Why Businesses And Individuals Aren't Racing To Go Green (And What To Do About It)

As one of the head counselors of <a href="http://www.energycamp.org">Energy Camp</a> (Tom Raftery of Greenmonk fame is the other; <a href="http://www.greenmonk.net">blog</a>, <a href="http://twitter.com/tomraftery">Twitter</a>), I pay pretty close attention to anything colored green; green organizations, green initiatives, green events, green vendor programs, green news, etc. It was only after the last Energy Camp at Interop in Las Vegas that it dawned on me why the overall green movement gets o

David Berlind, Chief Content Officer, UBM TechWeb

June 16, 2009

11 Min Read

As one of the head counselors of Energy Camp (Tom Raftery of Greenmonk fame is the other; blog, Twitter), I pay pretty close attention to anything colored green; green organizations, green initiatives, green events, green vendor programs, green news, etc. It was only after the last Energy Camp at Interop in Las Vegas that it dawned on me why the overall green movement gets only pockets of traction, and what we should do about it. Hopefully, someone in Obama's administration is listening.Let's face it. The human race is on an ever-accelerating march towards the Earth's point of no return (the point at which we could seal our own extinction). By some estimates, approximately 300,000 preventable deaths per year can be attributed to climate change. Somewhere down the line, someone is going to burn the last watt. It won't be you. But it could be one of your descendants.

Most people are aware of the problem. Unfortunately, most people aren't responding to it as though their very existence is at issue. Most of us wash our hands of the problem after we feel as though we've done our parts. We turn out a few more lights. Recycle some additional things that we'd normally toss out. Now now, doesn't that feel better?

The problem is that it's not enough.

At least one component of the shocking apathy is how those of us who are alive today don't feel threatened. Against the backdrop of other priorities and challenges that face us right now, something so forward looking like saving the planet just doesn't rate.

Energy Camp is about lowering the carbon footprint of IT and every Camp ends with an open rap session during which the attendees share their observations, thoughts, and suggestions about shrinking IT's carbon footprint. The closing session at the last Energy Camp was particularly informative when it came to the great many ways that datacenters and server rooms could be designed for carbon neutrality (ping Tom Raftery if you want to know more. He's a proverbial fountain of green practices).

Thirty or so people who stuck around for the full day of Camp got to take home some very actionable information. If the world is lucky, five of them might do something with it. And right there is where the momentum from Energy Camp Spring 2009 will end.

That's why I'm feeling like Energy Camp as well as many other similar "one-off" events, initiatives, and programs have little chance of staving off what appears to be the inevitable. Don't get me wrong. Every little bit counts. Between every event like Energy Camp, and every vendor program like HP's Power to Change or Regeneration.org which is "powered by Dell," every organization like Climatesaverscomputing.org, every person that turns out a light, we're not as worse off as we could be. And I will look to run more Energy Camps.

But I liken the state of the state to an adventure I once had with some college friends in the Everglades. There were four of us in two canoes paddling feverishly against a tide that was flowing from the Gulf of Mexico through a short river into Lake Ingraham. Not only weren't we making progress against that tide, we were going backwards into the lake. Like Captain Kirk summoning Scotty for more power, we paddled faster. But almost as if to purposely smite us, the tide responded by rushing at us with even more vigor. To make it out to the Gulf, we ended up lasooing mangroves along the side of the short river and pulled ourselves to safety (the Sun was ready to set and the last place you want to be in the dark is stranded in a lake in the middle of the Everglades).

You could argue that we have to start somewhere; That collectively, the world's green movement will eventually get the traction and support it needs from the Earth's inhabitants. But let's be honest about that argument. It conveniently allows us to simultaneously sweep the problem under the rug and sleep well at night thinking we've done our part.

On our current course, by the time we realize that the human race should have acted much sooner, with far more velocity, and on a much larger scale, it will probably be too late. Our children and our grandchildren will curse us and those who came before us for putting them in the pickle that they'll be in.

By now you're asking, "Great David.. we're doomed unless we do what?"

The lightbulb didn't go off until this past Sunday.

I'm by no means an expert on the malaise. But on average, I'm a bit more informed than the next guy. On Sunday, I bumped into a woman who represented a local chapter of Transition Towns. I asked her what Transition Towns is. She answered with a question: Do you know what peak oil is? After a brief discussion about peak oil (perhaps more evidence of the planet's downward spiral), I asked what Transition Towns was doing about it.

To me, her answer captured in a nutshell the void that is left by all those green programs and intiatives (including Energy Camp). She talked about how they can teach people a range of skills (eg: growing their own vegetables), all in the name of self-sustaining communities and mitigation of peak oil. As I listened, I realized in the back of my mind that, just as with Energy Camp and so many other green initiatives, at least two things were missing. First, the all important "How am I doing?" element. Second, a natural virulent for spreading the initiative.

Targets and Measurements Are The Keys In pretty much any situation where reduction of something is involved, two critical keys to success are targets and measurements. Imagine trying to lose weight without a scale. If you're like most people, you'd give up after the first few days.

When something as critical as survival of the planet is concerned, reducing our dependence on oil or saving energy by replacing our incandescent bulbs with compact florescent lights (or equivalent techniques in information technology sector) are way too amorphous. It sends the wrong message that if you take these steps, then you're doing something about the problem and that's enough. How do you know it's enough? What if you're doing something about the problem and it's not enough? Then why bother doing anything at all?

If I start growing my own vegetables, I really have no sense of the dent I'm making in the bigger problem (hint: less transportation of the vegetables to the market that you normally drive your car to equates to fewer pounds of CO2 dumped into the atmosphere).

If you teach me how to grow my own vegetables, upcycle certain materials, use less oil, etc., all you're doing is throwing ideas at me in hopes that I'll embrace some of them. But, none of these have measurable goals associated with them. It's just "use less of this or that."

Given the magnitude of the problem we currently face, this approach to saving our planet simply won't do. Instead, we must start with a goal. Perhaps the Transition Towns lady's answer should have been "For no cost, we teach and equip you you to run a carbon neutral household (or business)."

Carbon neutrality? Now, that's a goal I can get my head around. If someone came to me and said "David, if you want to make a difference, you need to set your sights on being carbon neutral. We can tell you how close you are today and what it will take to get there tomorrow," I would listen. I want to be carbon neutral. If every person and every business aspired to the goal of carbon neutrality, we'd make a dent. A bigger one than we're making on our current path. But I haven't the slightest idea how to get there and I certainly have no idea how far away from carbon neutrality my household or business are right now.

I don't care if it's your weight, your speed in the next race, the revenues for some organization, or a battle that our soldiers are planning to fight. A call to action carries stands a far better chance of succeeding when it involves an objective and an easy way to measure the progress towards that objective. So, if it works for all those other important things, then why aren't we employing this simple technique to the most important battle this planet will ever face?

Give me an objective, a laundry list of ways to achieve it, and an easy way to tell how close I am to achieving that objective, and I will make it to that objective. This may not work for everyone. But I can promise you that the alternative (which involves no objective and no way to measure your progress) hardly works for anyone.

Next: Pay It Forward The people behind the current crop of initiatives will tell you that their efforts are scalable. Just because they're on the Web and may involve a wiki to which tens, hundreds, or thousands of interested people can view or contribute content does not make an effort scale. OK, using technologies like that, it scales better than a person with access to a copy machine. On the other hand, maybe it doesn't.

Let's say I was your friend and asked if I could come over to talk to you about something really important and that I just needed an hour or so of your time. When I get to your home or place of business, I lay the problem out in no uncertain terms. Here's where our planet and our grandchildren are heading. In terms of doing something about it, are you in? Or out?

For the next hour, I walk through and around your home or place of business. I have a pretty thick booklet with me and as I walk around, you see me checking things off in the booklet. You're not sure what I'm doing but by the time it's over, two booklets (the one that I filled with checkmarks and another one that's blank) are yours to keep. In the first booklet, I've checked off tens, maybe hundreds of measures that you can take towards the objective of carbon neutrality. Even better, every item I've checked is accompanied by an explanation of (a) how to baseline where you stand today and (b) how to measure your progress. At the end of the booklet or on the Web, you are shown how to total everything up and track your progress towards overall carbon neutrality. Also on the Web is a friendly competition where, through the self-reporting of your results, you're racing others towards carbon neutrality. It's fun. Your family or colleagues really get into it.

But there's one gotcha.

Now that I've taught you, you must promise to teach at least two other people. They could be your friends or family. But make it someone who will welcome you into their household or business. In the course of doing so, you make 4 copies of the unchecked booklet. Or you buy them from Amazon or a local bookstore (both of which make them available at cost because it's for a good cause). Two for each of your pupils (one that gets checked and one that they'll pay it forward with). Then, get them to commit to spending a few more hours (and a couple of bucks for copies of the booklets) educating two additional people.

I'm leaving out some of the gory details like, what's in the booklets? Are there different booklets for households and businesses of different sizes? Of course there are. But based on the information that was shared at the end of the last Energy Camp and based on the knowledge that we all know is floating around out there, I can promise you that the information needed to work towards a goal of carbon neutrality is available now. It just needs to be compiled.

Bernie Madoff Would Be Proud When I explained this to my wife, she said it sounded like a pyramid scheme. I couldn't have said it better myself. After all the bad press that pyramid schemes have gotten, isn't it time to fix their reputation by using one to measurably and virulently save our planet?

About the Author(s)

David Berlind

Chief Content Officer, UBM TechWeb

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