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America’s defining moment

June 04 2010 | Culture Shifting, Jim's Blog,
by Jim

As I watch the oil spill numbers ratchet up day after day I'm feeling my thoughts change. I'm moving from "Oh, my God... the damage is shocking" to "This is America's moment of truth. This may be the single-largest opportunity to shift our culture."

The disaster started a month and a half ago.

What are we learning?

How will we employ that knowledge?

How will these choices define our future?

It's crystal clear that the spill in the Gulf will cause massive, not yet comprehended, economic and environmental damage for decades to come. That impact will be felt locally, in the surrounding Gulf region, but we also know it will be felt far and wide. It's also clear that we, the citizens of the United States and our leaders, have let the fox guard the hen house. When government workers cozy up, to the extent they have, with the entities they are supposed to be regulating, the system becomes fundamentally broken. Yes, our government is not perfect. It's not close to perfect. We're not naive enough to think any party has a monopoly on ethical standards, too many government "servants" have served the wrong parties. Yet, enough has been written about these last points.

I find myself increasingly looking at the larger picture. Can this spill end up as a success or will it continue to spiral down into one massive, messy failure whose impact will be felt for decades? To be clear, I will define "success" as a large-scale culture shift.

Look at the chatter on the post-modern town square, Facebook. People are talking. There is dialog on subjects where there hasn't been for years. The "drill baby drill" made-for-media sound bite now seems stunningly small-minded. I hear people from both ends of the political spectrum acknowledging there IS a larger cost to our out-of-whack dependency on oil. This is progress but, let's be honest with ourselves, it's nothing close to what I see as success.

For me success is citizens understanding the larger cost of oil (environmental cost, war cost, economic cost, etc) AND demanding an accelerated shift in energy use/policy (at the personal level and at the federal level). Success to me is the populous shifting their world view away from oil dependency. Success looks like people voting for politicians that will enable such a shift, buying products that enable that shift, employing lifestyle choices that reflect that shift. Success looks like our government swallowing unpopular pills, which may cause some to lose their office, in order to drive policy shifts toward alternatives. No, there IS no short-term fix but there IS a long-term fix. Success looks like us focused on that long-term fix. Success demands an all-hands-on-deck shift, which includes corporations. Now, I don't believe that corporations will change their operations or structure; that is, they exist to maximize returns for stakeholders. But with that said, if stakeholders shift their preferences then corporations will follow. When we vote with our dollars, corporations follow.

The Tesla/Toyota partnership is an indicator of what can be. I can not only envision a car that goes 300 miles on a 4 hour charge (and no gas), I can see it. Success is us demanding the production of this kind of car in a way that makes it affordable to the masses. Success is the west coast of America taking public transportation seriously. Success is the recent uptick in bike riders still riding their bikes in five years... and in ten years... and for the rest of their lives. That is what large-scale shift looks like. Success looks like the State of California stepping up and being the first state to pass a state-wide ban on single-use, made from petroleum, disposable plastic bags. Of course we'll always use oil, that's not the point. The point is in the mix. The point is that we stop pawning our coastlines in exchange for what amounts to a top-off in 2020. We simply must increase the use of alternatives over oil in the years to come.

Success is a large-scale shift away from addiction.

Failure is equally crisp in my mind. Failure is lack of shifting. Failure is embracing addiction.

Failure is ALL of us losing in the long term. Failure is not leveraging these key pressure points, like the massive spill, to adjust our nation's trajectory. If we don't shift, we'll see more of the same (more wars over oil, more drilling in harder places, overall less return on investment, higher risk for lower returns). We may not currently grasp that last point; it's not as simple as the future being a continuation of today. I don't see that as a potential outcome. I see it as either a shift towards alternatives with less dependency on oil or a shift towards larger risks which will invariably bring on larger failures than what we see today in the Gulf. Failure in my mind is the United States continuing to lose its innovative spirit to other markets that have been sprinting to gain ground. Failure is a Hummer. Failure is net new offshore wells drilled at three times the depth of the failing BP well. Failure is telling ourselves the current spill is the first one in a long time (it's not).

Failure is a massively discounted legacy to American generations to come.
There will be a group of people that read my use of the words "success" and "gulf spill" in the same sentence and simply shut down. That's understandable, we're horrified at what we see and we know the worst chapters are ahead. It's challenging to connect those two terms as we're all watching a large region of our country essentially shut down. To be clear, I don't view any detail related to oil spills as a success. My point is "tragedy has struck, how will that tragedy inform our future?" My point is that our collective reaction and the related shift in our personal choices will lead to success or failure.

My point is that ou r collective reaction will define our future. Let's not suffer in the short-term and the long-term.
Let's demand a shift. Let's BE the shift.
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