Are environmental interests and business interests mutually exclusive? Our divisive sociopolitical climate might make you think so — you’re either labeled ‘tree-hugging’ or ‘greedy’ — but it is not an either/or proposition, especially when it comes to water conservation. In fact, conservation groups and the business community will need to rely on each other to ensure mutual success for the future, argues Joe Whitworth, president of The Freshwater Trust.
During his keynote address at the recent 2016 Water Environment Federation Technical Exhibition and Conference (WEFTEC), Whitworth presented a new paradigm for conservation that utilizes an approach from a perceived and sometimes real adversary — corporate America — though he takes his cues from leading-edge (often enviro-friendly) companies such as Google, Apple, and Amazon.
“The environmental war is over and the ‘greens’ have won, but they [have] only won on paper,” Whitworth stated. He then cited areas of failure for the conservation movement, including efficiency, cost-consciousness, and accountability — all traits common to sound business management.
Meanwhile, if the business community hasn’t been giving credence to conservation, they may also be on a path to failure. Scarcity of resources, particularly water, will be exacerbated as the world’s population grows from 7 billion currently to 9.7 billion in 2050, per United Nations projections.
“Nature makes drought, man makes scarcity,” said Whitworth, pointing to our collective role in managing water resources. “If we don’t get ahead of this problem, it’s going to be our undoing,” he warned.
With that, he shared the following five principles of conservation modeled after successful business approaches (from his book, Quantified: Redefining Conservation for the Next Economy).
Situational Awareness – Referencing the failure of another tech company, BlackBerry (juxtaposed with the forward-thinking of Google et al.), Whitworth counseled organizations to keep pace or get left behind. “This is not the steady state of yesteryear; this is changing, and we’ve got to get results.”
Bold Outcomes – Whitworth railed against the idea of paying for effort rather than outcomes. “We got so caught up in the little things — following a process, trying not to get in trouble — that we lost sight of what we’re doing.”
He was also critical of unambitious, uninspired problem-solving. “Our problems require us to ‘go big.’ …We can’t just hold the line, we’ve got to improve.”
Innovation and Technology – Innovation is necessary (“More of the same has gotten us here, and we are getting increasingly less and less from our efforts”) and should be the norm (“It can’t just be a set of really good examples here and there”), Whitworth pleaded.
Data and Analytics – A recurring theme of Whitworth’s presentation was the glaring lack of accounting for money spent — “$10 billion spent without worrying about outcomes,” he exclaimed, referencing government funding and philanthropy dollars.
Gain-focused Investment – “I’m tired of the argument, ‘It’s the right thing to do.’ It’s the smart thing to do,” Whitworth said, emphasizing results over intentions. “We have to make gain with every single deal.”
And when it comes to deal-making and gain-making — an agreement to fix America’s largest watershed, for example — standardization is a key that is sorely missing. “The Chesapeake States all have different ideas,” Whitworth lamented.
Despite his call for change, Whitworth was not pessimistic in his outlook. True to the ‘all-business’ approach, he is simply identifying problems to arrive at solutions. “Everything in this world can and will be made better,” he encouraged. “The only question is when, and by whom?”
When it comes to safeguarding water supplies, we should all answer the call — from left to center to right, tree-huggers and industrialists alike.
Image credit: "The Water Planet" NASA Goddard Space Flight Center © 2010, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/