Thursday, January 15, 2009

It's Not Easy Being Green

At the carbon and renewable energy focused conventions I attended last year, the slogan could have been "We can't wait until 2009." Everyone seemed to be in agreement that with a new year and a new president, a "green" United States would be right around the corner. Undoubtedly, new policies, technologies, and businesses will lead us into that neon green future. Before we head off into our beautiful future, I think it may be a tad bit important for all involved in this great green push to define what the heck it is that we are talking about. Green has become a ubiquitous term being utilized in everything from products to services to everyday living (even some geniuses are putting it in their company name). The word green has been turned into a marketing tool, an option that you can include in the product or services you purchase (sort of like opting for airbags or "con queso.") So what does it mean to be green? Is it a means to and end or simply the ends itself? These are two stark viewpoints, the former I will call the hippie view and the latter I will call the capitalist view (I know, "hippie" may have some negative connotation attached to it, but my mom was a hippie, so I have a soft spot for that word, got a problem with that?).

If one takes the hippie view and defines being green as a means, then taking any and all steps to conserve and create a sustainable future would be the ultimate goal. Green is in the details and everyday action. Anyone can be green simply by taking minor actions that, when put together, create a great force that will undue all the damage mankind has done (kind of like Voltron). This is the view often times endorsed in the media because it is very tangible. People feel good when they recycle or conserve, like they are "Captain Planet" (which was quite possibly the WORST cartoon in the history of television, I mean, who wears a belly shirt if they are a superhero). In fact, if you feel the need to take more action, just go to Amazon and buy any one of the 7,615 books that are available to make you feel more "green." The problem with viewing being green as simply a means is that you get caught up in often times meaningless microaction. I would love to live in a utopia where everyone sat on his/her sustainable hemp chair eating some locally grown produce while reading a copy of 50 Plus One Tips for Going Green (because that "Plus One" is the one that will make all the difference) made of recycled paper that was originally from a sustainable forest under a solar powered light while Cat Stevens played in the background. But that scene is fiction as Cat Stevens is now Yusuf Islam and not everyone (with the exception of Matthew McConaughey) has the time, the resources, or the willingness to care that much.

At the other end of the spectrum is the capitalist view. The market will sort out the best way to achieve sustainability, but the details are not what matters, where the world ends up in 2050 is what matters. I called this the capitalist view, but I think the Clark Griswold view would be more appropriate. When Clark wanted to go to Wally World, he did not care how he got there or who rode on the car roof along the way. Wally World was, in his words, "a quest," similar to how some politicians and world leaders view being green. They want the U.S./World to get to that greener pasture and feel so good when we get there that we will be singing 'Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah' out of our...well you get the picture. It does not matter how we get there, just so long as we do. Whether we use offsets, renewable energy credits, clean coal, nuclear, hamster wheels, electric go-carts, etc., all that matters is that we feel the world is more sustainable and cleaner than it was before. What we produce and what we accomplish in the next 40 years is not important. What is important is some arbitrary 2050 goal that no one can quite wrap his/her head around as long as it is based on good science. But the devil is always in the details. As I read in a fortune cookie, the problem is that when you look simply at the horizon, you miss the journey.

I often define myself as a fine whiskey blend of both viewpoints, a hippie capitalist if you will. With that business attitude often comes opposing viewpoints battling for supremacy in the very limited space that I call my brain, and defining what it means to be green has been no different. I believe the best way to define being green is to use the cop out phrase, "it depends." It depends on the location, industry, or products you use. It depends on the time, resources, and passion you have. It depends on what the "invisible hand" of Adam Smith (not to be confused with the "Invisible Touch" of Genesis) does in the renewable energy and general markets. It depends on whether you are planning for the short term or the long term. Being green involves both the means and the ends. Certainly, there is a place for recycling and conservation and all those other after-school show messages, but we need not get caught up in using all our efforts in completely recreating existing markets. In turn, a goal is a must have, but it can not be the only part of our efforts. The technologies, tools, and methods that are used to go green matter as well. A good "being green" policy will blend sound economic policy with sustainable action, one part Alan Greenspan, one part Matthew McConaughey (come to think of it, that's how I think of myself).

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