To date, most reports about what the Obama Administration will deliver are encouraging. While it is doubtful the 111th Congress can wade through the worsening financial crisis in time to pass a stand-alone cap-and-trade bill, the safe bet is that legislation will target job creation around energy efficiency and renewables. This is laudable – any commitment to a greener future is a break from the past and overdue. Even so, just how aggressive the Administration’s efforts will be with regard to greening the economy remains to be seen. Of greater concern is the rhetoric around job creation and a New Green Deal. Both are short-sighted approaches that couch environmentally-sensitive federal policy in a post-New Deal framework. The clean tech sector should monitor this carefully.
While Obama’s promised commitment to improving green building standards, modernizing the grid, weaning the US from dependence on foreign oil (among others) is commendable, the New Green Deal mischaracterizes the role clean tech must play in the “new economy.” In other words, going “green” to create jobs (and to save the economy) is designed solely to fix a current problem: a floundering economy. What the clean tech sector recognizes, which the business-as-usual approach does not, is that our collective activities — our economy…our patterns of consumption…the way we manufacture goods — are all unsustainable (read Vol. II: Is CleanTech really an industry? (Today: Environment) for a good discussion). As the CleanTech movement has shown for decades, we must reinvent production and manufacturing processes that more efficiently package the raw materials we consume in their various forms: including electricity, food, water, and consumer goods. So how do we get there?
Ideally, political will on Capital Hill should coalesce around a core set of principles directed at systemic change instead of settling for short-term fixes. But to make any progress, the Obama Administration will have to make political calculations that will stop well-short of a green overhaul. Green jobs is one component. But the way forward must also include incentivizing disruptive technologies that challenge our current assumptions about the virtues of our industrial capacity. Given the federal government’s general reluctance to spearhead R&D efforts, it is unlikely leadership will come from Washington. Even so, while the current financial crisis is formidable, environmental constraints like oil scarcity, clean water shortages, and climate change will prove a much more pernicious challenge over the long haul.
While it is worth reexamining the World Commission on Environment and Development’s Our Common Future (the Brundtland Report) to set the framework for future legislation, it may not be the most useful tool for calibrating reform efforts. The principles of ‘sustainable development’ outlined in this text have gained some traction in policy circles, but there is still insufficient progress to show for it. Perhaps part of the problem lies in the fact that it is difficult to pin down a universally appropriate sustainable blueprint for every industry or societal problem. The clean tech sector provides a useful illustration: while seeking to use “limited or zero nonrenewable resources and/or create significantly less waste than conventional offerings,” the sector encompasses a diverse array of products and services across a range of industries. The policy and legislation that will drive investment in clean tech must recognize this variability.
A second obstacle to adopting sustainable development principles has to do with the overtly ethical implications associated with the term. The definition (outlined in Our Common Future) borrows from the notion of intergenerational equity aiming to “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This is well and good, but without legally binding provisions, policy-makers have little reason to legislate for future generations. And with an increasingly grim diagnosis emerging for the US and world economies, efforts to strike a balance between the needs of our ever-growing population with real environmental and resource constraints will continue to be an uphill battle in the short and long-haul.
In the meantime, check back for posts discussing the most unsustainable industries — those ripe for disruptive technologies.