Beautiful Monsters: Green vs. Green

Jonzing to take part in another 120-mile speed-skating race? You might have to wait 18 years, which is the likely interval between one Elfstedentocht and the next, owing to the effects of global warming.


As you wait for the ice to thicken, you can drive (in an energy-efficient manner) to one of the sustainable dance clubs popping up all over, and sweat your prayers.

So we can (almost all) agree the climate is changing. Not simply the climate that’s melting the ice, though. Also the economic climate, the one threatening to wash away your job. And the political climate, the one that can keep us all afloat.

Just a few months ago, business leaders habitually dismissed arguments in favor of ecologically responsible development because they were too busy pumping gobs of money out of the ground. Now that the price of oil has plummeted along with the rosy profit forecasts from Reykjavik to Whitefish, guess what some “hard-nosed realists” argue? You got it! Investing in clean- and green-tech is now unwise because of the credit tsunami sucking all the cash out to sea, an economic recession that promises to be as deep as it will be broad, hyperventilating stock markets, dazed and confused finance
, and a crumbling government in Washington that’s trying to bring down thousands of animal and
plant species with it

Who has time for the love of bugs and bunnies when the sky is falling
and you’ve got mouths to feed! When the weather’s fine, there’s no apparent need to fix the leak in the roof. And, anyway, you’re too busy enjoying the sunshine. But when it’s raining nobody wants to go out on a slippery roof. In other words, it’s hard to set aside the time to look ahead. But in times of turmoil we all want to know what’s coming around the bend.

The best way to predict the future, as everyone knows, is to make it yourself. Particularly if you’re a designer, since your job is to anticipate future needs and desires and create what fits the bill.

So the question is, for what future are we designing?

There are always reasons to jettison green ideas, some sensible and some self-serving. But
let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Sure, we’ve been trained to dismiss anything the United Nations says, particularly when its Climate Change Secretariat urges governments to use the credit crisis as a pretext for greening their economies. But what to make of George Soros? He suggests we should stop investing in environmentally destructive businesses and instead place our bets on the engine of the next economy,
green and clean tech. But what does Soros know about making money?

Then there’s Nobuo Tanaka, the executive director of the International Energy Agency who, after meeting with the oil ministers of Russia and China declared the end of the oil economy, but the beginning of what? Deutsche Bank is advising governments to invest in technologies to blunt the impacts of climate change, stimulate economies, and prepare for a future of dwindling oil supplies. The MIT Technology Review, meanwhile, recently reported that concerns over global warming and energy security means that alternative energy remains a good investment. McKinsey has written extensively on what businesses can do to thrive
in a radically changing environment, by relying on available technologies. And for those uncertain where to start changing their culture, Deloitte just released a report outlining techniques for growing your business in more sustainable ways.

Oh, yeah, and there’s the fact that the next president of the United States has an honest-to-goodness energy policy that demands the innovative ideas, courageous action, and physical muscle of a generation. Faith and hope has triumphed over cynicism and fear, but now it’s time to get down to work.

But isn’t that all just a bunch of theory?

A UC Berkeley study
released last month shows that California’s energy-efficiency policies have created nearly 1.5 million jobs from 1977 to 2007, while eliminating fewer than 25,000. Turns out that the biggest engines for growth this year at General Electric are those green products and services that fall under its Ecomagination initiative. Wal-Mart, meanwhile, is making a big push toward greater environmental stewardship, most recently in China. Some folks in Detroit who once built gas-guzzling automobiles now build windfarm equipment. And on a more mundane note, consider how better de-duplication software can save time, emissions, and cash.

The fact is that oil market turbulence and global warming are here to stay, and those people, communities, companies, and governments that can anticipate the next wave of change are more likely to ride high out of the current mess.

But why should interaction designers care? I’ll put it this way: how often is the best choice the most obvious one? We work on projects that often don’t get released for years, which is why it’s important to anticipate a world where oil prices are high again, markets for carbon are commonplace, income is less disposable, and people are hungry for products and services more closely aligned with the social, economic, and environmental ecologies on which they depend.

With markets for most everything tightening up, industry is making fewer things, they will transport them fewer miles, and people will burn less carbon to get them. The good news is that these changes will translate into a decrease in worldwide carbon emissions. We are granted an opportunity to slow down and take a breath.

As we reexamine our assumptions, we may ask ourselves about the wisdom of those executives and economists who have counseled against sustainable products and services. Are these the same folks who invested in shady Icelandic banks and screwy mortgage-backed securities? Surely, all the phony money in the world cannot equal the certainty that energy efficiency is going to pay off. Whatever else may be true, the economy will find a new level, the markets will return to life, energy will get expensive again, and only those who take this opportunity to invest now will reap the benefits later on.

The point is this: it’s the job of designers to keep our eyes on the horizon, so that present conditions do not cloud our vision of how to get where we’re going.

David Fore

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