This Tuesday I was fortunate enough to attend the Fortune Green Business Conference in Laguna Niguel, CA. Ironically, the serene ocean views made me realize there was another undercurrent -- one not as pleasant -- tugging on us all: the realization there is no perfect solution to get us out of this mess. (And by "mess" I am referring to the messy state of both our economy and the environment.)
One panel discussion was entitled "Re-imagining Consumption." This topic has been nagging at me like a homework project that you continually procrastinate yet you know you'll have to face up to soon. You see, four years ago I co-founded Ideal Bite, and many of our daily tips promote products -- albeit green ones. Our mission is to help people choose the better option when it comes time to replenish that product. However, it's a fine, nagging line, because greener options are definitely better, but at the same time, they are only just "less bad."
The panelists all agreed that it isn't enough to be "less bad" (you know, consume less, package less, pollute less). The fact is we need a big, dramatic departure from the core structure of our economy. Why? Because it only works when we buy more and more things. When our economy was designed, it was during a time when natural resources were abundant (aka: cheap), and human capital was scarce. We banked up wealth by essentially stealing things like coal, wood, and water (paying next-to-nothing for them) on the front end, and then spitting out pollution on the back end -- not paying for that "luxury" either. Today natural resources are scarce, and humans are abundant. Plus our system is set up to incentive making the wrong decisions.
So what then did the panelist "re-imagine" for consumption? The discussion centered around concepts like zero-waste production -- whereby everything that is produced is taken back for re-use by the manufacturer. But as Fisk Johnson, CEO of S.C. Johnson humbly pointed out: "it is a tall order to go to zero waste." Jeffrey Hollander, CEO of 7th Generation, drove home the dramatic changes that are needed yet seemingly impossible, asking for diapers and toilet paper that regenerate the earth.
The Clean Coal panel was fiery because the Chairman from American Electric Power was there, and he is in the business of building power plants and mining coal. David Hawkins from NRDC straddled the middle, holding firm to the notion that to get the best policies passed we had to use carbon capture & storage (CCS) as a pawn. And then there was Michael Brune of Rainforest Action Network who was adamant that we had to stop mining coal immediately because "we don't have time to transition. By the time my daughter is 45 (and just starting to date) there won't be anymore fish." All three of them had such valid, diverse points, and yet the counter arguments were the same: there would always be a loser (at least in the short term) to whichever path we chose.
Just when I was considering packing my bags for New Zealand to live a life of blissful ignorance, Van Jones spoke. Obama appointed this social change leader into a Green Collar Job position to make sure that the $20B - $40B allotment to stimulate green economic activity actually did just that, and that it the cash infusion benefited all of people in this country. His battle cry was, "Be Bold," and I dig it.
I am no economist (even though I slogged my way through an Econ major at William & Mary), and I am no business pundit (although I hid from the economic downturn of 2001 by receiving a 'green MBA' from George Washington U). I am, however, someone who thinks that we need to rethink some core tenants under which we are surprisingly comfortable operating.
As it's the week of Earth Day, why not go outside, or even to a place where you can just think. Ask yourself, "why not be bold?" -- and let me know what you come up with. Luckily I got my inspiration to fight the good-n-green fight for the next year from the conference. Not because anyone was spouting off warm-fuzzy platitudes that glossed over the abysmal state of the environment, but because I realized that we may just have the right ingredients for cooking up a new type of economy. Very intelligent, passionate people are shaping a new framework. Yes, there will be some short term costs and some temporary pain and discomfort. But remember, you gotta break a few eggs to make an omelet.
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