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Ziplining2012-05-30

 

Ziplining isn't a recent invention. It wasn't created by thrill seekers or scientists or Maxwell, the Geico pig. Originally a jerry-rigged transportation system designed to hoist supplies to remote regions, it's become the most recent hip-like-disco addition to bucket lists after sky diving and swimming with sharks.

Having now crossed it off my list, I'd like to add that ziplining is a wonderful visual of what a low-carbon economy could look like.

Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to chaperone my daughter's eighth grade class to Costa Rica, holder of just .03 percent of the world's land mass, but five percent of the world's biodiversity, making it a test tube for what happens as the planet heats up.

Until the 1940's, Costa Rica's rain forest covered as much of the country as it did when Columbus blew off course and landed there in 1502, but the unsustainable sale of hardwood from the forest coupled with a burning epidemic in the 70's and 80's to create pasture land left the country with a fraction of its past grandeur.

Well on it's way to becoming a cautionary tale, Costa Rica's government helped the nation turn its focus from extracting resources to attracting investment. This didn't happen because of a popular uprising, international boycotts or early adoption of climate change mitigation goals. It happened because there was an economic opportunity that was recognized across the political spectrum--a better way to make money and provide prosperity.

By turning one-quarter of the country into a protected natural park system, Costa Ricans are now competing in a global economy with few peers. Having a forest with 12,000 species of plants, 838 species of birds, 232 species of mammals and one zipline that crosses it at the Continental Divide isn't something that can be duplicated more cheaply or outsourced to Asia, and it's why Costa Rica has a $2 billion annual tourism industry in a country with a national public sector budget of $4 billion. And as a palladium for its unparalleled assets, the nation has invested in clean energy--99 percent coming from hydro, geothermal, biomass, solar and wind sources.

In hindsight, ziplining above this singular country is the exhilarating equivalent of being able to see the literal and metaphorical truths that American consumers, companies and Congressmen have been grappling with in a global, post-industrial society: people will choose a more sustainable path, but only when a better alternative (read: job, product or policy) is available. It may not be quick or linear, and it has to overcome intransigence from the status quo.

Today, in Costa Rica, while problems like public debt still exist, they've made that connection because it was in their self-interest to do so.

After we returned home, I read a column penned by the always erudite, KC Golden, who bemoaned the art of political communication as a tactical means that's losing the moral high ground over climate change through messaging that's co-opted by economics and national security rather than dealing with an objective reality. "Losing the war by winning the battles,” he called it, and he expressed frustration with those who fight for climate solutions but who won't own up to the scale of the problem.

To paraphrase his argument: messaging and morality exist on separate planes because one is about the truth and one is about misdirection. Having seen self interest work for a greater good, I take exception to that point of view. As a messaging practitioner, I can't say I've ever seen a case in which claiming hegemony over moral imperatives won more converts than lost them.

For Costa Ricans, the change came about when they realized their finite land had only so many trees to sell. Having figured out what's unique and distinctive about their country allowed them to add value--and allowed us all to benefit--especially Costa Ricans who now have a higher standard of living, a more diverse economy and the knowledge that they helped contribute towards solving a problem that exists well beyond their borders.

To most people, climate change is still opaque. Their island isn't under water (yet) and there are (a few) benefits, according to my climate change believing but winter-hating father who commented weekly on how nice it was not to have to shovel his driveway this past winter. Trying to get them to intuit an ethereal scale of magnitude and put it on the front burner (no pun intended) is like asking the boiling frog in the pot not only to jump out but to calculate where it will land based on a quadratic equation.

While climate change is certainly a moral imperative in our lifetimes, it's not the only moral imperative. That's why, painful as it may be, messaging around a better and more temporal future matters.

In a few weeks my daughter turns 15, and the conversation about driving and owning a car has blown in like a winter storm from the Gulf of Alaska. Because this G-Force loving spark isn't going to be satisfied with a bus pass, the idea of a surplus army tank that gets two miles per gallon of diesel and takes $500 to fill up the seems like a completely reasonable compromise, regardless of what the state highway patrol or my sustainably-minded friends might think. For the short term, keeping her safe and alive is at the top of my hierarchy of needs. If forced to choose between flora and fauna whose demise I might be able to survive versus the life of my child without whom I couldn't, it's not a close contest.

Do I ever want to be forced to make that choice? Of course not, and neither does anyone else--but that's where innovation comes in as the mortar between the bricks that successfully builds a prosperous home. I want a better mousetrap that protects my most precious value AND shares my values. Build that, replicate that and celebrate that and you'll have a powerful and unstoppable coalition because they'll understand what's in it for them.

Like most Americans, I don't want to believe I'll be held hostage in perpetuity to petro-dictators and the bankers who lend us money to pay them. We have the opportunity to make a better future and one that is tangible for everyone. Yes, electric vehicles are still expensive and they still rely on a grid that's powered by coal, but it's an evolution in the right direction. We also have to reorient people who have been burning fossil fuels for centuries that the kilowatt hour we don't use is as important as the kilowatt hour we do. They aren't going to change that frame overnight, and they certainly won't change it by preaching a dyspeptic future to a choir who longs to feel redeemed for their righteousness.

As for me, I'm OK if I die without getting to swim with sharks, but a carbon neutral steel reinforced assault vehicle that runs on hydrogen and has the proper signals for changing lanes would be nice--but please do it quickly. Costa Rica's counterpart, the asphalt jungle, is 379 days away from a date with Speed Racer.

 

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