Once upon a time, being green meant long hair and sandals, living in the woods and avoiding showers. Being eco-friendly had an inescapable whiff of a hippie-like lifestyle and was the preserve of a small number of true enthusiasts.
Even as being environmentally friendly became more chic in recent years, the 'eco-warrior' stereotype persisted. And for the average American, there was little reason to care. In a time of plentiful cheap food, energy and fuel, a green lifestyle was seen as a superfluous luxury.
That was then, this is now.
With gasoline at more than $4 a gallon, almost everyone is beginning to feel the squeeze. And it's not just when you fill up at the pump. Surging demand for energy worldwide is pushing up prices for the natural gas and coal that supplies most of America's electricity. Coal, used to produce more than half of the country's electricity, has almost tripled in price. Central Appalachian coal, a benchmark grade that's widely used by power plants, jumped from around $40 a ton in early 2007 to almost $130 a ton by the of June .
Now, not only will it cost you more to go away, it will cost you more to keep cool -- or warm -- if you stay home.
The worsening economy is the precise reason that we should now commit ourselves deeply to robust energy conservation, greater energy efficiency and a use of alternative sources of energy. The surge in fuel prices is not a short-term trend that will eventually correct itself once supply disruptions are smoothed out. Demand for coal has been growing worldwide. China recently shifted from mostly exporting coal to mostly importing it. US coal exports have climbed more than 20% as developing countries fuel their own economic expansions. In short: not only is adopting a greener lifestyle seeming more affordable - we can't afford not to.
You're no longer on the fringe if you're talking about energy conservation. You're on the fringe if you're not. Energy efficiency has gone mainstream. Main Street, in fact. Folks at supermarkets and hair salons and bars all across America are talking about cars that get the best millage or ways to save money on their energy bills.
The motivation is not purely economic. People are now clearly seeing the link between our culture's insatiable thirst for fossil fuels and pollution, global warming, droughts, hurricanes, floods, food shortages, disease and the dwindling quality of life we will hand our children. Recent research has shown that Americans are more willing than ever to make changes to help fight climate change. Unfortunately, most of those respondents still don't know what to do.
On June 5th, The Climate Group launched "Together," a campaign that unites the massive marketing power of major brands, the support of local governments and the credibility of well-established non-profit organizations to make it easy for Americans to lead more environmentally friendly lives - and save money while they do it.
Together has the support of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, mayors from all across the US and representatives of brands such as Target, Dell, Chase, MySpace and Timberland.
Instead of ditching green initiatives in the face of economic trouble, consumers are embracing the real savings going green can offer. And, once energy efficient behaviors become embedded into people's everyday lives, they'll carry them forward, doing more and more.
Good businesses recognize real opportunities. As companies see the value in offering products and services that help people reduce their environmental impact, they will develop better and greener product lines. It will become a self-reinforcing cycle of easier ways for consumers to be green, and greater demand for companies to offer green.
If this goes on, tomorrow's "eco-warrior" is more likely to live in the suburbs, wear work boots and shower often - ideally with environmentally friendly soap, in slightly cooler water and for five minutes shorter to save energy.
David Hall is International Campaign Director of Together, an initiative of The Climate Group, a global, independent non-profit organization dedicated to building public-private partnerships to find solutions to climate change.