Two generations ago, the largest group of Americans ever to enter the workforce clung to their new devices — televisions — and collectively attempted to process an overwhelming new reality. Humanity teetered on the brink of extinction, its fate routed through the fingers of political leaders in Moscow and Washington. The date was October 22, 1962, and the United States and the Soviet Union were one bad decision from apocalypse.
Those leaders’s fingers hovered over a big red button — at least that’s how we imagine it now — and while we managed to avoid nuclear holocaust, an entire generation came of age under the existential threat of “mutually assured destruction.” For more than three decades, the world was on a perpetual shot clock, its timer always one tick before the end of days.
“Americans in particular always respond to crises by going to work,” noted Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, who featured the Cuban Missile Crisis in an unforgettable episode. And to work they did go, driving a doubling of the US economy in just one generation, dominating the Soviet Union with a fossil-fuel and corn-syrup fed economic engine, one that out-consumed, outproduced, and outpaced the Soviet’s poorly constructed alternative.
Good for us, and good for the world. Muscular American capitalism won the day. The buttons never got pushed; the apocalypse never came.
But the economic engine that won the Cold War left a costly legacy. And once again, the largest generation ever to enter the workforce gathers around their new devices, smart phones, and ponders mutually assured destruction — this time not from a handful of men in a war room, but from the collective actions of seven billion people driving us toward a moment when our planet no longer can sustain civilization.
If you’re rolling your eyes, I beg you to pay attention to the facts. Any one of us is now more likely to die in a human extinction event than a car crash. Each month of 2016 has been hotter than any month in recorded history. And while we celebrate the signing of the Paris accords just last month, we’re already at the verge of lapping the 1.5-degree limit ratified by the COP21 agreement.
And climate change is not the only destructive result of our current economic regime. Our financialized economy, operating under the banner of “maximizing shareholder value,” has created extreme and unsustainable income inequality, to the point of hollowing out our once-growing middle class, and creating a world in which a mere 62 people hold as much wealth as half the world’s population.
We’re once again on a shot clock, and beating it this time will require unprecedented collective action. We face one of the most remarkable challenges ever to face humankind. But at least we’re waking up to reality. More than 70% of Americans now believe that climate change is real, and more than half of the world views the issue as the most serious global threat to humanity. Climate change and income inequality are to Millennials what mutually-assured destruction was for Boomers: defining issues that will drive massive social change. Whether or not you believe in this threat, climate change is now a social and business fact, a force affecting billions of decisions large and small around the world. Consumers are increasingly voting with their conscience, forcing unsustainable businesses to adopt provable, net positive products and processes. When Unilever, Walmart, Pepsi, and scores of others align with the Pope on sustainability, a movement is most certainly afoot.
The question is not whether our society will create a sustainable economic engine, but rather if we can do so in time to beat the shot clock we’ve put ourselves on. I believe we can, and we will. But only if we shift the conversation around business and sustainability from the margins to the center of our public dialog.
In future columns and in coverage at NewCo Shift, we’ll focus on this story, with particular attention to real solutions, and companies, policies, and people who are driving change in the business ecosystem (all of our coverage will be tagged “shot clock”). If you’ve got ideas for these solutions, please respond here or send me mail (jbat at newco dot co). I look forward to hearing from you!
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