I happened to be traveling on business the day after St. Patrick’s Day, and I came across the perfect addition to my limited Irish attire. The Kelly-green baseball cap had the words “THINK GREEN” embroidered on the front, with the “I” in “THINK” serving as the trunk of a white oak tree. Now it must be known that, in addition to the pride of my Irish heritage, green has always been my favorite color, I love plants and nature, and the beautiful emerald is my birthstone. So it all fits together quite well.
I happened to be wearing this hat when I walked into a local restaurant. The young man who took my order recognized me as a regular customer, and offered his unapologetic protest. “I’ll think green when it’s convenient,” he said, smiling and not the least bit ashamed of what he’d just said. We had a brief but friendly dialog rather than a debate, but it left me wondering about how to appeal to his perspective.
The truth is I haven’t always acted “green.” I certainly didn’t drive conservatively in my younger years, or really even consider the notion of “sustainability.” My first introduction to the concept was in college, when I took a Human Ecology course in 1980. This was the product of a growing awareness of environmental issues that unfortunately seemed to sizzle out after the initial progress made in the 1970’s. The course content focused primarily on the effect of population growth on the finite natural resources of our planet. The facts I learned were alarming, and yet I comfortably resumed my lifestyle of entitlement when the semester ended.
In the 90’s my somewhat conservative but independent political ideology blossomed into a more progressive line of thinking. The boundaries between science and spirituality began to blur, and I began to develop a greater appreciation for the benefits of living in harmony with the Earth. I remember being graciously challenged by a neighbor about using toxic chemicals on my lawn, and discovered the more organic alternatives available. This was an awakening experience as I began to consider that we all live “downstream.” I began to look more closely at the labels on the foods I bought, and grew increasing skeptical about the truth of what I’d been lead to believe all my life by our corporate-owned media.
It became increasingly clear to me that energy was an essential issue that we needed to address on the planet. The growing scarcity and political insecurity around oil coupled with the increasing concern about climate change became driving forces behind the development of cleaner forms of energy. I learned that three US states (Texas, Kansas and North Dakota) had enough wind energy to power the entire country’s electricity needs, though it would require significant investments in a deteriorating power distribution system. Yet the promise of renewable energy became a personal passion.
I also learned that more solar energy falls on the earth in a single hour than what is used by the entire global population in a year. Germany, which is somewhere between New Mexico and Montana in geographic size, led the world in installed solar power capacity until recently when the US finally surpassed them. While Germany is endowed with the solar resource equivalent to that of Alaska, they have embraced the clean, renewable energy of the sun in a big way. While we continue to bicker about the aesthetic appeal of solar panels, Germans have found them completely compatible with buildings much older than our country.
My involvement in the renewable energy industry led me to discover the concept of sustainability. While Americans represent only five percent of the world’s population, we consume 25% of the planet’s resources. Our financial prosperity relies on materialism and economic growth, and as we outsource jobs to China and India, we look to those markets with great promise as their population adopts the western lifestyle of conspicuous consumption. When you do the projections, they are daunting. Mother Earth simply isn’t fit to accommodate our lifestyle across the globe. In spite of my growing frugality, we would need three or four planets to sustain the world’s population if everyone lived like me.
While energy is a fundamental resource that has ripple effects across our economy and environment, water is even more fundamental. Our planet is 70% water, but only two percent of that is fresh water, with the bulk of that tiny fraction in the form of ice. As that ice melts evermore quickly into the ocean as a result of climate change, our sea levels rise, threatening our coastal cities. However, global warming is also melting our ice-capped mountains, which serve as nature’s storage device to supply water to arid areas during their dry season. The fundamental requirement for water will likely create increasing competition for scarce supplies, causing suffering at a minimum and potentially war as tensions escalate across borders.
I have come to understand that true health and happiness on our planet can only result from both environmental and social justice. We must not only live in harmony with the earth, but in harmony with each other in order to fully realize a sustainable world. Can economic growth and sustainability coexist? Can we continue to increase our food production to feed an ever-increasing number of people and livestock? Must we make choices to foster net-zero population growth, or wait for a massive epidemic or widespread famine to bring things into balance?
It’s going to take more than recycling trash and driving a hybrid to bring about true balance in the world. We can only achieve net-zero energy by combining renewable energy with efficiency and conservation. We need to begin to embrace a “cradle-to-cradle” approach to manufacturing, where all components of a manufactured product are recycled. This will require a significant shift in the design process – designing the product for de-manufacturing. For example, if electronics manufacturers were responsible for all of their waste, they would find better ways to build the products so that all of the materials could be reused in some way.
Another concept with incredible promise is biomimicry – where we observe, embrace and harness the miracles of nature. We’ve been doing this in a variety of ways since the beginning of time, and yet there is so much more potential to study how nature works. A classic example of this is the ever- present Velcro, which was modeled after the maddening cockleburs we’ve all picked off our clothing after a hike through the woods. Nature is full of ingenious ideas that, if we would simply look closely enough, could offer tremendous potential. Of course, we also need to exercise prudence and caution, particularly with genetic engineering.
In spite of the near unanimous agreement in the scientific community, there remain stalwart factions in our culture who continue to deny the truth about climate change, likely because this “inconvenient truth” threatens our comfortable lifestyle. The real truth is, the earth will heal itself one way or another. We just might not like how things turn out if we don’t change our ways.
Thankfully, there is a growing awareness of the need to “think green,” and as more people embrace this way of thinking, it’s becoming more popular, affordable and convenient. With this, perhaps my young friend behind the restaurant counter will soon change his thinking, and help change the planet. I encourage you to become part of this growing group of Global Guardians. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
This story was published in the book The Seven Points of Impact, compiled by Linda Fitzgerald Kluge.