Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick spoke in a conversation-style event about climate change and the role of business and politics in environmental sustainability. The event was the first installment of the Environmental Law & Policy Program’s 2019-2020 Lecture Series.

Patrick, who served as governor of Massachusetts from 2007 to 2015, first discussed the importance of encouraging innovation in businesses through the government, public policy and impact investing. 

“The kind of innovation that is happening in the clean and alternative energy I think is just wildly exciting,” Patrick said. “How do you enable the folks who are doing this? We need to help catalyze the private sector with this kind of research. … We need to elevate that, which is a thing that people in senior public positions can do by showing up to events, understanding what’s happening and encouraging.” 

According to Patrick, one of the key faults in governing and politics is the idea that there can only be a single solution for issues like climate change, when in reality these problems often have multiple angles and solutions. 

“It does feel to me like we sometimes make a mistake in government in saying or arguing that there is this wonderful solution to solve all of these problems,” Patrick said. “And when we consider a challenge as profound as climate change, we need to be doing a lot of different things simultaneously.” 

Innovation, Patrick emphasized, needs to be fostered in such a way where failure is not penalized but instead seen as a step toward an improved world. 

“I think there is also an appetite for innovation in government,” Patrick said. “But successful innovation, I think, requires that you raise your tolerance for failure. And politics punishes failure.” 

One key area Patrick said needs to be improved upon was resource efficiency and waste. He highlighted infrastructure as oftentimes being outdated and therefore severely inefficient for cities. 

“If you think about something like water for example, we have water pipes under the city of Boston — wooden ones — not all of them, but wooden water pipes in active use,” Patrick said. “The amount of waste that happens in that piping … When we talk about massive investment in infrastructure, what comes to mind is roads and bridges. And that’s important. But there is an underground infrastructure that needs massive restructuring.” 

On the topic of raising more awareness about climate change, Patrick emphasized the idea of continuous improvement within companies.

“We have to make the case that we have a better idea for how to fuel the kind of society we want to live in and frankly the expectations that we have,” he said. “Without having the only option be shaming the folks who — I’m not saying don’t use it, just not having it as the only option — shaming the folks who perpetuate what we have always done.”

Patrick now works at Bain Capital in impact investing where capital is invested in organizations addressing societal and environmental issues. Through this, he can help provide the capital for forward-thinking companies to innovate and build their ideas out. 

“We invest in lower middle-market companies, so these are positive cash flow companies where we can generate both a financial and a measurable social or environmental impact,” he said. “We chose three of what we call ‘thematic purposes’: sustainability, health and wellness, and education. … We invest in companies where executive teams are trying to take their companies from where they are to where they need to be.”

The end of the conversation focused on politics and activism, and how the two play a part in battling climate change. Though Patrick is glad to see younger people participating in activism, he also has doubts about how long they will continue advocating for people and purposes, he said.

“A whole lot of folks who haven’t been engaged a lot, a lot of them young, come out and show up — they’ve taken to the streets,” he said. “Now, I said at some risk at an earlier meeting … that a lot of those folks strike me as not having the longest attention span, or they’re caught up in the celebrity culture we have right now where you get a person elected, and once they’re elected you go back to what you were doing instead of organizing.” 

Following the event, Rackham student Rebecca Lowy said she agreed with Patrick’s push for innovation, emphasizing the issue of fossil fuels.

“I really liked his comment that the Stone Age didn’t end because they ran out of stones,” Lowy said. “That’s very relevant to what we’re facing right now with fossil fuels. We don’t need to deplete them to move on to something bigger and better and better for our future.”

Rackham student Shanea Condon said she came to the event because she was interested in hearing a political perspective on environmentalism. Condon agreed with Lowy, saying she appreciated Patrick’s perspective the government’s role in technology. 

“We need to have more patience and grace for failure, especially with planning for innovation and trying to understand how technology can improve,” Condon said. “How politics doesn't really make space for that and how we need to have patience for each other. Not only with innovating, but also with getting people to jump on board with innovation.”

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