[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:

  1. 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.
  2. Sustainability: renewable energy, better agricultural practices, and sometimes population reduction/stability. This is to avoid depleting resources.
  3. 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.

[2019] The Tesla is an even better example of "don't have to give up anything" car than the Prius.

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Alok wrote at Sunday, June 14, 2009 at 10:16:00 AM PDT

Thought provoking.

Here is what strikes me, when I think of Green:

* Bandwagon
* Need for some serious action, maybe very soon.
* Outstanding technical problem, that we need to find some social way of monetizing (taxation and levies on non-Green ways?)

Halogenica wrote at Tuesday, June 16, 2009 at 12:28:00 AM PDT

Nice to see such a balanced post on this issue for a change! Well worth posting!

Lisa wrote at Wednesday, June 17, 2009 at 6:06:00 AM PDT

1. I would respectfully suggest that your thesis requires a corollary - people will pay/do more for "green"ness provided it doesn't materially interfere with their comfort. People may pay more for their Prius but only if the psycological/economical benefit is worth 4K. Bump up the price to 40K,add all the bells and whistles you want and I still doubt we'll get much traction... I keep my house at 82 because I am okay with too warm. but I drive an SUV as I have a large family and am short and like the height .I know you know this but that applies to clean fuel too. I may pay 20% more for clean fuel but not 100%.YMMV

2. Pollution. this is a weird one. This is visible and a direct health hazard (vrs CO2) but you had to actually breathe grit into your lungs before Delhi and Mexico City acted. And these were the 2 most polluted cities in the world. Perhaps because its so easy to get away from it. The air quality in the west of houston is far better than the east.

In fact I (personally) can only think of 2 cases where the world had the pollitical will to quickly act - leaded fuel in the mid 1900's and HCF in the 80s. (And I really don't know if it was quick or not....) What made those two special? How were people convinced? (Oh wait - asbestos,too, I think.)

3. Obligatory "are you the Amit who"
... Who had a birthday on Flag day (14th)? If so, Happy Birthday. I think of you every year. And if not, I hope you have a good year anyway :>

4. Nice point about conservation.

Good luck saving the earth.

Amit wrote at Wednesday, June 17, 2009 at 10:30:00 AM PDT

Hi Lisa,

1. Yes, the incremental cost is important; it shouldn't be too high. It may be a mix of absolute and relative costs. People in my area seem to be willing to pay for fluorescent bulbs, which cost 100+% more than incandescent. But for a house, they might only pay a 5% premium.

2. I think there are a lot more success stories for pollution, but I can't name them all. A few that come to mind: the Love Canal (led to lots less river pollution), Exxon Valdez (increased use of double hulled ships), asbestos, lead paint, the London fog of the 1800s, Los Angeles smog. I suspect there are lots of smaller success stories too, which can have global effects. For example, California has stricter standards for car emissions, and some carmakers don't want to build two different models, so they use the California standards for all their cars. It does seem to take it getting really bad before people notice; I think that aspect of human nature will be hard to fight.

Yes, the air quality in West Houston is better than East Houston. This is true of many American cities, because the prevailing winds are west to east. All the smells of the city go east. This is also why the west sides of most cities are wealthier neighborhoods.

3. We may know each other. Email me at amitp@cs.stanford.edu :-)

Lisa wrote at Wednesday, June 17, 2009 at 11:21:00 AM PDT

On point 2 - most of your cases required a catastrophe before action was taken - and thats easy,.( In fact too many unnec. overly broad & expensive actions are often taken because of one event.) In fact if pollution suddenly leaped out of the air and ate some babies or a Hugh Jackman, we would certainly act. But HCF's - well, the world didn't end, and people didn't directly feel the impact but even environmental scoff laws like India and China played. I don't know why. Do you? Perhaps the chilling & convincing nature of the science worked. AS it is, if I can move to the suburbs in the west - hey, I don't want to change my lifestyle to deal with it.

btw, Is there really no more smog in LA?

Alok wrote at Wednesday, June 17, 2009 at 11:27:00 AM PDT

> All the smells of the city go east. This is also why the west sides of most cities are wealthier neighborhoods.

Interesting observation/theory. I wonder how many counter examples there are for this.

Also, may be unrelated but, don't more rivers flow from West to East than the other way around.

Amit wrote at Wednesday, June 17, 2009 at 6:35:00 PM PDT

Lisa: There is still smog in LA, but it's far better than it used to be, and there are more cars now too.

Alok: I'm sure there are counterexamples based on geographical constraints (mountains, ocean, etc.). In the U.S., more rivers east of the Continental Divide will flow west to east, whereas on the west of the divide, it's east to west. This is unrelated to the winds though :)

Stretch Marks wrote at Friday, June 19, 2009 at 11:41:00 PM PDT
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Captain Walker wrote at Monday, July 13, 2009 at 1:54:00 PM PDT

Isn't there a problem with infinite and clean energy i.e. that infinite energy is likely to be affordable by everyone. How will limits be applied? Too much of any good thing is a bad thing. What's gonna happen to the earth with virtually free infinite energy? Could be another kind of disaster for the planet.

Amit wrote at Monday, July 13, 2009 at 4:11:00 PM PDT

Captain Walker, what limits are you wanting for unlimited energy? We essentially have unlimited air to breathe, but we don't see people calling for limits on how much air you breathe.

zzzzrrr wrote at Friday, October 2, 2009 at 8:26:00 AM PDT

Conservation and efficiency are not solutions to mankind's long term energy problems. Is it so difficult to realize that incessantly rising energy use is the way modern societies operate? The only first exceptions are rapidly aging societies, where energy use may stabilize or even decline a bit.

Consider this: The U.S. is twice as efficient at using energy as it was in the 70's, yet energy consumption today is considerably higher per capita. The more efficient an economy is at harnessing energy, the more energy that economy uses in the long term. This simple phenomena is know as the Jevon's Paradox.

The answer lies not at the microeconomic level, where efficency has its greatest benefit, but at the macroeconomic level. Unplugging your electronic appliances during the day won't make much of a difference, but acquiring energy generated from a sustainable resource will.

So, the key (in my humble opinion) to a sustainable future is not efficiency or conservation, but clean - non polluting - power generation.

The planet is heading for 9.5e9 people by 2050, and I'm sorry, green eco-friendly products are not going to save the day. They may make you feel good as a consumer, but it won't make much of a genuine difference.

Maybe Fusion or some undiscovered energy resource will be our salvation....!

Unknown wrote at Wednesday, November 25, 2009 at 5:59:00 PM PST

Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor. No emissions, fail-safe, cannot be weaponized, abundant, etc.

Mouse wrote at Friday, December 10, 2010 at 11:47:00 AM PST

The problem with wind, solar, etc. is that we currently have no way to store the surplus on anything above a very small scale. Therefore, energy sources that depend on unreliable things like the weather must be backed up by fossil-fuel burning generators for when there's not enough wind or sunlight. A wind turbine accompanied by a generator to pick up the slack uses more fossil fuel than the same generator would running by itself; because when it's adjusting to the turbine, the generator spends most of its time spooling up or down, when it's much more efficient to run it at a constant speed.

Amit wrote at Friday, December 10, 2010 at 11:57:00 AM PST

Mouse: yes, the base load problem seems to be ignored by solar/wind enthusiasts. Hydroelectric and nuclear can serve as base load but hydroelectric is rather limited, so nuclear is probably the best option. Stewart Brand's book “Whole Earth Discipline” may be of interest to you.

I think things change a lot if we have near-unlimited energy. You wouldn't store the excess solar/wind. You'd throw it away.

Grrrrrrrrr wrote at Friday, July 13, 2012 at 12:10:00 PM PDT

Sadly, I think the only solutions are taxes or religion. It's the only way to get people to do things that are not the "easiest" path.

Tax has the added benefit of encouraging innovation - no one wants to pay tax so they'll find a way around it. Easy.