John Ashcroft is known for many things, most notably his multiple tenures in public service. But sustainability? He indeed discussed that subject during his recent keynote presentation on Wharton’s campus, and made a convincing case for why he sees the green light. Here’s how:

Raised in Springfield, MO—a state he later served as governor for eight years—Ashcroft explained how you could poke a pole into the ground anywhere in the Midwest and clean water would gush out. There might be other places where oil might spray out if you poked a pole into the ground, but in Ashcroft’s mind, he thinks you would be better off with the water in the long run. That is how strongly he feels about our natural resources.

“I don’t think anybody can rightfully say we should not think about sustainability,” he said.

The former U.S. attorney general is not just calling for more people to ponder the topic, he’s calling for more leadership and fewer “cab drivers.” Figuratively speaking, cab drivers, he said, take you where you want to go. Leaders, on the other hand, anticipate your aspirations and needs. It is clear to Ashcroft that the values of sustainability already drive consumers today, so it is up to companies to get in front of that.

John Ashcroft

John Ashcroft

During his talk at Wharton, Ashcroft did not call for a grand international pact to tackle climate change or an increased role by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He is squarely in the free market camp. He lauded “blended enterprises,” where public, for-profit companies “augment shareholder value to do social good.”

Ashcroft’s own work at the Ashcroft Group—particularly its investment in the sustainability-focused waste and recycling platform Rubicon Global—allows him to feel a part of the redemption of human civilization, he said, rather than part of its destruction.

He likens our responsibility to the practice of the Boy Scouts, who always leave a camp ground a little better than they found it.

Ashcroft’s talk served as a prelude to the “Nexus of Energy, Food and Water” conference-workshop sponsored by the Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership (IGEL) on March 21, 2013.