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What's With This Green Machine?

This is the first of a series of short articles that will profile the potential impacts of science-based knowledge on our lives and humanity’s future from the quest to deal with climate change and our ultimate need for national energy independence.

We can’t open our eyes these days without seeing Green. We’re exhorted to “Go Green”, “Think Green”, and especially “Buy Green”. I find this Green tidal wave both encouraging and somewhat unsettling, especially from my science-based viewpoint. A recent analysis found that a high percentage of emerging Green products are considered to have a significant GreenWash or “whitewashed with a Green brush” and near useless in terms of lessening the impact on the environment. There is even a GreenWash Index available for consumers to informally rank companies and products on this category! So, let’s try to get more real.

The increasingly alarming science data accumulating about global warming from NASA’s James Hansen, Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, increasingly bizarre weather patterns, and our precarious dependency on imported oil at any price, were among the key drivers behind the Green machine. Now, a big driver is the vision of creating major business opportunities and jobs that can help provide solutions. Significant venture capital is going to Green-based entrepreneurial teams and significant marketing-related resources are being utilized by older businesses to promote their methods of saving on energy costs and generally “doing better by doing good”. In some ways, it seems that business has bought into a new Green horse and now wants everyone to bet on it. Wal-Mart, a truly global mega-business, is a good example of an older firm investing in “doing better” but also demonstrating the complexity of assessing their ultimate environmental impact and thus actually “doing good”. It’s past time for us to do some analysis of “Green” and its real implications in our lives.

But what is the science behind the issue? This is the ultimate question we will pursue throughout this series. We can say that the issue is ultimately grounded in the evidence indicating that over the eons during which life evolved, the Earth gradually accumulated an atmosphere eventually consisting of life-supporting gases that form a thin shell circling the Earth up to about 30 km in height. The zone where life resides, often called the biosphere, extends into the atmosphere and below the ocean surface for about 4.5 km in both directions. This is life’s known habitat and its ongoing stability is of major concern related to global warming. Simply put, global warming results when greenhouse gases (for example, CO2) are trapped in the atmosphere in higher concentrations and increasingly reduce the loss of heat into space, contributing to increasing global temperatures. Warming of the atmosphere and oceans appears to have some dramatic (often negative) consequences for societies, many of which we’re still intensively studying.

Our reliance on the use of carbon-based fuels that produce CO2 when burned means that we’re continuing to seed the biosphere and atmosphere with gases that increase the world’s temperature. The fact that we buy the majority of such fuels, mostly gas and oil, from other countries and that their reserves are shrinking in the face of increasing worldwide demand spells big trouble. Oil prices have skyrocketed and we are dependent on areas of the world where we have questionable allies and some who see the U.S. and the West as an enemy. This clear economic and security threat provides a major driver for energy independence and is a key driver behind the green machine.

So what can the Green Machine do to change this situation? Most agree that “Green” should refer to something that is as least neutral but hopefully even beneficial to the natural environment. We know much about the ways in which humanity can negatively impact our planet, but need to better understand ways to help lessen that. Several of these activities are old standbys, but now bear serious reconsideration such as; recycling, carpooling, and conserving critical resources, especially energy and water. Conservation is a fast, cheap and effective way to reduce our impact, perhaps by as much as 25%. Government is encouraging us to do this by providing infrastructure support and/or incentives There are also many less familiar ways for individuals to contribute that may take more effort but can result in large returns as many join in. Later articles in this series will address methods for individuals and businesses to better calculate their impact and magnify their effect.

Real Green products are available and emerging in our society. Many are available in environmentally-friendly, sustainable, and/or waste-reducing forms. Good progress is being made in the field of Green building, with increasing resources available for both home-scale and business-scale projects. Increasingly, sources of funding can be found at the locally to encourage homeowners, industry, nonprofit organizations and government to incorporate Green building principles in their projects including alternative energy options. Significant contributions are being made through Green technology, often referred to as GreenTech or CleanTech. It encompasses Green research and development in agriculture, energy, nanotechnology, waste and water purification, and much more. One of the most attractive research areas is the further development of renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal power to determine how these can be optimized for value and efficiency and reduce our dependence on non-renewable fuels. NASA will be seen to have a significant role in this area, and we will profile how seemingly unrelated basic research can have profound effects on GreenTech, CleanTech, and Green products.

Though there are many ways for us to “go Green” and the considerations of what makes something “environmentally-friendly” are complex, it is important that we not feel overwhelmed when faced with the magnitude of global environmental issues. This will be aided greatly by increasing our understanding of the basic science applications to these efforts. Though the challenges are massive in scale, they can be incrementally and steadily addressed through our combined efforts, and the best solutions implemented broadly if we cooperate in helping to change our life style – and change we must. Indeed, “open innovation and collaboration” will be essential to success and require that civic leaders of all kinds team up to drive these efforts starting locally (1.8Mb pdf) using what some call the more proactive “strategic doing”. We need to focus on what’s really “Green” and learn to work together at the individual, regional, national and global levels to ensure a more sustainable future for all.

We will delve more deeply into the science behind these important issues in subsequent articles, so please join us in the discussion. We need your ideas!

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