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Bright Green Action as Economic Development Strategy
Alex Steffen, 10 Jan 10

Throughout much of the developed world, but especially in North America, the debate about sustainability is routinely framed as a trade-off between the environment and the economy. The problem is, no such trade-off exists.

Certainly, there are big industries (like coal, oil, manufacture of cheap disposable consumer goods, fast food franchises, auto manufacturing) that will take a big hit as we move into a low-energy, low-carbon, zero-waste future. Many people will lose their jobs, and places that remain deeply committed to those industries are in for decades of suffering.

But here's the blunt reality: those industries, jobs and places are toast already. They are the walking dead. Nothing we do, on any scale or at any sacrifice, will save them, even in the medium term -- and the more money we spend trying, the worse off our economies as a whole will be. The old economy is dead.

Of course, those with money invested in that economy have been doing everything they can -- spending many billions on lobbying, propaganda campaigns and political bribes -- to convince us that they are the economy, and that anything that hurts them will damage the prosperity of the rest of us (and that therefore we should continue spending vast sums of our taxes subsidizing their industries, protecting their supply lines abroad and paying the environmental and health burdens their business models saddle us with... not to mention the catastrophes they're leaving our children).

If we could filter their propaganda and influence out of our public debate for a day, we'd have a series of national epiphanies: our economic futures are not dependent on these guys, and the quicker we leave these industries behind, the better of we are; in fact, bright green action's not only not a hit to competitiveness, it's the new definition of competitive advantage.

By slashing emissions, developing clean energy, investing in bright green cities, changing agriculture, spurring design and technological innovation and embracing new models of prosperity, we don't just meet our ethical obligations not to destroy the ecological foundations of civilization; we also create the kind of economy that is clearly going to lead the way in the 21st century.

Many people understand already that by doing these things, we save money directly, because energy and materials are expensive, and (all other things being equal) using less of them to generate more economic activity is profitable: money spent making greener profits is not a cost, it's an investment. If you extend your planning horizon out even a few years, a large percentage of the changes we want to see make us money. This is particularly true in talking about big system shifts, like rebuilding auto-dependent communities and investing in clean energy. Much of what we want to do already makes more economic sense, if all the costs are counted (and harmful subsidies eliminated) and the planning time frame is reasonable.

Many other things, though are not yet directly profitable. Especially where we're pushing the boundaries of the possible, there's a cost to the learning curve. Fewer people yet understand that cost is also an investment, because the knowledge you gain in the process is worth money. Lots of money. In fact, the knowledge gained in being a bold, aggressive first-mover in bright green innovation is itself the industry of the future. The working knowledge of transformational technologies, designs and practices is the economic reward for moving boldly into a bright green future. The speed with which they move is almost certainly going to determine which businesses and regions are globally competitive in coming decades.

In fact, I'm convinced that a regional government sufficiently free of old industry influence would see what seems like us today as an astonishing pace of transformation as the best economic development strategy there is. Raising building codes and design standards to the best known level (and then continuing to raise them, ensuring that local architects, builders, engineers and designers are on the cutting edge of their fields); doing everything possible to encourage dense and walkable urbanism and the development of new walkshed technologies and product-service models (and working to actively revoke subsidies for auto-dependence, from parking to free roads to externalized costs for health and environmental damage); moving now towards zero-waste policies with hefty penalties for products that can't be safely disassembled and recycled; investments in watershed and foodshed management and ecosystem service preservation designed to both secure sustainable access to the essentials of life and promote working insight into better farming, forestry and restoration practices -- the list goes on and on, but the point is the same: all of these things look radical and unrealistic when seen through the filter of the status quo, but are in fact the kinds of actions that will create vibrant, competitive, prosperous places over the next decade.

There's no trade-off here. The old industries are dead and drain taxpayer money while harming people and the planet. Every dollar spent supporting them is a dollar burned. The new industries will be found in the process of building a new way of life that offers greater prosperity and health, while protecting the planet for future generations. One path offers us prosperity now and a livable future, the other drains our economic vitality and leaves us with a crippled planet. There's no comparison.

Radical bright green action is smart economic development strategy.

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THANK YOU for this! I think part of the problem is that all of these things represent huge changes, and change scares people. I wish more folks talked about what needs to happen as exciting and positive!

Posted by: Becky on 10 Jan 10

Agree with you that bright green action is the new definition of competitive advantage. The faster governments and businesses realize this and move ahead, the more competitive they become. Already seeing that happening for a few enlightened governments and businesses, and really excited to see that become the common denominator.

Posted by: Eugene Tay on 10 Jan 10

Yes! I don't understand why this understanding is so slow to take hold. Or I do - as you said, billions of dollars being spent defining and defending the status quo - but it is discouraging that people aren't able to see it.

Posted by: Jess @OpenlyBalanced on 11 Jan 10

Great points, Alex. But there's not an "economy" on the one hand and some form of political system on the other. There's just a political economy, inextricably linked, many feedback loops generating very weird behavior. So this post has a lot to do with many fine ones you've done about transparency, open-source democracy, and similar topics.

Posted by: David Foley on 12 Jan 10

Another good post, Alex. Thank you for every effort you make to get these facts into our consciousness.

Posted by: Bobbie Stacey on 12 Jan 10

The CDC where I work is promoting green businesses and building practices in Camden, New Jersey. We have an Equity Capital Competition for sustainable businesses and are exploring ways to bring in green jobs to the community. Impoverished neighborhoods are open to new ideas, because, gee, how have the old ideas been working for you?

I would love to see everyone who reads Worldchanging to go to their city neighborhoods use their money on a regular basis to support the green businesses that are creating the new local economies in the here and now.

Posted by: Stella Bonaparte on 12 Jan 10

The green movement is great... But sooner or later we all have to come to terms with the fact that having civilization means we can never have true freedom like most tribal people have experienced. When will the day come that we get past the en$lavement of working meaningless jobs producing meaningless products just to keep some economy going? No matter what that economy is composed of we will still work 40 hours a week or more, working our lives away at jobs most hate... when will we learn that the most sustainable way for humans to live is the traditional way, the tribal way? It's the way humans have lived for all time until the recent birth of "civilization"... I don't know about you but everyone I know only wishes to get rich because they want the freedom that comes with it, and if we all had a choice we wouldn't work towards building empires, we'd work for only what was needed: Food, shelter, clothing, art, music... much like what Native Americans had. Some believe they too had a big impact on their environment, but the truth is that they didn't even have a fraction of the impact (and at such a rate) civilized cultures do.

This is a good article, but it seems like more of the same to me, not much of a real change... sure it'd be "green" but we'd still be slaves to money, we'd still have an economy based on products and lies, we'd still work our days away instead of having our own time to ourselves... the FOOD WOULD STILL BE UNDER LOCK AND KEY... and if we don't undergo a REAL CHANGE, then we will one day come full-circle back to where we are now, or worse.

Posted by: Ted Bolha on 13 Jan 10

I have been involved in green business ( for more than two years so far, it's about controlled-life plastics that convert ordinary plastics to degradable plastics, I've been keeping myself reading lots technologies associate with it and found out people/consumers are not aware of and probably cannot determine sometimes what's real and what's fake. For example, "Biodegradable", it is not necessariliy to associate with corn starch, which release methane at the end of degradation which is the contributor to green house effect. I am happy that I am not involved it it. I strongly recommend enterprises and consumers to develop knowledge about "Green Issue", not just look for something "Green" for "business".

Posted by: Katrina on 16 Jan 10

My point for several years has been that what Alex describes here is a far more meaningful path than "buy local". There are very good arguments to be made that the two are not mutually exclusive - but can anyone say with a straight face that the Local Living Economy movement is the fastest path to a Bright Green Future? I can't. In fact, my argument is that it is sucking energy from the more powerful vision described here by shifting the discussion to how WalMart is bad, when WalMart COULD be part of the solution.

I would add - we are the problem. It's not the media or corporations and certainly not WalMart. Those of us who know better spend countless hours arguing with each other instead of taking care of business. I certainly am no better. The Fossil fuel economy companies may be wrong on the wrong side of history - but at least they are clear about what they think policy should be.

Posted by: Bill S on 18 Jan 10

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