Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Incremental Excuse

Aurora and the Rejection of Small Steps
In the aftermath of the tragedy at the Aurora, CO movie theater, the pundits, politicians and lobbyists were at it again with all of the typical arguments about gun control in full force. Both sides of the issue dusted off the same statements they’ve used following the shooting of Gaby Giffords, and the massacres at Fort Hood, Binghamton, Virginia Tech, Columbine and on and on. We weep, we mourn, we do it again.

At the core is the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America (ratified in 1791): A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

One the one side:
·     The Second Amendment has been ridiculously over-interpreted. (The Fox show Family Guy took a satirical jab at the subject.)
·     We need to limit the number and type of guns available for sale to the public, especially those designed for combat.
·     We must ensure that those who own them do so legally after appropriate background checks and registration.
·     Ammunition that is designed to inflict maximal damage and penetrate body armor should be banned, as should high capacity magazines.

On the other side:
·     Our freedom is threatened and the country is undermined if the individual right to bear arms is in any way curtailed.
·     The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to possess a firearm whether or not it’s used in connection with service in a militia.
·     If we lived in a more moral society, we would not see people misusing guns.
·     Gun laws won’t stop the insane from finding ways to kill people.

Personally, I have a difficult time with the last four points but the last is particularly irksome – the rationale that inaction is the best option. The line is that stricter gun laws won’t cut down on violence. It might cut down on gun violence but the violent will find other ways to fulfill their intent.

It’s the same line of reasoning used to say that we shouldn’t invest in solar or wind energy because it would only be drop in the bucket compared to our overall energy needs. Opponents to the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) want it replaced or repealed; there’s nothing to negotiate. Or, it could be taxes and the deficit. The so-called millionaire’s tax can’t get any traction because, the logic goes, it would do so little to cut into our national debt.

Enough! We have to start someplace. We’d like to get to the goal line in one play but we can’t. It’s not happening. “Whatever axiom you want to use – half a loaf is better than none or Voltaire’s “The perfect is the enemy of the good” (originally, Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien) – incrementalism is hard to accept but equally hard to forswear.” That’s what I wrote in my book, Camelot, Inc., and it seems appropriate to repeat it here.

We should remember that our country is nothing but a timeline of incremental advances. Many of the Founding Fathers wanted to abolish slavery, while others insisted that it remain. So, the Declaration of Independence was a compromise. It was a step. We had to wait nearly a hundred years for the Emancipation Proclamation and then another hundred for the Civil Rights Act.

Of course we must cherish our individual rights but we are one nation. Those who love the Constitution should think deeply about its first line: We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Please note the words “We” and “general welfare.” And notice also “union,” “Justice” and “domestic Tranquility.” The Founding Fathers would be in tears if they could see how we’ve misused and abused their words, and became one of the most violent societies on earth.

Compromise and incremental success may not seem satisfying, but it’s the way most things operate and succeed. Baby steps can sometimes add up to a completed marathon.

Congress and state legislatures across the country should take note. Indeed, we need to elect leaders with the courage and conviction to move the country forward. We need to reject the all-or-nothing mentality and reward the smaller but still important measures. We need to learn from the past, not live in it.

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me on Twitter @pauloestreicher.

Monday, July 9, 2012

ExxonMobil Lifts the Veil on its CSR

This article first appeared in odwyerpr.com.

I caught notice of ExxonMobil’s “Let’s Solve This” TV ad campaign a few months ago. Its message is to “invest in teachers and inspire our students.” Indeed, ExxonMobil has been a supporter of science education for many years. After all, they need to stay competitive and find the best engineers, chemists and geologists.

The ads are terrific… and terrifying. In each iteration of the ad we’re told that, in a recent world ranking, the students in the United States scored 17th in science and 25th in math. It’s shameful.

But remember, we didn’t get nudged off the pinnacle; we can’t blame the countries that have overtaken us. This is a self-inflicted wound. We slid toward the bottom of the heap with creeping anti-intellectualism and cuts to education.

My admiration for ExxonMobil’s effort was spoiled, however, after reading an AP report on a speech delivered by the oil company’s CEO, Rex Tillerson, to the Council on Foreign Relations. Though Mr. Tillerson broke with some industry colleagues and recognized that burning fossil fuels is warming our planet, he said, “we’ll adapt. It’s an engineering problem and there will be an engineering solution.”

He downplayed risks to the environment and agriculture, the threat of rising sea levels and the potential for contamination from drilling (by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking) in oil shale formations. Quoting the AP report, he blamed “a public that is "illiterate" in science and math, a "lazy" press, and advocacy groups that "manufacture fear" for energy misconceptions.”

So, what is the oil industry’s biggest challenge? It’s not finding new sources of oil. It’s not a threat from wind or solar energy. Mr. Tillerson said it’s "taking an illiterate public and try to help them understand why we can manage these risks."

There you go; there’s the essence of the ExxonMobil CSR (corporate social responsibility) campaign. The Company’s logic is that a more scientifically literate public won’t believe climate scientists or environmental advocacy groups. They’ll question and challenge their data and they’ll come to accept the information provided by ExxonMobil.

It’s neither a surprise nor wrong that a corporation should seek some sort of gain from its CSR investment. I’ve been involved in plenty of socially responsible programming that reaped corporate benefits and am proud of the work. But the campaign in question raises cynicism to a new level.

One of the beneficiaries of ExxonMobil’s outreach is The National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI). They state that, “American students are falling behind in the essential subjects of math and science, putting our position in the global economy at risk. The mission of the National Math and Science Initiative is to help provide the ideas, inspiration, and resources to close the gap.”

We all recognize that our science and math rankings are competitiveness issues. But it goes beyond this – it’s also about our democracy. Jon D. Miller, director, Center for Biomedical Communications, Northwestern University Medical School told The New York Times in 2005 that “People’s inability to understand basic scientific concepts undermines their ability to take part in the democratic process.” With the politicization of so many topics – stem cells, gene therapy, vaccines, evolution, climate change – a better educated public is essential.

I hope that ExxonMobil continues to fund science literacy and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education programs, even though I’ve now alerted them that their ultimate goal is wishful thinking. It's a classic example of doing the right thing for the wrong reason. And, I hope the public doesn't view all CSR programs as nefarious plots. There’s too much good being done to have CSR get redefined as Cynical Social Responsibility.

Between blog posts, I invite you to follow me on Twitter @pauloestreicher.