What the government shutdown teaches millennials about advocacy

Many of the people who seek sustainability careers today would probably have entered politics or nonprofits in previous decades. Even those who joined nonprofits back then would likely have tried to influence public policy.

Instead, today's young professionals who are environmentally and socially motivated often spurn the political process and turn to the direct, tangible world of business.

For people who claim to embrace systems thinking and complexity, much of the Generation S I know is willfully ignorant of politics as a channel for change. I can't say I blame them. After all, I'm doing the same thing myself. Influencing policy seems messy, slow and unglamorous. I don't want to wait around for a brief window of opportunity on the political agenda. I want to get out there and do something.

But the government shutdown, slowdown or "slim-down," whatever you want to call it, reminds me that my generation of impact-oriented professionals may not be wise to be so glib about the role of advocacy.

The uncomfortable truth about counterfactuals

One of my strategy professors in business school routinely asks students to identify underlying assumptions and then propose the counterfactual to test or illuminate that assumption. The government shutdown would be my professor's thought-experiment writ large. Everyday news stories highlight yet another way the shutdown on government programs and policies impacts our lives and careers. I wonder if my business sustainability colleagues are taking notice.

Like many others, I acknowledge that policy issues like carbon markets, pollution regulation or renewable fuel portfolio standards will likely be relevant to my future work in the corporate context. As a corporate sustainability representative, I may even participate in related lobbying or legislation in the future.

When I think about this, I like to imagine being one of the automakers that worked with the Obama administration in crafting the new CAFE standards. Or a member of the team that crafted Johnson Controls' support of energy efficiency regulation.

What I think about less often is the prospect of internal conflict between personal and professional opinions, or disagreements with leadership about the position my company takes on a sustainability-related issue.

Recent events, however, have broadened my thinking. Stories on the news about families being shut out of national parks remind me of studies that show that childhood interaction with nature and experiences such as camping, hiking or fishing [PDF] are some of the best predictors for adult environmental behavior. That matters to me if I want to market green products in the future.

When thinking about this article, I went to the U.S. Census Bureau's website to try without luck to get some information on trends in 20-somethings voting: "Due to lapses in government funding … census.gov sites, services and all online survey collection requests will be unavailable until further notice."  

While it turns out that voter turnout for 18-29 year olds was only 4 percentage points lower in the 2008 presidential election than in 1972, the exercise reminded me of how much sustainability initiatives rely on government agencies and the data they provide. Less than 7 percent and 1 percent of EPA and U.S. Geological Survey employees, respectively, are working through the "lapse."

And then there are the indirect impacts. These include support for basic research that will lead to new technologies that could one day help my future private-sector employers to commercialize sustainability-related services. Or the customers that may be waiting on cost-sharing disbursements to purchase a new residential solar system.

Stepping up the plate

However, ignoring the interconnected nature of government, policy and green business is not only unrealistic, it is also poor strategy and missed opportunities. Organization around B-Corp legislation or the buzz around changes to investment regulation allowing crowdfunding go beyond incentivizing investment in specific green industries to changing the nature of the ecosystem in which sustainable businesses operate. What other changes would be possible if more for-profit sustainability practitioners engaged in advocacy, either through work or their personal life?

My Generation S colleagues and I like to think of ourselves as innovators who push boundaries. We are proud of being change agents who push businesses to think outside the box.

But when few of my sustainability friends can tell me what COP19 is or what the Farm Bill has to do with biofuels production, it might be a sign we've gone too far away from the policy realm. Maybe it is time to return to some of the boxes we've ignored. Being engaged and informed advocates of positive public policy might be one box we want to check.

American flag image by e X p o s e via Shutterstock.