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Meet The New Greens: The Establishment

James Workman is a former speechwriter and special assistant to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in the Clinton administration. He now works as an environmental consultant and is the author of Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought

So you think you can tell Greens from 'browns,' activists from executives, environmental doomsayers from sunny corporate CEOs? Can you tell someone who is on your side of the climate change debate from someone to oppose? Then go ahead, take this easy quiz. Identify who's behind these extreme environmental positions:

1. At the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, I heard a panel led by an alarmist go on and on about "limits to growth!" due to fresh water scarcity. The liberal Club of Rome, right? Nope. Try Nestlé's Chairman, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe.

2. At the World Water Forum in Istanbul, last March, stubborn people demanded recognition that people enjoy "a human right to water." Social agitators under Maude Barlow, outside? Wrong again. The endorsement came from delegates representing Latin American heads of state, inside.

3. In August, an apocalyptic voice warned that the world must "reduce greenhouse gas emissions today…or pay the price later…in human lives." Greenpeace? Actually, General Anthony C. Zinni, a retired Marine and the former head of the Central Command, in a report he prepared for the Navy.

4. At the World Water Conference in Stockholm, green idealists envisioned a future in which, as one put it, "we need a fundamental change in the system….There has been a lot of discussion and debate of water issues, but too little action. This must change, and soon." Earth First? Save the Rivers? Hardly. John Williamson, the 48-year-old president of Water and Wastewater for ITT Corp.

Scored 0 out of 4? Don't feel bad. Climate change has radically altered the rules, and roles, and assumptions of the game. Sure, in a few cases, those with clout may adopt slogans of activist protesters in an effort to defuse criticism and co-opt the agenda. But more often the people in charge seem as troubled as you about increasingly extreme fluctuations in nature.

Why? Beyond personal reasons, climate affects their operations, their bottom line: without a reliable price, water resources are depleted, and that undermines Nestlé's agricultural foundation. A human right to water could calm Latin American voters at risk of drought or displacement. A changing climate unleashes waves of refugees across borders, causes states to fail, and stretches the Pentagon beyond its already thin capacity.

Still, what's with this counterculture-sounding demand for "fundamental change in the system?" Hasn't "the system" proven rather profitable for ITT, which he runs?

Yes, said Williamson in a follow-up interview. But it is also in danger of collapsing under the mounting compound stresses of cost, neglect, growth, migration, waste and climate-driven scarcity.

First, there's billions of potential customers under governments that are increasingly too bankrupt, to help. "The system" fails all parties who can't afford secure clean water "to where people need it, and ensuring usability once it is available."

Second, even people who benefit from "the system" don't understand how fragile it has become. Nations like China have generated short-term economic gains while ignoring mounting long-term social and environmental water pollution costs.

Third, even the U.S. infrastructure has been abandoned for so long that billions of gallons leak in drought, and "every day literally hundreds of water mains break, wasting both water and money."

Fourth, most officials - democratic or authoritarian - "seemingly turn a blind eye to the gathering storm and will respond only after disaster strikes." Read: California's crippling drought or New Orleans' devastating flood.

Finally, even with all the technological progress for developing and affluent populations, there is still "tremendous waste within current systems. If we eliminate this waste, we could more than double the availability of usable water for those already getting it."

Hence the need for a system-wide overhaul. But where responsibility lies for that is not so simple. Yes, says Williamson, governments must regulate waste more effectively, and the private sector must respond with research and investments. He mentioned a few successes from China (pop.1.3 billion) to Cloudcroft, New Mexico (pop. 800).

But above all, overhauling "the system" has to start with you. Yeah, you.

"I'm not convinced that Americans understand the issues surrounding water," says Williamson. "They pay more for their water than they think they do. We need to raise awareness of the problem itself: the need to invest and the potential negative effects of not doing so can triple the cost."

Well, so much for the tired old 'us vs. them' or 'get guvmint out of the way' slogans. As mercury rises, rivers desiccate, and people overwhelm urban water works, "it is not desirable, efficient or frankly viable to have one party (government, business, individuals) 100% responsible. This problem requires collective commitment, collective responsibility and collective action."

That's the voice of someone who happens to be an international corporate manager of 10,000 employees, but one who also senses how we're all locked in this messy world together, depending on the same matrix of life for our collective health and survival.

So how do we tell the powerful from the vulnerable? How does someone like Williamson fit into the environmental debate? Is he Green or brown, activist or executive, doomsayer or optimist? Or is he simply, like you and me, another complicated human, quietly working out a climate change revolution from within?

By James G. Workman