO at Unilever, a company that touches two billion people a day, has vowed to cut the business’s ecological footprint in half while doubling sales. In her recent book The Way Out, my Bard MBA colleague, Hunter Lovins charts both the business case for sustainability, and the wealth of examples illustrating the path towards a profitable circular economy.

This year, in rating their top 100 CEO’s worldwide, the Harvard Business Review added an Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) component to help determine the ranking. In the accompanying interview with the leading three CEOs (all European), each said that social and environmental purpose was central to their strategic thinking and core to their competitive advantage. Maybe this is “purpose washing”, but it is nevertheless a dramatic ideological departure from the recently dominant Milton Friedman dictum that the sole mission of business should be to maximize shareholder value.

In very short order, every major global company and many smaller ones, as well as large non-profits like universities and hospitals, now have teams whose job it is to promote the circular economy, and pursue strategies consistent with Hawken’s vision of radical redesign, along principles laid out by nature. At the same time, thousands of start-ups driven by social entrepreneurs are pioneering new business models focused specifically on solving social and environmental challenges. Are we there yet? No, this will be the work of a century. But we have made a lot of progress in a short time.

There is also promise around imperative #3, community revitalization.  Just prior to the election, a NY Times article argued that the “Walmart era is over”. After rising for years, global trade volumes are now flat. And “the automation of factory work is making it harder for other nations to follow [China]. Dani Rodrik, a Harvard economist, calculates that manufacturing employment in India and other developing nations has already peaked, a phenomenon he calls premature deindustrialization.”

If the IT underlying robotics is undermining globalization, it is now also making small possible, and laying the foundation for a new wave of locally and regionally-based economic activity. IT-enabled production is a key factor helping to overcome the economies of scale and global wage differentials that drove the creation of global supply chains. Consider Community Supported Agriculture. Small farms have seen a resurgence as the web has dramatically lowered the cost to farmers of customer acquisition.  Or solar panels, wired into the increasingly smart grid, now support both local energy production and installation and maintenance jobs. Or the gig and sharing economies that is full of new independent contractors, precarious as those jobs may be.

The IT economy has its own immediate problems, including monopoly control over the platforms, reinforcing inequality in wealth and power. But in terms of re-localizing production, it is allowing individuals to develop new forms of livelihood, even as the old ones have collapsed. The key will be to channel these opportunities into community revitalization, with inclusive local health, education and welfare policies. The places that are making the most out of new economic opportunity are cities, small and large, where public engagement and private-public partnership are strong. These include progressive cities in conservative states, like Nashville, Austin and Salt Lake.

The IT revolution is also double-edged sword for local economies, as the robotics innovation will soon be displacing not just manufacturing jobs in India, but also health care workers and lawyers in the US.  One of the fundamental challenges to community health will be the need to adapt to a continuous loss in jobs as the pace of labor-saving IT accelerates.  This process again will require resilient communities, not simply a collection of lone-eagle, gig-economy workers.

Enter President Trump

Trump’s election then comes in the midst of rapid progress around the sustainability agenda:  (1) dizzying progress on clean energy; (2) the emergence of a small but growing business army for sustainability that is creating the circular economy; (3) and cities small and large that are incubating vibrant and inclusive economies in a world where local is increasingly possible.

How does a President Trump impact these trends?

#1 Clean Energy.  Forty years of US/German/Chinese policy have pushed us past the economic tipping point on key technologies including wind, solar, and electric vehicles, and gotten us closer on a fourth: storage. Clearly, for the next four years, US national policy will no longer be a significant driver for these or other critical technologies, including smart grid. Overall, rapid progress on clean energy will continue without US national support, but not as fast as it would have been or needs to be. Of greater concern, US withdrawal from the international climate process, including the climate deal struck in Paris, may cause the whole agreement to unravel. Other nations will walk away from their commitments, and fail to show up in 2020 with the deeper cuts mandated by Paris.

On the other hand China, Germany and India along with a number of US states (West Coast plus Northeast and mid-Atlantic states) may shrug off Trump’s disengagement, and continue leading in the policy environment. Some EU politicians have already threatened a carbon tariff against the US. And perhaps the coalition of US states may form a shadow group to represent the US in the UN climate negotiations.

Finally, even under a President Clinton, further US policy pushes on climate were going to be weak. Significant new US action will require legislation, and thus a major realignment in support of clean energy in American politics. Despite an emerging centrist coalition including military and business leaders and evangelicals in favor of climate action, such a shift in Republican thinking would have been highly unlikely under a polarizing Clinton administration. Trump, by inviting intense backlash, and should his presidency fail quickly, has perhaps brought a clean energy realignment that would include some Republicans closer. If so, there is the possibility for serious bi-partisan policy support for clean energy in the 2020’s.

In sum, Trump’s presidency will show clearly in the geologic record if under his watch Paris unravels, the Germans, Indians and Chinese step back, and the renewable energy revolution fails to keep accelerating over the next decade. A lost ten years of rapid renewables growth will mean a couple of tenths of additional global warming, more acid oceans, and more meters of sea-level rise.  Eventually, as the world continues to heat up, the world will reengage, but Trump’s damage to the earth will be permanent, on the order of ten thousand years permanent.

#2 Circular Economy.  The business case for sustainability—no inherent conflict between doing good and doing well, and doing both through radical innovation in production and delivery– has a strong, practical beachhead in most major corporations, both in Europe and America.  Will Trump presidency undermine or strengthen the efforts to develop a proto circular economy?

The first possibility is that sustainability goes out of fashion. Business gorges on an orgy of relaxed or eliminated regulations, and voices focused on the long-term are stigmatized as “politically correct”, and silenced.  The second option is that sustainability efforts stay constant, as businesses face uncertainty about interpreting regulatory changes, fear the regulatory changes may be short-lived, worry about consumer backlash, and are still dealing with stricter regulatory regimes in Europe.

The third road sees business sustainability efforts redoubling as US government draws back, and a heightened consumer and millennial worker concern for mission emerges.  The commitment of young people to social entrepreneurship is very likely to accelerate in the face of radical changes in social policy.  There is a possibility—again perhaps— that President Trump may generate more widespread business leadership catalyzing “all waste is food” innovation. In fact, all three of these trends will likely occur, depending on the degree to which regulatory compliance is driving sustainability efforts.  In companies where the motivation has taken on a business logic of its own, the circular economy will continue to advance.

#3 Community Revitalization.   While the pace of clean energy deployment is still impacted by national policy, and the growth of circular economy requires business to develop new models, community revitalization is driven by cities that can best capture the opportunities for relocalized production.  The old economy of high-wage manufacturing jobs is gone, regardless of Trump’s efforts. So the most critical resource for localities is good governance to take advantage of what an IT economy offers, while managing through the next wave of robotics-driven job loss that IT is also teeing up.

Under Trump, a reduction in federal funding and explicit support for sustainable development may be made up in the very short run by access to infrastructure spending.  The question is, will a Trump administration impact the political capability of cities to foster inclusive economies? As with business, the pendulum could swing both ways. In more polarized communities, sustainable city initiatives could become stigmatized and politically vulnerable.  On the other hand, the withdrawal of federal support could drive more creative and far-reaching work in places with the political will.

To sum up, the first four years of a Trump administration will do the most immediate damage around the clean energy imperative, not because Trump can derail it, but because he can slow it down at a time so critical to the future of the earth. Circular economy innovation may slow in the short run, as business sustainability efforts falter in the subset of companies where regulation is still driving innovation.  And city efforts to foster revitalization through relocalization may also slow in places where Trump has emboldened an even more polarized and divisive politics.

If Trump fails quickly, and is voted out in four years, then these negative trends may be short-lived. In fact, by galvanizing opposition, the sustainability agenda may come roaring back stronger.  Recall that the Presidency of George W. Bush was going nowhere fast after one year.  Bush was re-elected only as a war-time President. However, if Trump is in office for eight years the view for the long-term becomes darker, potentially much darker.

Had a generic Republican been elected in 2016, with House and Senate backing, this would have posed similar policy challenges to sustainability progress. But Trump adds two serious additional concerns to the mix. First are his character traits—unpredictability, vindictiveness, lack of knowledge and preparation—that led so many prominent Republicans to oppose him. These character factors could easily lead Trump’s presidency into disaster in the face of international or domestic crises.

The second, as noted, is the explicit fostering of white, tribal outrage: the focus on mass deportations, the call for the banning of Muslims, lying about his opponents with impunity, and threatening to jail them, misogyny, attacks on press freedoms, the nods to white supremacists, to anti-semites, and to vigilante violence.  If Trump’s presidency becomes embattled, he has the ability to quickly breathe life into a movement that could divide America for decades.

Overcoming Tribalism

In 1992, the year before Hawken’s book came out, Benjamin Barber published an influential essay called Jihad versus McWorld.  Barber argued that the world was torn between the twin forces of a cosmopolitan but destructive globalization, and the backlash from the people uprooted and left behind economically and culturally by this globalization. McWorld was about open borders, expanded trade, hyper-mobile capital, rising inequality, and yet along with this, a commitment to western norms of human rights. Barber called the opposition to McWorld  “Jihad”, but tribalism is a better word, as the backlash became global.

Working the same dynamic, Trump (and Brexit and Le Pen) have surfaced white ethnic nationalism, and made it a primary driver of mainstream western politics. Tribalism when stoked can become an all-consuming, destructive force. The fear that many Trump opponents are feeling today arises from a sense that his election has placed America’s fundamental future in question: how far down that dark road will Trump’s unleashed tribalism take us?

Sustainability, meeting human needs today without compromising future prosperity, is the third way between unrestrained globalization and 21st century tribalism. In the Trump years, Hawken’s final imperative, reinventing an economy that, like nature, depends on difference and thrives on diversity, is now critical. We are in a new short-run race, and it is not against runaway climate change or population growth outstripping resources. It is rather, at the state and local level, to grow and show a vision of human well-being in an economic system that serves everyone.  We have to bring to life a sustainable vision powerful enough to short-circuit the strong and rising pull of tribalistic politics.

Starting in January, folks on the progressive side of the political aisle will have many unanticipated defensive battles to fight: against mass deportation, against cuts to health care and social security, against the ongoing police killing of unarmed people; against roll-back of environmental and safety and financial regulations; against massive tax give-aways to the very wealthy; against restrictions on abortion rights, against pipelines and fossil fuel infrastructure; against the selling off of federal lands.  But taking the long view, these policy struggles are not new for Americans, and America can overcome them, if not in four years, then in eight or sixteen or twenty. The real threat that Trump poses to a global sustainable future is his tendency to throw oil on the flames of an already deeply divisive politics, at the very moment that we all need to come together.

Time is short and growing shorter to rewire the planet with clean energy, reimagine the global food system, and reinvent transportation.  The long view challenge remains providing billions of people a better life, without depleting the resources of our one small planet. The divisive politics that Trump has conjured into being show us a glimmer of what to expect when people are left behind.  Beyond defense, now more then ever, we must continue our creative, positive and imaginative work. At the state and city and company and organization level, this is the time to innovate inclusive, prosperous communities, serving real human needs and life on earth.

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