Two Fables: Revolution by Evolution

Here are two political clichés we should reexamine:

  1. We might call the first the Populist Fable, in which the environmental movement is perceived as dominated by a backward looking band of tree-huggers who oppose all progress, put the welfare of snail darters above that of humans, and have little sympathy for the economic needs of working-class people.
  1. In the second, which we might call the Progressive Fable, corporations are depicted as so dominant, the marketplace so rigged, and capitalists so avaricious that the only antidote is a strong central government to protect us.

These are caricatures, of course, but they have gained enough traction to do plenty of damage. The Populist Fable has enabled corporate interests – and those in Congress who do their bidding – to undermine the scientific consensus on climate change and to depict wilderness protection as standing in the way of unlocking the nation’s vast natural resources. The Progressive Fable threatens to squash the entrepreneurial spirit that has characterized free enterprise and the market system at their best.

This isn’t to say that we don’t need strong federal regulations to protect our air, water, and public health – nor that we should ignore those environmentalists who warn us against the dangers of unrestricted growth.

But what happens when our government not only doesn’t protect us from corporate exploitation, but actually enables it? “Who,” as Juvenal asked almost 2,000 years ago, “watches the watchmen?”

One answer to that question came this week from an unexpected place: BlackRock, the world’s largest private investment company. In a letter to corporate leaders, BlackRock’s chief executive Laurence Fink wrote, “Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose. To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society.” And with over $6 trillion (that’s 12 zeros) in assets, when BlackRock talks, companies listen.

Think about it: While our government panders to the short-term interests of its donors and constituents, a huge investment firm demands a commitment to the long-term interests of society – not out of some newfound charitable impulse, but because that is the way to true prosperity, which is in the best interest of its investors.

And consider this: Thanks in no small part to the perseverance of the environmental movement, “more than half the coal plants in the United States have closed since 2010” and clean energy continues to grow faster – and become cheaper – than traditional alternatives. Despite the unrelenting efforts of our government to stampede us back to a fossilized past, those tree-hugging Luddites are showing us the way to a sustainable future.

I find these two stories enormously hopeful. They demonstrate paths forward when our government lets us down; and they challenge us to move beyond the clichés that keep us locked in the past. Think of it as revolution by evolution.

James G. Blaine

About James G. Blaine

Most of us undervalue what seem our tiny contributions to our communities and the world. As a result, we feel powerless, even victimized. But, like the butterfly effect in science, the lives we lead with our families, in our communities, and at work – all the so-called little things we do – collectively change the world. As I grow older, my ambition grows more modest but not less important: to participate fully and to contribute what I can. That’s my goal with this blog.