5 Questions with Andy Karsner of Emerson Elemental

Filed under Elemental

Emerson Elemental's Managing Partner describes our ethos and strategies around rebalancing the relationship between humanity and nature.

How would you describe Emerson Elemental’s ethos and strategy?

Elemental is defined by a willingness to explore the issues at hand at the broadest level — how all of our environmental problems that ultimately affect our destiny as a species are deeply interrelated with the economic challenges that affect our social fabric. There is excellent and important work being done that is almost exclusively focused on climate, or in the corporate sector on supply chains and efficiency, or in conservation and biodiversity. But very rarely is there a practice that can say all of these things are interrelated and have to be thought of in the same value proposition.

Some people say, “Well that’s too big and that’s too broad and too ambitious”; We say, “It’s indispensable that no solution be excluded from consideration; that no stone be left unturned.”

We believe that nature will likely adapt and ultimately save itself, in its own time and in its own way. It’s really a question of whether we as a species can enhance the quality of our lives — how we grow, connect, protect, and respect one another — as well as extend our longevity and our tenure on earth by stewarding healthy ecosystems. What sets Elemental apart is that we have a very humanity-centric and community-focused perspective of our role and relationship to nature.

There are many problems to solve in order to strengthen the symbiosis between humanity and nature. Not all of them are equal in value, or urgency, or significance, or scale. We’re after big, difficult, seemingly intractable problems, like how we can harvest and recycle carbon, or manage fugitive methane emissions, or account for and internalize the true natural capital value of diminishing fish stocks and sustainable forests, or bring equity to technology access and economic opportunity through innovation.

These examples, and climate change itself, represent distinct “hockey stick problems” that require commensurate “hockey stick solutions”. That means we have to think differently and really activate and elevate the entrepreneurial outcomes of a multitude of diverse Doers to get there.

A unifying principal at Emerson Collective is our firm belief that communities are the strongest agents of change. What role do communities have in Elemental’s strategy?

It’s not a new concept of course to focus on communities and civic society as the most effective unit or agent of change. In America, we have always had it in us, some would say it’s part of our heritage or birthright as a nation. Though both are important, we have always achieved more from the bottom up than the top down — churches, synagogues and mosques; Rotary, Lions and Kiwanis; activists, non-profits and NGOs. What we haven’t done in recent years is to comprehensively focus on ways to bolster those efforts, lift up social entrepreneurs at the hearts of our communities and empower them as the prime juggernauts of change.

The biggest problems require solutions that start around a kitchen table, in a school room, or at a community center. What we try to do at Elemental is to strengthen those efforts where we find them, and most often you find them in those communities that have established networks of collective reliance upon one another, and a mutual understanding that “we’re all in this together.”

So communities can and must increasingly be the channel of implementing and modeling replicable change. That’s when we see the greatest results happen at the most accelerated pace for maximum impact.

You’ve said that one of the objectives of Elemental is to sustainably modernize the physical environment and diffuse technologies equitably. How can we do that while still retaining culture and the hearts and souls of our communities?

It is fundamental for us as humans to have harmony and balance with our natural surroundings. But when we modernize it’s important that we’re not just referring to paving over paradise or some kind of purpose-built futuristic vision like “The Jetsons.” Rather, it’s important that we meet communities where they are, and that everyone has a just opportunity to understand what their roles and relationships are as part of the greater commons.

Little success can be expected by overwhelming or imposing upon a community the brave new world of technology. “We’re going to transform you in this prescriptive top-down way.” Rather, locally applicable, culturally acceptable, sustainable solutions has to be something that ideally comes from within the hearts of the people and reflects their relationship with the environment and the aspirations for their children. Surely we can do a great deal to support communities’ understanding the benefits of living well, eating well, breathing well, and drinking fresh water on demand. When you do that, a natural outgrowth is natural modernization — everybody taking care of their surroundings so their surroundings can take care of them.

What is Social Compact 2.0?

The original term of art refers to every individual’s relationship to society. Applied to the world of energy, innovation, and technological progress, was a deliberative effort to improve the commons of society for everyone, irrespective of their incomes or social standing. The noble aspiration of “universal access” of electricity for example, was born with the advent of Edison’s lightbulb. It was amongst society’s grandest ideas to make available and accessible captured and commoditized electrons—part of our shared natural physical world—fungible in a way that society would design systems and orient itself to intentionally deliver them to anybody and everybody. Something so significant and so transformative, that suddenly we could change the temperature of our homes and build neon temples in the arid deserts of Nevada, relocate and retire en masse to the dry canyon-lands of Arizona, and imagineer the “happiest place on earth” amidst the inhospitable swamps of Florida. More poignantly. As a species we began to more continuously turn night into day and afford working class people a chance to read at night after a long day in the factory or in the fields. You see this being played out even now around the world in an unequal and unfortunately protracted way. But yet, a commitment for everybody to equitably access and avail new technology, no matter who they are or where they are from remains, thankfully, unshakeable and undeterred.

Today the benefits and opportunities afforded by modern technology have increased exponentially, but increasingly they are not equitably accessible and available. Instead, they are being distributed in a distorted way, drifting or trickling through socioeconomic channels in a way that undermines us all.

While we innovate, we have to concurrently cultivate system design that modernizes and enhances all society for the better, not just selectively for the few.

It’s more critical than ever before that we design systems that bring us together, instead of things that polarize us and threaten to tear us apart.

That brings us to Social Compact 2.0: technology access and diffusion on an equitable basis to every member of society. No matter who you are, where you live, your financial or social condition, your race, religion, or ethnicity.

We can do this, and in doing so we can enhance economic opportunity for all and achieve the society that we aspire to. We are, in fact, “all in this together”—whether we acknowledge our obligations to one another or not. A new Social Compact covering a new era of rapid technology advancements, particularly those that affect our humanity and nature, can be a source of invigoration and renewed inspiration.

You talk a lot about “acting without permission”. Whose permission are you referring to, and how does this principle influence your work?

When I was a climate negotiator, I was disappointed and chagrinned over the sequestered, closed-door, out-of-sight decrees and processes of the climate conventions. We’d come out of our conference and the world would ask, “What happened in the room?”, waiting for the annual proclamation of what the often nameless and faceless United Nations negotiators had to say about what would be permitted and what’s to be done. To be honest, I found such diplomacy to be disconcerting and obviously disconnected from everyday people and the enormous progress being made elsewhere.

To have such an important dialogue about our common destiny, constrained within a process that nobody truly understands, interpreted by tomes of indiscernible government speak only compounds the problem. Acquiescing to the design flaw that disconnects the management of climate solutions from the people who both enable them, and perversely, are most affected by the problems remains distressing, inadequate and unacceptable.

We’ve reached a point where we have to activate all members of society and have everybody be a stakeholder—  a “Doer” — to really democratize climate action. We have to activate people for who they are and meet them where they are, and sensitize them to what they can do, accentuating and empowering their capabilities, in their own domains.

That’s what we mean by “acting without permission”. We cannot wait for annualized United Nations declarations or green-only gatherings or politicians rhetorically aligned, but always excused for coming up short.

The challenges for our natural home and our common humanity are simply too large and too important to rely on erratic and unreliable election outcomes in one jurisdiction or another. What’s more, our tasks are too urgent and our outcomes too existential to do anything less that to fully and transparently reach out and empower and encourage as many Doers as possible.

There is no excuse for any period of inaction or suboptimal design on something that requires continuous, consistent, deliberative, multi-decadal commitment. To do that you’ve got to activate the grass roots and people from the bottom up, and not rely on the grass tops alone.

And so, that’s what we mean by “acting without permission” and that’s why we are so enthusiastic about the roadmap that has been growing and ever expanding, connecting us all, our common humanity with our collective capacities, and problem-solving with speed, scale, and impact.