Go Green and Prosper

April 14, 2010

Can you really care about the state of our Earth, while taking a practical approach to solving our problems with technology?

Alex Steffen believes so. Steffen has said that to be antitechnology in this day and age is to be antienvironment. And he believes that we can be green and sustainable—and prosper economically by it.

Steffen’s nonprofit organization, Worldchanging, runs the online magazine worldchanging.com and has published the book, Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century (Abrams).

Steffen was recently interviewed in The Sun magazine about his views and how we can best use our technological strengths to help protect the environment. The interview is well worth the read for anyone interested in selling and prospering by green and energy management technology.

In The Sun interview, Steffen talks largely in the context of the wider sustainable movement, though there are several key points that sellers of green tech should take note of. We don’t agree with quite everything he said—our comments are included as well—but we like Steffen’s basic, pragmatic green marketing gist. Following are just a few memorable excerpts:

On using technology to help the environment:

We need to invent a new model of prosperity, one that lets billions have the comfort, security, and opportunities they want at the level of impact the planet can afford.

We’re headed toward not just peak oil, but peak everything. … We have five years to start making big changes, twenty years to finish making them here, and at most forty years to spread those changes to every corner of the earth.

On building sustainability through retrofits:

I think the most graceful solutions are ones that take what already exists and remodel it in a way that’s new, sustainable, and even charming. Retrofitting historic buildings to make them green, for example, not only conserves the resources that went into the building in the first place, but preserves the cultural identity of the building.

On re-framing the environmental debate:

The problem with framing environmentalism as a series of sacrifices that are required in order to preserve the natural world is that people want to know what’s in it for them.

Amen, brother. (For more this, see GreenTech Advocates‘ take on not using the environmental argument.)

On making the tools of change beautiful–or what GreenTech Advocates likes to think of as “sexy green:

Beauty is essential to our emotional and spiritual wellbeing, and is therefore essential to the creation of solutions.

On the folly of promoting full-green and inventing a sustainable life from scratch:

There’s a temptation to believe that we just need to return to an earlier way of life, but I see little evidence that people are willing to give up modern comforts and safety. If we are going to reform our wasteful ways — which for middle-class Americans at this point might mean using one-tenth the resources we currently use — we’re going to have to invent new methods of delivering prosperity. Restraining prosperity simply will not work.

On marketing sustainability:

We can’t shop our way to sustainability. The problems we face are of such magnitude that we can’t just replace a few of the products and machines we regularly use with others that are slightly greener.

Consumers should have clear market incentives to aim for zero waste and to buy low-impact products. We need incentives for sharing and mandates for the company that makes a product to take it back and recycle it when we’re done with it.

Though our GreenTech Advocates’ take on this is that being slightly greener is how you start, especially in a traditionally non-green industry such as consumer electronics. We start with being greener, then more green, and hopefully, finally, our electronics are at least somewhat sustainable.

On whether McMansions can be turned into “ecomansions”:

We’d like to believe what I call “the swap” is possible—that instead of living in a McMansion, I can live in an ecomansion. But that’s just not true. The systems in which that ecomansion are embedded are so destructive, there’s simply no way to operate them in a sustainable manner.

I believe Steffen is referring to the notion that suburbia in and of itself is not sustainable, due to the need for cars and the destruction of lands required for housing lots—versus the economy of that in the city. And I agree. Though he suggests “completely rebuilding [suburbs] into something different.” And good luck with that.

Environmentalists should have that as a big hairy audacious green goal—decades or a generation or two down the line. I applaud it. I hope I live to see it. But that is not going to happen now or in the next few critical years. It is just not practical, pragmatic, or at all realistic.

And what are we going to do? Deny McMansion owners the right to retrofit their energy and resource hogs into “ecomansions,” which could help fuel a greener movement that we can all prosper from? While we build smarter, more efficient and more centrally located residences? As Steffen infers, we need practical solutions to the problems at hand, and we need them now. Dream the dream, but let’s be realistic about the implementations of technology and how it can best assist in saving energy—now.


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