[Warning: my thoughts on this topic are still not entirely clear. I sat on this post for a week but I couldn't find better words, so I decided to post anyway.]
When I think about being “green”, I think of three things:
- Clean: solar, wind, wave energy instead of coal, oil, and sometimes nuclear. Part of this is to reduce pollution, but lately it's about reducing CO2 released into the atmosphere.
- Sustainability: renewable energy, better agricultural practices, and sometimes population reduction/stability. This is to avoid depleting resources.
- Conservation (mostly of energy): less driving, less air travel, less lighting, less water, less energy. This is to reduce the impact of our activities on the planet.
I think all of these could use refinement.
I'm a big fan of Clean. Pollution in general is getting too little attention these days, and CO2 gets too much. CO2 is not a poison; it's a good gas to have. Our problem is that we're way out of balance. We're producing far more than we use, so it's building up in the atmosphere. We need to get back into balance, but that doesn't mean zero. Pollution on the other hand we should be at zero. But it doesn't need to be zero production; it's okay to produce if you can clean it up. For example, algae, fungi, and bacteria can be used to clean up some types of pollution, and titanium dioxide can do wonders. Here again balance is the key. Produce as much as is used, and we're good. That's different from saying produce zero.
I'm a fan of Sustainability but I think it's secondary to, and a consequence of, balance. I think depleting non-renewable resources is fine, as long as we do it knowing we're using it up, and we start coming up with a sustainable solution. We might decide to use oil, but deciding not to use it because we're going to use it up is not a compelling reason. Not having any oil and not using any oil are essentially the same. I think for now we should continue using oil, especially for waxes, lubricants, and biodegradable plastics.
I'm less of a fan of energy Conservation, in part because I think it addresses the wrong issue. (Raw material conservation is a separate issue.) The problem isn't turning the lights on. The problem is the impact that causes, because the electricity is generated in ways that pollute or produce CO2. Do you turn off your solar-powered yard lights when you don't need them? Doesn't it sound silly? Turning off your incandescent bulb powered by a wind farm seems almost as silly. Solar, wind, and wave energy are abundant—in fact, literally tons of photons fall on the Earth every hour. And if we don't use that energy, it's lost. If we had abundant clean, cheap energy, would we still feel bad about using incandescent lights? I think we would, because we're trained to, but we shouldn't. There are still good reasons to use less energy, but they're about cost rather than environment.
Historically, asking people to switch to a worse lifestyle at lower cost (public transit in suburbs, abstaining from sex, eating boring food, not going on vacations, using unpleasant lighting, etc.) doesn't seem to be as effective as asking people to switch to a better lifestyle at higher cost. The EV1 and original Insight were “sacrifice” cars. You had to give something up (range, comfort, size), but you could feel good about sacrificing for the sake of the environment. The Prius is quite different. It is comfortable, is roomy, has nice features, and has good range. You're not sacrificing lifestyle when going from a $16k car to a $20k Prius, but it does cost more. And the Prius is far more successful than the EV1 or original Insight. We should focus on abdundant clean, somewhat sustainable energy. I think we'll improve the environment much quicker by giving people lots of clean energy than to tell them to sacrifice. In addition, lots of other problems, like cleaning water and reducing pollution, become much easier to solve when we have lots of energy.