One of the major challenges that impede green progress in business is knowledge. As the Earth’s life support systems become more and more threatened and challenged, solutions become more and more complex and elusive. The huge amounts of chemicals and pollutants put into the atmosphere every day are causing interactions that have never been seen before. The loss of species to extinction is happening at an alarming rate and the threats to the world’s public lands are increasing like never before. As key resources become scarce, business and industry are increasing their pressure to mine and harvest the treasured contents of national parks and forests.
The sad fact is that leaders of business usually do not have the knowledge to take their organization forward into sustainable practices. Their focus is on making money, pure and simple.
But another impediment to creating sound business practices is the simple lack of knowledge of not only what to do, but even realizing that there is a problem. You see, in the United States, we have had an unspoken business principle in place for many years. I call it, "The Higher You Go, The Less You Have to Know."
The most recent example of this disappointing approach is President Obama’s recent nomination of Sally Jewell, President and CEO of the Seattle based Recreational Equipment, Inc., also known as REI, as Secretary of the Interior. As such, she would manage all the nation’s national parks, national forests, and public lands.
This appointment represents the most egregious example of the "The Higher You Go, The Less You Have to Know" principle I have ever experienced. While I have been a staunch supporter of the President, this action is very disappointing.
The assumption that the leader of a business that sells camping equipment can manage the nation’s natural resources is incredibly simplistic. When you look at Sally Jewell’s background, the concerns grow.
Trained as a mechanical engineer, Ms. Jewell worked as an oil engineer for ExxonMobil when she graduated college. She them became a banker before joining REI’s board in 1996, where she became the Chief Operating Officer in 2000 and the Chief Executive Officer in 2005.
She has no training in environmental issues, no scientific background in climate change issues, and no experience in understanding the challenges of managing public lands.
To become an entry level park ranger in a national park, giving nature hikes or enforcing park rules, you have to have attended one of the nation’s premier universities to obtain a 4-year Natural Resources Planning and Interpretation Bachelor of Science degree. To rise in management at a national park, you must have detailed and specialized knowledge and experience.
But to lead the entire public land system and millions of acres of sensitive properties and thousands of resource experts, all you have to have is experience selling camping stoves – and apparently having worked for one of the nation’s premier polluters who has destroyed millions of acres of sensitive habitat through their practices is a plus as well.
This is particularly disturbing since the oil and gas industries are putting more and more pressure to open up public lands for drilling and extraction. They would prefer this “easy way out” rather than work hard to switch to alternative energy sources.
The Seattle Times reported on February 6, 2013 quoted Molly McUsic, President of the conservation group the Wyss Foundation. She said that Jewell "understands the full economic potential of America's resources. She knows the oil and gas business from having worked at Mobil and in the banking industry, but also understands the growing economic potential of America's $646 billion outdoor recreation industry," McUsic added. "She knows that to grow the economy, development of energy resources must be on equal ground with the protection of places that drive tourism, travel, and recreation."
What about the values of preservation, protecting the natural world from business and industry, and reserving space for future generations to enjoy?
She seems to be more identified with Republican values as well. In 2008, when John McCain was running for president, she argued that he had stronger environmental credentials than either Obama or Hillary Rodham Clinton, who were both running for the Democratic presidential nomination at the time.
Those concerned that in the next 50 years, all of the Earth’s life support systems could experience catastrophic failures do not agree with this choice. Contrary to what business leaders will tell you, economic development cannot be on equal footing with protection of precious natural resources, especially when those resources, like forests, are the lungs of the Earth, producing the life giving oxygen we all need. What good will the profits be when no one can breathe?