Business Gets a New Voice

Business Gets a New Voice

"Why are environmentalists so anti-business," I was asked by a young friend who knew that I had been an organizer of Earth Day in 1970. "Because when we got our start," I answered, "business was anti-environment."

That's true. In the economic parlance of those days, air and water were "free goods." Business and industry, unmoved by any sense of environmental stewardship, profited more by polluting. In short, the industrial system was the problem, and at that time it showed little penchant for reform.

Our cry on Earth Day was “Business and industry are poisoning the planet!” In the context of that era's burgeoning counterculture, this cry was broadcast by a complaisant media to every nook and cranny of America. Amazing to recall, both houses of Congress adjourned for the day so members could go home to take part in Earth Day events.

On the morning after Earth Day, we woke to discover to our astonishment that overnight we had acquired political power! And for some years we held sway on Capitol Hill, securing such landmark legislation as the Clean Air Act (1970), the Clean Water Act, (1972), the Consumer Product Safety Act (1972), the Environmental Pesticide Control Act (1972), the Endangered Species Act (1973), the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974), and the Toxic Substances Control Act (1976).

This environmental revolution pretty much caught business and industry off guard, and it took them some years to mount a counter revolution. But eventually they did and with considerable success. The key was to pit jobs and the economy against environmental protection. Using this formulation, it turned out that we really couldn't “afford” clean air and water.

When, a decade later, I served as National Chair of Earth Day '80, the tide had turned. A now hostile press confronted us, demanding to know, “Just how many jobs have you environmentalists destroyed today?”

Sadly, that’s where the debate has been stuck ever since - that is until this past summer in California when the debate over the Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32) heated up. The legislation, signed into law by Governor Schwarzenegger on September 27, imposes a cap on all greenhouse gas emissions. It is the toughest legislation in the United States to tackle global warming.

This time the debate was cast in terms of business versus business, not in terms of economics versus the environment. What explains this dramatic shift?

Happily, since Earth Day, legions of businesses, large and small, have greened. This is especially true in California where the clean tech industry is burgeoning and where green small businesses have proliferated. But until now these mostly small new businesses have been unorganized, politically weak and inarticulate. The threat of global warming mobilized them and AB 32 gave them a banner around which to rally. And once assembled, they found that they have political clout.

Business supporters ranged from firms engaged in energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies and green building design and construction to socially responsible investment firms and venture capitalists.

Small Business California, for example, the first CA business organization to support AB 32 lobbied in Sacramento, noting the importance of balancing emissions reduction with incentives for California businesses to exchange profits lost through wasted energy for investments that will pay for themselves through lower energy costs. Small Business California argued that the bill put the California clean tech companies on the forefront to maximize innovation and new job creation in the race to supply the world with alternative energy technologies.

In this connection, the pro-AB 32-campaign also deployed venture capitalists and entrepreneurs who touted "green tech" as a growth area involving breakthroughs in energy generation, storage, conservation, transportation and distribution. These endorsements helped shift the debate and handed business-friendly Assembly members a reason to support the legislation in an election year.

Finally, it must be said that, as one would expect, the bill was strongly backed by the environmental community, particularly the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense and Environment California and without them the bill probably wouldn’t have been proposed, let alone passed. But their presence wasn’t what changed the debate. What changed the debate were the many new voices of business.

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Byron Kennard is executive director of the Center for Small Business and the Environment.