In recognition of Earth Day 2022, we sat down with Common Ground Committee co-founder Bruce Bond to discuss the polarization that exists over some of today’s great ecological challenges—and ways we can meet in the middle.
Q: Why do you believe there is strife over scientific facts surrounding threats to the environment?
A: We have work to do on climate change. I think it is a real thing. But the question is, to what degree does mankind have a role to play? Not, does it have a role to play, but to what degree. So let’s be smart about this. There have to be ways to address the climate problem without causing the enormous changes in the economics and lifestyle of everyday people that often accompany the calls to action. And the thing we ought to be thinking about, especially on Earth Day, is how we can make a difference as individuals—as communities and entities, corporations and government, whatever it might be—to put ourselves in a better position from a climate perspective, that can be done practically with an eye toward engaging people in the effort rather than accepting that they are the necessary victims of dramatic policy change?
Q: What do you remember as your earliest awareness of the environment as something in need of being protected?
A: Like many of us, I remember that “Keep America Beautiful” PSA in the early ’70s, of the Native American in a canoe passing all the garbage, with a tear down his cheek. My father was an executive with Stauffer Chemical, a major producer of DDT, and at the time I didn’t have a full understanding of the pushback on pesticides. When I became more aware of his work, I was like, “That’s something that I’m not going to tell my friends.” But, I began to press him on environmental questions and what I saw as his company’s exacerbation of the problem. He said, “If you want to have this discussion, you need to go get your data. And then let’s have a conversation about it.” And so I did. We’d have these long and passionate conversations at the dinner table, conversations which I’m sure made my mother uncomfortable. When all was said and done, we had both shifted our position and found common ground. As a pesticide to protect crops, DDT is something that you probably don’t want to use. But if you’re trying to save lives, in a malaria situation, it was extremely effective. I learned that context matters. Rarely is any issue black and white, and you don’t solve it through ideology.
Q: What environmental issues give you hope, in terms of solutions with a good bit of nonpartisan support?
A: Fossil fuel-powered cars are going to be like horses. There was a time when horses were the primary vehicle in personal transportation, but innovation and competition resulted in horses being replaced by cars. And we see another similar change unfolding today. At this year’s (2022) New York Auto Show, it was all about electric. Electric cars are already beginning to replace gas-powered ones. We’ve seen that innovation and competition rule. It’s the hidden hand of the market manifesting itself, right? You innovate, you compete, and you get these problems resolved one way or the other.
Then there’s solar energy. Energy companies are going to farmers who might be considered victims of climate change, struggling with farming on what has become fallow ground, and asking “How about if you let us put up some solar panels, and we’ll pay you. You can make a living using your land, and help the environment at the same time.” And it’s like, win-win, right? Also with solar, we do have situations now where you can sell a surplus collection of solar energy from your home back to the power companies. Think about that. That’s just a radical thing. Fifty years ago that would have been unthinkable, the stuff of Tom Swift novels.
There are no so-called easy answers at this point. But the breakthroughs are coming in form of common ground being found, where the economics of improved climate solutions make sense. We absolutely can move forward together to address the climate challenge. It is a doable thing.
Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge to overcome to help people agree on environmental change?
A: There’s a lot of innovation if you can get people to cross the chasm, as Geoffrey Moore would say, with fully operational and economically sound technology. It’s going to take some time for the transition. But the question today is not is there going to be one, but when is it going to happen?
We had an event with Condi Rice and John Kerry at the University of Notre Dame in March of 2019. Kerry is very, very much a climate guy. But he was agreeing with Condi Rice that we are a nation of truck drivers, and we have to have a transition fuel. What could that be? And he was saying, hydrogen is not going to cut it. I was truly impressed to hear him saying, yeah, there’s not a business model, the business model doesn’t work. The economics don’t work. Not yet. And maybe never. He said, but there is a need for a bridging fuel, and that presents an opportunity.
There are times when you have to take a radical step, whatever it might be. But, in the environmental field, you can often make progress in a way that achieves both ends: you don’t create an economic catastrophe for people, and you help the environment repair itself or avoid further trouble.
Q: If you had a broad platform to make a case for common ground on the environment, what points would you stress?
Protect the beautiful, threatened places. I cringe when I see what’s happening to the rainforests, and what’s going on in the Amazon. And it’s more than the science of it, the reduction of the Earth’s ability to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. That is a big deal. But there’s only so much natural beauty on this planet, and only so many beautiful pristine wilderness areas. And when we experience big ecological disasters, like what happened with the Exxon Valdez when I was in school, they make the hair go up on my neck when I read about them or see the videos on the television. The “ROI” of preserving the natural world is very hard to measure. But most people, when they experience the wonders of nature, know in their hearts that those wonders must remain.
The other thing I’ll say that is important about debating climate change and other heartfelt, emotional issues is to remember to keep what’s important in mind. For my dad and me, the DDT debate was a very emotional battle between us. But we never lost sight of the fact that we loved each other. That remains the most important thing. It took some time, but we were able to find common ground. For us, the relationship was always the priority, not the issue we were debating.
A second thing is an importance of getting your facts right. You can have a conversation if you are dealing in facts. And when you think you have them, dig deeper, because it’s all about context, as I found in my discussions with my dad.
And, when it comes to climate change, find organizations you really respect and support. I happen to like the Nature Conservancy, in part because they’re really about being preventative. Let’s go out there and get parcels of land and preserve them. I’m just naturally attracted to good planning, solutions that involve, good, smart thinking that put you in front of things rather than have you reacting to them. Perhaps sending a contribution to a climate organization you respect or an organization that you believe has demonstrated good environmental practices is something you would consider doing on Earth Day.
Last, do the little things. Pick up trash – particularly yours – and recycle. I think those are things we can all agree upon.