Focus the Nation and Breakthrough

Yesterday was one of sheer intellectual overload for me.  I attended my university’s Focus the Nation event and listened to a few intelligent people discuss climate change, green living, sustainability, recycling, consumer production, environmental justice, green collar jobs, and the future for my generation.

I was intrigued by the ideas presented by the keynote speaker Dr. Hunter Lovins who tackles green issues from a top-down, economic, business focused angle.  (Her website, Natural Capitalism.) Her overall thought process: businesses stand to gain so much from choosing green and sustainable practices that they can’t afford to pass them up. Or, as she quoted Ray Andersen:

“Whats the business case for ending life on Earth?”

Lovins brought up several examples of companies like DuPont that committed to reducing carbon footprints, have been successful, and have managed to increase their value along the way.  Green businesses run tighter because they aim to waste less.  They keep more of their profits local because they aren’t shelling out large proportions of the budget to pay overhead costs generated by high oil prices. And they keep our economy humming. 

And when trouble in infrastructure develop – like blackouts across electric grids in the US – businesses with green energy sources (wind, solar, and more) continue to function because they are semi-independent.  Lovins particularly pointed out the flagship Conde Naste building in New York City, which has several green energy elements built into its architecture including fuel cells, and which was the only source of light for several blocks during the NYC blackout in August 2003

Overall, Lovins’ ideas resonated with me.  So did a little book I checked out of the library later on in the day, Norhaus & Shellenberger’s Breakthrough: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility.  I got interested in this mainly due to the discussion between No Impact Man and Shellenberger that went on a recently.  I had to see just what it was all about. 

I was moved by Breakthrough.  Emphatically and utterly moved.   

Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s ideas don’t mesh well with summation but I came away with one central thought.  It is highly unlikely that everyone in America will suddenly give up various lifestyles and practices and convert over to the current ideas of green and sustainable lifestyles.  Pressing people to give up their refrigerators and stoves and cars simply won’t sell and will lead to alienation.  (Alienation was their word and I think its perfect.)

This is the same thing I have been struggling with recently.  I respect the efforts of thousands of people in the green community who choose to consume less stuff as a reaction to the problems associated with non-renewable resources.  Biking instead of driving, giving up soda instead of facing up to the empty plastic bottles, giving up plastic, and all the rest. 

We need innovation, not privation.  We need alternatives to the current lifestyle and not a complete reversion away from it.  I think this debate highlights an undercurrent in the green world.  One where people are fed up with consumer driven culture and want to retreat from the typical American lifestyle.  The other undercurrent compromises greens who have no real trouble with American life but wish to find innovative solutions. 

Instead of giving up coffee they propose we engineer a biodegradeable coffee cup, resource fair-trade shade-grown organic beans (harvested by workers who receive fair wages and healthcare of course) and pulverize and brew it with energy drawn from the wind and the sun.  It has to be intelligently done of course, or we risk another thing that Lovins brought to my attention, that: “There’s a difference between problem solving and problem switching.” 

The question is, which camp will become the face of the green movement?  And, more importantly, which undercurrent will Americans identify with and join?