Bridging the energy and environmental disconnect

The energy and environmental decisions facing society and its leaders are no longer decided by titanic, lopsided, high stakes political lobbying contests alone. Science, opinion, and dollars now flow both ways on nearly every energy and environmental issue we face. And, the frontlines of energy and environmental policies, choices, and practices are complex.

Today, energy, and environmental questions are inseparable from social and economic problems.  Whether dealing with the Keystone XL pipeline, fracking, electricity infrastructure, food security, or drought response, positive change is only possible if social, economic, and environmental dimensions are fully addressed.  Fully addressing these aspects to achieve good outcomes requires a non-ideological venue where leaders can openly discuss ideas and values, learn from each other, and generally expand their horizons.

Meet the Energy and Environment Program at the Aspen Institute.

The Aspen Institute’s Energy and Environment Program does not act as an environmental policy organization, a conservation advocacy group, or a business management consultancy on corporate environmental responsibility. Nor does it exist as an incubator for accelerating entrepreneurial market solutions or impact investing.

ALL of these considerable forces are at work shaping our grasp of the future and driving decisions on the environment yet no single approach exists in isolation or promises all of the answers.

For the aforementioned reasons, the Aspen Institute aims to convene content-driven environmental dialogue with a wide cross-section of experts to forge clearer agreement between these competing forces continuously redefining and reshaping the meaning of environmental sustainability. 

The raison d’être for the Energy and Environment Program is to confront that ongoing dialogue and take-up the enduring questions it raises about society and the natural world, and to test and prompt new thinking about the well being of both. Not as an adjunct of doing well by doing (social and environmental) good, but for the purpose of deliberately testing assumptions and policies about the natural world in a modern technological society.

In a policy field with literally hundreds of environmental organizations in competition for the same pool of sponsorship resources and foundation funding, and where media outlets and corporations increasingly hold their own forums, the Aspen Institute's energy and environment program stands out as a unique place for high quality non-ideological thinking and convening.

The Aspen Institute’s dialogues and forums create space that allows for deliberation, creativity, collaboration, and compromise that rarely flourish in the current public policy arena—in front of an insatiable 24-hour media machine and under near constant pressure from special interests. 

A strong example of this is the work expert forums on shale gas and oil development we have undertaken with the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation over the past three years—an initiative involving scientists, operators, engineers, regulators, business executives, NGOs, and others to build the ambition of state regulators to regulate and operators to manage shale gas and oil production in a much more sustainable way and to embrace the concept of continuous regulatory improvement.

The Mitchell Foundation is one of the Aspen Institute’s most prominent and appropriate partners, and together we share a common legacy. Mr. Mitchell became involved at the Aspen Institute, met Buckminster Fuller, and began thinking about sustainable societies in the 1960s. 

The Aspen Institute’s mission is to foster leadership based on enduring values and to provide a nonpartisan venue for dealing with critical issues. And, environmental sustainability, management, and regulation of shale gas and oil production in the United States is one of our most critical issues.

The Mitchell Foundation works as an engine of change in both policy and practice in Texas, supporting high-impact projects at the nexus of environmental protection, social equity, and economic vibrancy. The same unique wisdom that George P. Mitchell applied to oil and gas discovery and extraction generated his farsighted passion for focusing the best of science on sustainability issues.

Walter Paepcke, the founder of the Aspen Institute, dreamed of transforming the city of Aspen into a center for dialogue, a place for "lifting us out of our usual selves”—an ideal gathering place for thinkers, leaders, artists, and musicians from all over the world to step away from their daily routines and reflect on the underlying values of society and culture. Mr. Mitchell believed that humankind should create "a balance between economic and ecological well-being."

This partnership and shared vision is particularly useful when confronting apparent policy paradoxes—situations where market and regional outcomes stand in contrast to stated policy. 

For example, economic growth has radically departed from growth in energy consumption since ~2010, a trend that flies in the face of everything known about economic expansion and energy consumption—economic growth and energy growth are not the same thing. How can dialogue give this meaning and purpose?

Through our work, the Energy and Environment Program helps leaders bridge the disconnect that often exists in public discourse about energy and environmental questions, exploring issues in a multifaceted way and enabling leaders to move beyond a binary “yes” or “no” to a more nuanced understanding of “under what conditions” and “with what disclosure.”


David Monsma is executive director of the Aspen Institute's Energy and Environment Program. An attorney by training, David has over 20 years of experience in environmental law and policy. During the Clinton Administration, David was the environmental management task force coordinator for the President's Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD). David began his legal career as a program attorney in the Office of Toxics Substances at the Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in Washington, DC. For more information, follow Twitter @aienvironment or visit 



The views expressed by contributors to the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation's blogging initiative, "Achieving a Sustainable Texas," are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the foundation.  

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