I was recently involved in an email discussion that highlighted what I feel is a fundamental block to achieving meaningful change around environmental policies. It started with someone asking why it is that people—in fact, society in general—just doesn’t seem to “get it” regarding climate change: “What if I'm delusional rather than everybody else? And if I am, what are the more realistic truths held by the majority?” Predictably, the person went on to lament the “lack of political leadership” in achieving change.

My response to the email was that those of us interested in achieving change related to environmental issues are indeed delusional—at least partly. I remarked that thankfully many of us live in functioning democracies. We must be capable of turning our ideas into a practical politics—and by that I mean we need a political platform that can win votes and thus, the power needed to effect real change. So far, we have not been successful. Environmentalist election platforms as currently structured don't win enough votes to make a difference. It's no good blaming poor leadership, or the power and money of the fossil fuel industry, or a million other things to make ourselves comfortable.

Personally, I believe that many politicians would like to do something about climate change and other sustainability issues, but they haven't yet figured out a way to do it and still get re-elected. How much have we helped them in that quest? A common answer seems to be that “if they were ‘real leaders’ they would just do it and not worry about getting re-elected”—this position is hardly helpful in the real world.

Later, a friend added to the email discussion with this question: “What if it is impossible to develop a set of clear, politically workable policy options that can command significant public support under the current cultural, political, and ideological circumstances? That would not be ‘our’ fault, would it?”

Well, if it’s not our fault, whose fault is it? This reasoning seems to get us right back to the same problematic attitude—we are the few who are “right” and the rest of society is wrong or deluded, or has its head in the sand. This way of thinking contributes to what I call the technocrat-activist mindset. In a previous Stanford Social Innovation Review post, I addressed activist issues; this discussion exemplifies the technocrat problem, and it lies at the heart of why many with an expert technical background feel frustrated with the political class.

The technocrat often takes the view that scientists and experts "know the answer" and are content that it's the right answer—technically—even if there's no hope in hell of it ever being politically viable. That doesn't bother the technocrat, who is convinced that there is a right answer and that he knows it. The politician on the other hand sees the issue from exactly the opposite angle. You cannot achieve change unless you can first achieve power and then hang on to it. So achieving power is the primary objective, and political platforms have to focus first and foremost on achieving power, not just being technically right—if such a thing even exists.

The environmental movement is fundamentally a technocratic-activist movement. It combines outrage with scientific and technical analyses that generate a lot of good ideas and creative approaches. But I don't see many initiatives that are focused on turning these ideas into a practical politics. And by practical politics, I don't mean throwing lobbying money at Washington, as with the cap-and-trade bill. I mean the slow, painstaking development of a political platform capable of winning real-world votes on a large scale and thereby gaining the power it needs.

At the end of the day, all the research, the science, the theories, and the outrage have to be turned into on-the-ground politics. We need to divert more of the significant existing resources to that end.

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