Bright Green Action as Economic Development Strategy  

Posted by Big Gav

Alex at WorldChanging has a post extolling the economic virtues of the new bright green economy versus the old extractive and polluting industries that are slowly dieing - Bright Green Action as Economic Development Strategy.

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.


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