A green wave is coming, I think

I think it’s too late to change: sustainability is here to stay.

A bellwether does things before the rest of the flock

Bellwethers do things before the rest of the flock

I’ve recently read that “green jobs” are on the rise.  Some data points:

  • The Associated Press (6/11) reports that the “renewable energy industry” has been adding jobs more than twice as fast as the national (US) rate, as high as 9.1% between 1998 and 2007.  More recent data isn’t available, so we don’t know what’s happened since the global recession started.
  • The New York Times (6/10, Burnham) reported the same statistics, adding that the “nation’s clean-energy economy is poised for explosive growth.  The trends include surging venture capital investment…a critical growth rate in clean-energy generation, energy efficiency and environmentally friendly products.”
  • The Los Angeles Times (6/11, Lifsher) reports, “Fields that will need more workers include clean energy production, energy efficiency, environmentally friendly manufacturing, and conservation and pollution control.”
  • The Wired (6/10, Madrigal) Science blog notes that UC Berkeley researchers “found the renewable energy industry was more labor intensive than traditional fossil-fuel businesses.”  That means, at least for now, there are proportionally more green jobs.

This got me thinking about the future of this whole sustainability thing.  I can’t explain it, but I get this feeling that the writing is on the wall, that “sustainability” is here to stay, that it’s working its way into the social psyche in a way that will become ubiquitous and therefore nearly impossible to eliminate, at least in the foreseeable future.

It’s like when smoking became uncool.  Watch some old movies, like Casablanca, or some recent TV shows about the 50’s and 60’s, like Mad Men, and you’ll see people smoking everywhere – indoors, in front of children, on airplanes, at sporting events….  Then suddenly, over only a few years, smoking went from being a sign of cool to a sign of total uncool.  It wasn’t just the medical research about the danger of tobacco; it wasn’t just the taxes; it wasn’t just the entirely unauthentic PR campaigns mounted by various governments.  Somehow all these factors blended together in the mass consciousness and, once it hit a critical mass, it suddenly took on a life of its own.  Now, even I, who still smoke on occasion, am entirely revolted by the sight of someone smoking in a closed area with, say, children present.

The point is, there was a time, before smoking became socially unacceptable, that I knew it was going to happen, that it was only a matter of time, and that nothing was going to stop it.

I’ve felt that way other times too; for instance, I knew UNIX would be A Big Hit long before LINUX became the darling of operating systems.  But I’ve been wrong too – I still can’t understand what Scheme isn’t the most popular programming language.

Maybe it relates to the notion of artifacts like youtube videos “going viral.”  Maybe it’s something else.  Maybe it relates to the notion of a bellwether.  Whatever it is, I get exactly the same feeling about sustainability.  I get the sense that the writing is on the wall and that no corporation or Luddite organization is going to derail it.  We know so very little about the deeply interconnected entities and systems that make up the Earth’s ecology (including us, of course); it would be the highest arrogance to think that we know enough to inform our decision-making well.  Still, we are starting to get a sense of things, and that understanding is starting to work its way into the social psyche – in no small part thanks to the work of people like David Suzuki and Al Gore.  If they cast long shadows, it’s because they stand on the shoulders of giants: the thousands of scientists world-wide that spend their lives understanding how the universe works.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we can stop worrying about it and expect it to all work out.  We have to keep working at it, promoting environmental responsibility, coming up with new regulations to control corporations who see near term financial gain as more important than long-term health of the Earth’s ecosystems and of humanity, learning to consume less, and generally becoming more connected to the environment, and we need more research to develop methods and systems that are more sustainable.  And we need to insist that designers create more sustainable products and systems.

But I don’t think it’s an uphill battle anymore.  We’ve reached a plateau.  We’ve shown sustainability doesn’t mean poverty or deprivation.  We still need to push, but it’s no where near as hard as it used to be.  And someday soon, things will start to take off on their own – we’ll hit the downward slope – and we won’t have to push any more.

Of course, I might be wrong.  The global “economic crisis” has slowed down a number of green initiatives all over the world, and all we need is another war (against, say, North Korea, or Iraq, or something) and that could push the environment right off the stove, let alone to a back burner.  The Swine Flu pandemic could also screw things up royally.

But these are just hypothetical situations – nice for theoretical considerations, but useless otherwise unless they come true.  So let’s keep our eye on the ball and recognize that we may be on the cusp of a cultural shift in the developed world the likes of which haven’t been seen since the Industrial Revolution.  That would be cool.


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