Solution-based environmentalism is key for true change

A little more than two weeks ago, an oil rig off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico exploded, leaving 11 crew members dead and tens of thousands of gallons of oil leaking into the water and creeping toward the coastline. Some environmentalists are using this catastrophe as a way to end offshore oil drilling, but I’m with Paul Roberts — our dependence on oil is too strong to simply quit cold turkey.

Roberts, author of The End of Oil, was interviewed by Grist recently and explained how he didn’t want environmentalists to exploit this tragedy because demanding an end to offshore drilling was not realistic or feasible without an alternative lined up:

The environmental movement is really going to need to come up with a more pragmatic set of gestures than “let’s stop all offshore drilling.” Well, OK. What do you replace that oil with? And how much will it cost? And who will bear the costs? And who’s in charge of the transition — government or the private sector? Of course, once you start asking those questions, you sound like an oil industry flak, but until you answer those questions, or at least ask them, you’re not much better.

This attitude is unfortunately common in the environmental movement — calls to end detrimental environmental activities without any ideas for alternatives. Some alternatives are quite simple and common sensical: instead of using child slave labor to harvest your cocoa, hire employees of an appropriate age and pay them an appropriate wage and provide proper working conditions, for instance limiting their work hours per week so they aren’t working 14-hour days for six days a week.

When it comes to energy, however, the alternatives aren’t as clearcut even though solution-based environmentalism is key. We are a country that relies on energy to function — to power our homes, our cars, and our cities. It’s completely awful that a large portion of that comes from coal and oil, but we can’t unplug ourselves overnight. We need to use this realism as motivation to find replacements, alternatives, and supplements.

At my alma mater, Ohio University, students launched a Coal-Free Campus Campaign that demanded that the university close its coal-fired Lausche heating plant, which is where OU gets most of its heat. Although creating awareness is great, OU Sustainability Director Sonia Marcus made a good point:

“We don’t have an alternative (to using Lausche),” Sonia Marcus, OU’s sustainability coordinator, said. “We wouldn’t be able to heat the campus unless we were to buy tens of thousands of space heaters.”

She contended that it will most likely close, but not for at least another 15 years. The problem I had with the Coal-Free Campaign was that it provided no solutions — students demanded that the plant be closed, but the university can’t just let students freeze in the Ohio winters and bathe in cold water.

Not all environmentalists preach about problems without solutions — a good example of solution-based environmentalism can be found in groups like the Coal River Mountain Watch, which opposes mountaintop removal mining while advocating it be replaced with the Coal River Wind project for producing wind energy. It’s an alternative that powers home while creating new jobs.

Although many environmentalists and environmental groups do use solution-based environmentalism to not only call for ends to unsustainable practices but to propose how to replace them and begin with new sustainable ones, it’s becoming too commonplace — especially in the realm of energy — for some to simply call for negative environmental practices to be stopped without thinking about the implications of such actions or the possible alternatives that are better for the environment.

As always, reduced demand and energy efficiency are the best place to start. People can do a lot by driving less and using less electricity. When it comes to efficiency, the new fuel standards of 35 miles per gallon are a good start, as many vehicles on the road have the same (or worse) fuel economy as the Ford Model-T.

Businesses can also do immense good by changing their own practices within the workplace and their products. Being more open to telecommuting (when possible), turning off lights and computers when people aren’t in the office, and recycling office products like paper and ink cartridges are a good start.

Look at your company’s product and see how it can be more sustainable. The Better Paper Project has several ideas aimed at publishing companies to publish fewer newstand copies of magazines (typically extras are left because no one wants the first one in the rack, which has typically been picked at by many grocery shoppers), to reduce the amount of paper scraps by printing on paper closer to the size of the actual magazine, and by encouraging magazines to print on post-consumer recycled paper with soy inks.

Another important step is revamping the government’s Energy Star program. Currently, companies send their products to get the Energy Star seal of approval and provide their own data for efficiency — the fact that Energy Star relies on companies to be honest about their products is naive and irresponsible, as companies have every incentive to fake their reports so they can claim a seal of approval and market themselves as “green.”

In a recent test, Energy Star approved 15 fake products that included a gas-powered alarm clock and a space heater with a feather duster attached to it. It’s not enough to simply rely on these companies’ lab reports — a third-party verification system is needed to verify the efficiency of these products so they actually lower energy use and force companies to truly make efficient products, not efficiently-deceptive lab reports.

Instead of focusing on finding the one end-all form of renewable energy, we need to change our mentality. We are used to coal, oil, and singular energy sources that provide all our energy needs. We need to wean ourselves off coal and oil by supplementing what can’t be erased by less demand and better efficiency. This means thinking critically about solar and wind power and how to make them cost-efficient. Nuclear and natural gas get tossed around a lot, but I don’t know enough about them to feel comfortable discussing them.

Regardless, it’s these conversations not just about what we hate that’s happening to the environment, but how to fix these problems, that are key to environmentalism really being appreciated and advocated by mainstream America and politicians. Events like this oil rig explosion and the explosion at Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia validate environmentalists’ concerns, but we need to be a step ahead and have alternatives and solutions as well.

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