Letters From The Earth

Fight 'Green Fatigue'

November 13, 2008

What do sunlight, desalination, ethanol, sustainability, and clean energy have in common? The answer, of course, is great cost. Technically we have the ability to convert sunlight into energy, salt water into fresh water, solid waste and methane gas into liquefied natural gas, and so on. How in the world, though, do we justify these projects, these costs, when our economy is on the way to ground zero? This is the dilemma. Which is more important: a balanced budget and operating in the black, or a commitment to "green," regardless of cost and regardless of operational profit?

During the last 60 days most of us have suffered personal and professional economic setbacks. Whether it is loss in a 401k plan, or a profit sharing plan, or a pension plan, all of us have had the misfortune of taking significant reductions in plan value. Some of us have lost jobs or have had contracts canceled or delayed. Phone calls are not returned and there is a crush of depression. How will we get through this economic mess, much less follow good sustainability practices?

For the last 18 months demand outstripped supply in most commodity industries, such as paper, plastics, and steel. During that time it was easy to endorse the change to green. It was easy to develop marketing programs that embraced recycling, waste reduction, more sustainable product based on green certification procedures and the like. Wal-Mart wants it, therefore we had better do it.

During this same time, states were setting mandates that required an increasing percentage of renewable energy. In fact, in California, the Southern California Edison Co. (Edison) announced that it would add 20 percent renewable sources to replace the use of fossil fuel by the end of 2010. Edison said it would place solar collectors on the roofs of businesses that would generate enough power for 162,000 homes. Along with solar collectors, Edison was going to construct 500,000 parabolic mirrors at a location in the Mojave Desert to focus the power of the sun and ultimately produce another 250 megawatts of power via steam generation. Edison also has developed a wind farm in the Tehachapi Mountains. This will add another 4500 megawatts to the electrical grid.

This kind of commitment to change is inexorable. A downturn in the economy is not going to stop Edison. The fact that oil is now (as of this writing) below $78 a barrel won't change Edison's plans to refocus on alternative energies.

But what about you? If you can dump matrix or pressure sensitive byproduct for $50 a ton, will you, in this economic environment, consider an alternative to landfilling at $60? OK, Wal-Mart wants our company to practice and follow green initiatives. But, to be green costs money. Wal-Mart won't pay me any more for my labels, so how can I justify the additional cost?

Our current economic environment does not support green initiatives. In fact, all of us are now overwhelmed by articles and information about green, so much so that we are becoming cynical about the messages and the value in change. I would suggest that the economic morass is an excuse to support "green fatigue" or "eco-anxiety." Maybe our economic slowdown is a chance to put green, change and sustainability on the back shelf for a while.

Two stories that I read recently in The New York Times support this eco-anxiety concept. In one, the Times reported that a woman lost her job because her desk was such a mess she couldn't organize or find anything. She refused to use Post-It notes because she believed that the glues were toxic. (Why didn't she use tacks?) The other story told of a woman who washes herself in her daughter's used bathwater to conserve resources. Surprise, she has experienced a markedly decreased sex life, the Times reports.

These stories and others like them are over the top. Whether they're true or not is academic. The point is, green fatigue or economic bust is putting pressure on changes that we in the industry need to make.
One of my favorite writers, Times columnist Thomas Friedman, wrote a piece titled "Addicted to Oil." He starts, "Two years ago, President George W. Bush declared that America was 'addicted to oil,' and by gosh he was going to do something about it. Well, now he has. Now we have the new Bush energy plan: 'Get more addicted to oil'." Friedman doesn't like Bush too much. He regards his energy plan as a disaster. His crack – "Give me one more pop from that drill, please, baby. Just one more transfusion" – is tame compared to his other zingers. His column goes on to praise and endorse alternative energies such as solar, wind, geothermal, etc. Staying away from political innuendoes, his message supports my own beliefs in waste-to-energy, regardless of our current economic situation. We must take our resource, pressure sensitive waste, and convert this to fuel.

Several years ago Al Gore, the former US vice president, appeared on the popular "Saturday Night Live" television show. In a skit, Gore appeared as the president and told the audience that he had mandated that all our cars run on trash. Notwithstanding the humor, the idea is not as far out as you might think. There are reports, for example, that Lake County, in the US state of Indiana, may be the home of the first commercial plant to make ethanol out of garbage. Indiana Ethanol Power LLC has submitted a proposal to the county's Solid Waste Authority for a facility that would use "weak-acid hydrolysis" to convert trash into 20 million gallons of ethanol a year. Think of that, the raw material is trash, not corn. In another report, Genahol Powers LLC wants to do the same thing with a slightly modified process that would generate 30 million gallons of ethanol per year. So Gore's Saturday night humor isn't so far-fetched after all.

The Onion (online satire) recently reported that Gore has launched his infant son in a one-passenger rocket ship "in the faint hope that his only child will reach the safety of another world." Gore goes on to say, "There is nothing left now but to ensure that my infant son does not meet the same fate as the rest of my doomed race. I will send him to a new planet where he will, I hope, be raised by simple but kindly country folk and grow up to be a hero and protector to his adopted home."

What better way to end this issue's column of Letters from the Earth. The economy's in a mess, people and companies are tired of green, Bush doesn't understand alternative energy, and the Onion's solution is to send Gore's son to outer space.

Another letter from the Earth.

Calvin Frost is chairman of Channeled Resources Group, headquartered in Chicago, the parent company of Maratech International and GMC Coating. His email address is cfrost@channeledresources.com.