Spurred by mounting concern about global warming and overall environmental deterioration, a legion of entrepreneurs is developing an array of new green products and services.
This emerging technology sector is sparking a good deal of enthusiasm not only among entrepreneurs but also venture capitalists. Worldwide demand for clean and green technologies is growing rapidly.
Effectively meeting the demand could be highly profitable, especially for people in centers of innovation such as Silicon Valley. In fact, the recently released "California Green Innovation Index," produced by Next 10, documents that California is the focal point of "the next wave of green innovation."
Reflecting this trend, in early November, Palo Alto's Chamber of Commerce sponsored a forum entitled, "Building a Sustainable Cleantech Economy," featuring a panel of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. The bulk of the program was devoted to a discussion of emerging technologies -- renewable energy, advanced transportation and energy efficiency -- that have exciting potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly and lessen other human impacts on the environment while creating new jobs and considerable wealth.
The very last question to the panel stimulated an all-too-brief but critical discussion that framed the topic in broader perspective:
"Why are you shying away from discussing technologies and strategies that emphasize changing personal behavior?"
The panelists' responses were eye opening but disappointing. One said, "It's not clear to me that we need to change consumer behavior."
"Practicing abstinence is not a winning campaign," another said.
"We need to make it easy for the consumer to adapt, otherwise we'll have very small markets" for new technologies, a third added.
In sum, the panelists appeared to believe that forthcoming technological innovations will enable us continue living much as we have in recent decades and still dramatically reduce our impacts on the environment.
They also seemed to believe people are not prepared to make significant personal changes to combat global warming. These assumptions are debatable.
Human-induced global warming is a planetary emergency like none we have faced before. The just-released final report by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change paints a stark and frightening picture of a chaotic world -- rising sea levels, droughts and water shortages, heat waves, severe storms, spreading tropical diseases and extinguished species -- unless we humans rapidly reduce our greenhouse-gas emissions.
Climatic changes already are underway. We need to move fast to avert disaster. The U.N. panel says we must cut our greenhouse gas emissions substantially within the next eight years -- by 2015 -- to prevent extremely serious climate disruptions.
Successfully and rapidly addressing this awesome threat will require both new green technologies and significant changes in personal behavior on the part of millions of people -- especially those of us in the "developed world."
Each of us can take personal steps to reduce our "carbon footprint," the basis of greenhouse gases. We also can urge our employers, our local governments and our state and federal officials to implement policies that reduce emissions. We can help create momentum for other far-reaching systemic changes. This bottom-up "citizen leadership" process is already underway. In fact, it has been underway for several years in the Palo Alto/Stanford area. But we need to do more, push harder for rapid change than we thought just a few months ago.
On the personal level, it helps to be strategic in our choices by asking questions such as: "What personal changes can I make that will significantly reduce my carbon footprint?" and "How can I help others reduce their carbon emissions?"
Some personal changes that reduce greenhouse gas emissions are one-time actions such as installing compact fluorescent bulbs, programmable thermostats and solar panels -- or purchasing a hybrid vehicle.
Other steps require changing our habits. While such changes can make the greatest impact they can be difficult to sustain. Two high-impact changes are simply driving and flying less -- ask yourself, "Is this trip really necessary?"
In addition, eating primarily locally produced food can contribute greatly to reduction of emissions. Some are suggesting foods (and bottled water) be labeled with how many hundreds or thousands of miles they traveled to get to you. Eating less meat, turning down the thermostat in winter and up in summer, line-drying laundry and buying less stuff, especially new stuff, are important steps when done by many of us.
Helping others reduce their carbon emissions is particularly important. People tend to emulate the behavior of those around them, so being a visible change agent -- taking a friend to a farmers' market, traveling by train to San Francisco for an outing, hand-mowing the lawn (or replacing it with drought-tolerant native plants) -- can serve as examples to others and have a ripple effect far beyond the one act.
Making such personal behavior changes in order to counter climate change will not necessarily be easy. Breaking old habits rarely is.
But global warming presents us with an opportunity as well as a threat. We can use this crisis to live our lives in a more conscious manner. Assessing our travel practices, our eating habits, our consumption patterns and our lifestyles in general provides us a chance to cut through the clutter and live higher-quality lives more in harmony with the natural environment, locally and globally.
Yes, we greatly need new clean and green technologies. But they are only part of the solution to global warming. Our times call for heroic personal actions as well.