Andrew Hoffman on the idea of re-enlightenment

Andrew Hoffman

Andrew Hoffman from the University of Michigan was CCL’s November 2019 guest speaker.

Andrew Hoffman on the idea of re-enlightenment

By Hana Manjusak

Each month, Citizens’ Climate Lobby hosts an online meeting featuring a guest speaker to educate listeners on topics related to climate change, carbon fee and dividend, and the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act. Check out recaps of past speakers here.

CCL’s November guest speaker was professor Andrew Hoffman. Hoffman has published 16 books, including The Next Phase of Business Sustainability and How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate. He is currently the Holcim (US) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan. During our November meeting, Hoffman provided an overview of his re-enlightenment idea and the rethinking of our economy.

The Anthropocene, enlightenment, and re-enlightenment

Hoffman begins by illustrating his cultural approach to climate change. He frames the issue with the question, “Do you believe that we, as a species, have grown to such a number and technology to such power that we can alter the climate?” He explains that by saying yes to this, you are also saying yes to “a fundamental shift in our sense of who we are as a species, what the world is out there, and how the two interconnect.” Hoffman says that this is just one of the markers of the Anthropocene. 

Further, Hoffman highlights the values and issues that get laid on top of climate change, such as trust in the market, belief in God, the role of government, and conceptions of freedom. “The challenge in communication,” he says, “is trying to overcome distrust.”

Before the Enlightenment period, Hoffman says, people viewed nature as animated by mystical forces, usually through the lens of religion. When the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution came, we applied the metaphor of a machine: “We can start to take it apart, and look at the pieces, and then reassemble.” He says that this approach does not work anymore, because “we’re altering the whole as we tinker with the pieces.” 

Hoffman describes our current era as the “re-enlightenment.” One core difference between this and the Enlightenment is that we now have the market as a player; it is a cause and a solution. He says, “The market is the most powerful institution on earth; business is the most powerful entity within it. If business isn’t solving the problem, it won’t get solved.”

First focus: Shifts in public opinion

Hoffman highlights Yale University’s recent studies showing that the groups concerned with climate change (the Alarmed, the Concerned, and the Cautious) are growing, while the groups less interested in climate change (the Disengaged, the Doubtful, and the Dismissive) are declining. Additionally, there’s been an increase of 16% of those who are worried, and an increase of 11% who think it will harm them personally. Hoffman emphasizes the latter, saying, “We react when change impacts us.” The objective, he says, is to make climate change into a social fact, or “something you are not afraid to talk to others about because you know we all agree.”

Fortunately, the partisan divide is narrowing. Hoffman references a Yale survey showing that 68% of liberal to moderate Republicans think climate change is happening, which is a 14-point jump between 2017 and 2018. In addition, he explains the power of the youth movement. “If you look at the millennial generation,” he says, “there’s two issues they’re done with: one is climate change; the other’s gay marriage. The partisan divide is almost entirely gone with young people.”

Second focus: Insurances

According to Hoffman, insurances “have no political dog in this fight. They are just looking at numbers; they’re looking at risk; they’re monetizing the risk; they’re passing that risk onto individuals, consumers, and corporations, through both the cost of a policy and the coverage of the policy.”

Over the past three decades, there’s been an increase in natural catastrophes. “What’s more disconcerting for them is the cost, and that has a general upper trend, but it’s spiky,” he adds. This makes insurance companies uncomfortable because they don’t know how to price. He highlights 2017 as a year with a broker record for natural disaster costs. The cost was about $330 billion in the United States, and 50% of that was uninsured. “If you want to make something salient,” he says, “put a dollar sign on it.”

Third focus: The corporate sector

Hoffman explains that in general, corporations fit in environmental issues with existing market logic. Instead of talking about climate change, they talk about factors such as operational efficiency, consumer demand, and cost of capital. He emphasizes, however, that this is not solving the problem: “The Tesla’s a great car, but the answer to climate change is not another car. The answer is shifts in our total mobility system.”

Essentially, corporations must think systemically. This includes elements such as going carbon neutral, divesting from oil and gas, ESG (environmental, social, and governance) issues, and intangible corporate assets. “The intangible assets of a corporation,” Hoffman says, “increasingly drive stock value.” An example of this type of asset is reputation. He adds that Tesla’s market cap is greater than General Motors. Hoffman describes opening up market segments as a key component to this systemic approach. An example is shifts in mobility: this is not just moving toward electric vehicles, but also moving toward alternative mobility, such as sharing economies and driver-less mobility. He uses smart homes and alternative proteins as additional examples.

In sum, Hoffman’s idea of re-enlightenment emphasizes the cultural shift aspect of climate change and the role of the market in this shift. He concludes by reiterating the narrowing partisan divide. He says, “We trust the messenger as much as the message. We’ve become tribal, so if Republicans hear it from Republicans, if evangelicals hear it from evangelicals, then people will start to shift, and start to shift really quickly.”

Want more time with November’s speaker? Join Dr. Andy Hoffman, University of Michigan, on Thursday, Dec. 12th at 8 pm ET / 5 pm PT for an extended Q&A featuring your questions that we didn’t have time for during our monthly call.

Hana Manjusak is a communications intern at Citizens’ Climate Lobby. She is an undergraduate student currently studying at the Georgia Institute of Technology with a major in International Affairs.