Green gold rush: not so fast

Despite cheerleading from Al Gore and Bill Clinton, business entrepreneurs aren't going to save the planet. At least not without help from consumers who can say "enough."
Crosscut archive image.

The first Klondike gold from Alaska, shown in Seattle, 1899. (University of Washington)

Despite cheerleading from Al Gore and Bill Clinton, business entrepreneurs aren't going to save the planet. At least not without help from consumers who can say "enough."

The idea that the solution to global climate change and protecting the environment is to allow business to do the job is foolishness. It reminds me of a raunchy story from The Onion about the guy who said, "I f**ked my way into this mess, and I'll f**k my way out." Our business model – based on maximizing growth and consumption – will not let us f**k us our way out of this problem.

Sarah Bagshaw's Crosscut story about the Seattle Chamber of Commerce confab on global warming, where it was said that "green is the new gold," contains a quote that hints at business as usual even among more enlightened members of the business community: "K.C. Golden of Seattle's Climate Solutions said what's needed by business from the government is a strong, clear public policy that will create reliable conditions for private investments."

Excuse me, but this is what business always wants. The problem is, we have to figure out a new set of priorities, and those will likely shake some of the business community's most cherished assumptions, especially the one that more is better. What we need is not a business community that is reassured but one that responds creatively by doing business differently. "Growth," as author and environmental activist Bill McKibben has written, "is always the final answer, the untrumpable hand. ..." Unlimited expansion and the creation of wealth is what our economic system is all about. That's business as usual, and that's part of what's killing the planet.

Yes, innovation is essential, and it is better to have greener products. And yes, Bill Clinton has a point when he suggests saving the world need not be all sacrifice. For some, climate change will be an opportunity to develop new technologies and improve old ones. A politics of optimism is a good thing – to a point.

Al Gore is leaping onto the green gold rush bandwagon by joining the Silicon Valley venture capital firm of Kleiner Perkins as a "hands-on" partner. His intent is to help remake the $6 trillion global energy industry. "What we are going to have to put in place is a combination of the Manhattan Project, the Apollo project, and the Marshall Plan, and scale it globally." More power to him.

But even more difficult than Gore's Manhattan/Apollo/Marshall project will be effecting a change in economic expectations and models. The green-gold-rushers need to be careful that their embrace of entrepreneurship doesn't enable the "we can have it all" thinking that impels Americans, and other consumer economies, to believe that consumption is patriotic and that by simply buying "greener" we'll save the planet.

While promoting green consumption might be politically more palatable than getting people to change their habits and expectations, promoting consumption still offers an answer that doesn't solve the bigger problem. Global warming's hawks have to be honest with us: Fighting the good fight isn't all economic upside. We're going to have to do more with less.

McKibben has explored these issues in some depth in his book, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (Times Books, 2007). What McKibben points out is that our obsession with free markets and unlimited growth has had consequences: "A single-minded focus on increasing wealth has driven the planet's ecological system to the brink of failure, without making us happier." That latter point is important. By our own measures – divorce rates, quality of life, attitudes – we are less happy than we were just after World War II. In fact, the number of Americans polled who say they are "very happy" has been dropping steadily. Apparently, happiness peaked some time in the 1950s. Adam Smith is not the prophet of more happiness.

McKibben's point is that we're addicted to having more – and if you doubt that we glorify this addiction, just look at the annual coverage of "Black Friday," a kind of consumer version of the running of the bulls. Our economic growth obsession worked well to get us out of poverty, but now it's in overdrive, a cultural relic we can't shut down. He quotes Richard Layard as calling the phenomenon a cultural lag: "Market democracies, by the logic of their own success, continue to emphasize the themes that have brought them to their current position."

But McKibben argues that the consequences of growing our material wealth are literally killing us inside and out. Not only that, but the trend can't continue, because there are limits to expansion. There's not enough oil, or steel or food, for everyone to grow into the American way of life as we've been living it. Developing nations emulate us at their (and our) peril:

The planet is already buckling under the weight of one America – we've seen the rising temperatures, the erratic and extreme weather, the melting ice caps. Each of us uses six times as much energy as the average Mexican, 38 times as much as the average Indian, 531 times as much as the man in the Ethiopian street. That gives you some rough idea of what it would mean if most of the rest of the world even approached our level of consumption. We'd need extra planets, several of them.

McKibben offers a number of ideas and strategies for starting to think our way out of the problems. He touts more localized economies (buying local, farmer's markets), which have the double benefit of also re-enforcing community bonds, which tends to make life richer. He encourages a rethinking of measuring success in terms of growth and maximum profit: If we made lower profits more acceptable, we might have more local control and less corporatization. Smaller profits, smaller homes, more volunteerism, less "hyper-individualism" all help bit by bit to bring about and reinforce an attitude adjustment: We can lead richer lives without being hooked on stuff. It's capitalism with its wings clipped. Not exactly the stuff that gets investors like Kleiner Perkins excited.

Self-restraint for the common good, McKibben knows, is a difficult sell, but allowing the "market" to drive change without a shift in values is foolish. Call it a fool's gold rush, if you will.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.