We often hear bitter discord about environmental and economic problems that we face, such as the rancor that emerges in debates about financial reform and climate change legislation. It boils up in the words of the talking heads on television and the Internet. The two sides square off and accuse each other of the grossest possible misdeeds toward humanity and the planet, but I’m afraid that both sides are often missing the point. Viewed differently, all of these problems are actually massive opportunities for us to live better lives, help the planet, and boost our economy, all at the same time.
We face great problems still with dwindling resources, accumulating waste, pollution, and ecosystem loss, and Earth Day is an important time to remind ourselves of the great work that remains to be done. Progress has been made, with past Earth days commemorating progress like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, landmark legislation that has made a real difference for our environment and for our lives. Because of this legislation our children can grow up without debilitating levels of lead in their blood from leaded gasoline. We still have far to go though. Whatever your thoughts about climate change are, we need to do more to ensure clean air, clean water, clean food, and a livable planet for our kids, and their kids. We need to think about the kind of world we want to create for future generations, and take actions leading in the right direction. Despite the positive steps that have been taken, the overall trend of continued global environmental degradation continues heading in the wrong direction. Our global environment strains under the ever-growing pressure of 6.7 billion humans, and like it or not our futures are tied to the environment. We are part of it. We breathe the air, drink the water, and eat from the land. The fate of the environment is our own fate.
The argument often focuses on the cost of taking environmental action, with critics saying that the cost of taking proposed steps to protect the environment will cripple our economy. It’s true that we need to pay attention to the economy. The economy may be recovering, but the recovery is a slow one. Millions of people remain unemployed, and millions of homes remain at risk of foreclosure. These are real needs, important needs that cannot be ignored. Failing to consider the economy in decisions about the environment is not sustainable, either here or anywhere else in the world.
Luckily helping the environment often helps the economy as well. Despite what you’ve been told, the two can go hand in hand – we can do the right thing for the environment, live well, and have a healthy economy. This is the message that often gets lost somehow. One side says we need to help the polar bears, and another side says that we can’t afford it that we will help the bears at the expense of jobs, but there are myriad ways in which helping the bears and the rest of the natural world helps the economy as well.
One example is energy efficiency. Taking steps to boost energy efficiency rapidly pays for itself, and then some, and yet we are only now starting to get give energy efficiency the attention it deserves. Energy efficiency remains a massive opportunity for businesses and people across our country and around the planet to help their bottom line as well as helping the planet. We waste billions of dollars on wasted energy every year, money that could be spent on other things like hiring workers and investing in new initiatives. Innovative businesses like Empowered Energy Solutions in San Diego are taking this problem and seeing it as an opportunity for their business to thrive. Governments at the local, state, and national level are supporting energy efficiency in a host of ways in part because they recognize it is a win-win solution for everyone involved.
Renewable energy is another win-win solution. Whatever our thoughts are about climate change, we need clean, renewable energy sources as an alternative to burning coal for energy. Recent tragedies in coal mines in the US and China help to reinforce this message, as well as the ongoing environmental degradation caused by mountain top removal in the US. While we worry about the tiny amount of mercury in compact fluorescent light bulbs, burning coal is by far the largest source of mercury in our environment.
Critics claim that renewable energy resources like wind and solar are too expensive, that increasing the use of these resources will make our energy more expensive and send jobs overseas. But the cost of wind and solar is constantly falling, and critics ignore the hidden cost of burning coal, to our air, our rivers, and people, and the opportunity to joining the global shift to a better way of producing energy. Even in 2009, the solar market in the US grew 37% according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Clean energy critics ignore the economic benefit of being a leader in renewable energy, and the cost of failing to do so. The energy industry is worth trillions of dollars, and it is changing not just in the US but worldwide. China spent more than the US on clean energy in 2009, recognizing a good opportunity when it sees one. Investing in renewable energy ensures that we support the continued development and commercialization of renewable energy by innovative businesses like Envision Solar and SolarCity. We can decide to either be a part of one of the most important economic opportunities of this century, or not.
When it comes to transportation, more changes are underway, creating more opportunities. The government has raised the bar for our cars, requiring fleet fuel efficiency standards to reach 35 mpg by 2016. Critics once again have claimed this will hurt industry and cost jobs, that Americans will not buy fuel efficient cars, failing to see that oil will once again get more expensive – it already is, rising from its low of $40 a barrel back over $80. And as China’s economy continues its inexorable rapid growth, with more people in China than the US buying new cars now, so will its thirst for oil, pushing the price ever upward. It’s only a matter of time before we see $140 a barrel for oil again, as we did in the summer of 2008. When this last happened, consumers followed their economic interests in a quite predictable way, moving in droves to smaller, and more fuel efficient vehicles. Autos like the Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf and the plug-in Toyota Prius will be there to meet this opportunity as the price of gas rises and consumers buy efficient cars. We can recognize the opportunity of being ready for this when it happens, or we can once again get caught off guard by a quite predictable course of events, hurting ourselves and our economy.
The opportunity to meet the green challenge is also right in our homes. People around the country are taking the initiative to change how they live, often out of concern for their kids, and their desire to save money. The efforts people make greening their lives at homes may be small when viewed in the global perspective, but every step in the right direction is a step we should take. And a big opportunity. Sales of green consumer goods continued their climb even in the depths of the Great Recession, and businesses that recognize the growing desire and interest to green our lives, homes, and businesses like the Green Business Bureau, Green Irene and Zola Goods are growing along with this trend.
So for Earth Day 2010 we are faced once again with a decision. We can see our world as one full of problems that weigh us down, or as a world full of opportunities to do better. We can embrace positive change and decide to create a better world with a healthy environment and economy, or not. I hope Earth Day 2050 finds that we have opted for a better world, in all respects.
Glenn Croston is the founder of www.StartingUpGreen.com, helping businesses to start and grow green. He is also the author of “75 Green Businesses You Can Start to Make Money and Make a Difference“, and the author of “Starting Green“, a nuts and bolts guide to starting and growing a successful green business, turning green problems into green opportunities.