Two Steps Forward

VERGE 17: What does it mean to be 'still in'?

GreenBiz/Kathryn Cooper

In June, in the days immediately following President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, a spontaneous meme cropped up, declaring, in the age of Twitter hashtags, #WeAreStillIn. More than 2,000 American businesses, investors, cities, counties, states, tribes and institutions of higher education signed an open letter calling Trump’s decision “a grave mistake that endangers the American public and hurts America’s economic security and diplomatic reputation."

According to the organizers, the letter’s signatories represented more than 127 million Americans from all 50 states, and $6.2 trillion of the U.S. economy, or roughly a third of annual GDP. It was an unprecedented outpouring of support for an environmental, social and economic issue, for the United States and the world.

But what’s happened since? In general, the signatories seem to have continued their inexorable march to reduce energy use, ramp up renewable energy purchases, shrink greenhouse gas emissions, cut waste overall, think about how to engage in more "circular" production methods and engage in myriad other things that frankly, many of them were doing already and continue to do.

#WeAreStillIn largely has disappeared from view, morphing into the hard work of political advocacy — getting past slogans and signatures to address actual policy advances. (Trump's possible reversal of his Paris decision, as reported over the past weekend but denied by his administration, wouldn't change much, given his administration's general refusal to recognize, let alone mitigate, the climate crisis.)

So, another internet meme has faded into the background. Meanwhile, a host of other environmental issues — from land use and endangered species to water infrastructure and wetlands protection — have been undermined by neglect, disinterest or "regulatory relief," conservative code for "rollback," with relatively little hue and cry from the private sector.

I’ve yet to see a #WeAreStillIn movement around any of these pressing issues. Where are the business- and institutional-led campaigns to support all of the other federal endangered environmental initiatives, some on the verge of extinction?

Indeed, what does it even mean to be "still in"?

It’s a question I’ve been asking lately as I view the business and environment landscape and take heart in the unwavering commitment of companies and other institutions, but bemoan the lack of a collective vision, or voice, about what a sustainable world can look like, and how we can get there.

At this week’s VERGE 17 conference and expo, we’ll be painting a pretty vivid portrait of that world, and the path forward from here. And that’s making me feel hopeful again.

The conference, for the uninitiated, focuses on the intersection of technology and sustainability — a broad swath of innovations in clean energy, intelligent and healthy buildings, connected and electrified transportation systems, circular materials flows, smart and adaptive infrastructure, resilient communities and more. However futuristic or idealistic these things may sound, this is very much about the here-and-now, a vast assemblage of innovations and market transformations already taking place and poised to accelerate in the coming years.

It couldn’t be happening at a more opportune moment.

A confluence of current events — extreme weather, political chaos and dysfunction, widening inequity, increased interdependence among nations, greater uncertainty about the future by the generations destined to inherit it — is putting humanity at a crossroads, one where the possibilities, both good and bad, are endless.

So many solutions — for clean air and water, virtually unlimited energy, abundant food, affordable housing and smarter cities large and small — are already here, many of them deployable affordably at scale. There are bottom-up innovations coming weekly from every corner of the globe, including from the so-called "base of the pyramid," and seemingly audacious commitments and achievements being made by some of the world’s largest companies and governments.

We’ll be showcasing many of these innovations in VERGE’s expo hall, itself powered by a renewable energy microgrid that we’ll build on site in less than a day. It’s a small technological feat, perhaps, but a giant demonstration of what’s possible when both people and technologies come together with a smart and shared vision.

All of which suggests that, individually and collectively, a great many of us are "still in."

It’s not just about staying the course on climate change — continuing whatever your organization was doing or planning as of May 31, the day before Trump pulled the plug on Paris. And it isn’t even about doubling down on climate and renewable energy goals or setting increasingly aggressive targets and timetables.

Being "still in," for my money, begins with understanding that the path forward on so many of society’s goals and ambitions — to be prosperous, secure and sustainable — is hiding in plain sight. It’s about organizations’ and their leaders’ intention as much as their actions, a mindset that much more is possible than simply cutting back on detrimental activities in favor of less-detrimental ones.

At VERGE, we’ll be discussing what being "still in" really means, a vision of the near-term future that engenders the kinds of outcomes that support a world of 9 billion or 10 billion human inhabitants, abundantly and equitably, including for those who haven’t yet benefitted from such advances.

I hope you’ll join in — if not with the 2,000 people we’re expecting this week in Santa Clara, California, then with the many thousands more who will be participating in the free livestream — in the can-do spirit that permeates VERGE, the undying optimism that there’s a bountiful and bankable future standing before us, if only we are bold enough to seize it.

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