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April 22, 2010

Is Earth Day Just Big Business (And If So, What’s Wrong?)

Category: Climate Change,Editorial,Policy – Tom Harrison – 8:31 am

Is Earth Day just Big Business?Happy Earth Day! Please feel free to visit my company’s store and shop for as many home energy efficiency products as your credit card can handle! Spend! Buy! And while my company doesn’t sell eco-rubbers we do sell stuff.

By god, we would like to make money doing it.

Lots, if possible.

Apparently I should feel bad about this.

In today’s New York Times, a front page article raises the specter of how business has crept in to Earth Day.

Earth Day Forged from Idealism and a Vision for the Future

In 1970 when Earth Day was started 40 years ago, there were lots of things that were bad, and pretty much everything in “the establishment” would have been included. Recall there was a wildly unpopular war (Viet Nam was far, far more divisive than our current wars, I think), and Rock ‘n Roll was new far more than music with a back beat, and Nixon was President. There was a great deal of idealism. Baby Boomers were just blooming and asserting themselves (I think I count in that demographic).

The Clean Air Act was signed. An oil crisis happened. Nixon was out, Carter was in with his cardigan and turning the thermostat down to 68° and driving 55 in increasingly clean and efficient cars.

Idealism Derailed

Then, a funny thing happened. We grew up, got jobs, had kids, and some would say “sold out” … or perhaps the better word would have been “bought out”! By 1980, Reagan was president and the silly and annoying acts of the past were tossed (solar panels removed from the White House). Radical groups like Green Peace were doing silly things. The enviros had marginalized themselves. Business was back, baby!

Then, another funny thing happened. It took a while, but after an orgy of growth, consumption, and money, money, money it all came crashing down (almost). So do we love business or hate business? Are corporations good or bad? Is it OK to spend money on things that allow us to consume prodigiously without using so much energy?

Has Earth Day Matured Now That It’s Forty?

And now, 40 years after the first Earth Day, various environmental movements are organized. The ones that have been effective have made a difference. Others have gone by the wayside. There’s still a radical fringe, but as I look around, I realize that there’s a nascent and growing market for “green” stuff. Is that bad?

My experience at an Internet start-up was revealing, in some ways, and is instructive.

I was part of one of those Internet start-ups you may recall hearing about — we built a better search engine (started the same year as Google) and I could see what people were searching for. We all realized the Internet was a force, hopefully a good one, but as I watched what people were actually using our search engine for, I realized my noble ideas of the Internet were dampened a bit.

It turned out that a remarkable share of the population used search engines to find porn and all sorts of other not-so-noble things. The things people searched for would make a sailor blush.

Yet over time people are using the Internet for lots of things — some ignoble to be sure, but even the most cynical person must accept that some of the good things we hoped the Internet would bring are coming to pass. It’s a mixed bag, to be sure.

Earth Day Needs A Shrink

So back to various environmental, eco, green and other movements, perhaps kicked off for real 40 years ago on the first Earth Day. We’re still terribly conflicted about our relationship with capitalism, the “establishment” (which we now are), what’s right versus what’s effective, and about money and business.

My personal views have evolved in several ways — I am not a big fan of ExxonMobil, for example, but I do see that corporations can do good things. I graduated from college with a degree in Economics and was effectively a disciple of Ayn Rand — free, unfettered markets solve all. Since then I have come to see that humanity is smarter and willing to do whatever it takes to screw the other guy.

Free markets work best when there’s someone keeping an eye out for the cheaters. But I absolutely believe that the fundamentals of capitalism are not evil, and can indeed allow our smartness as a species to do good things.

Can Business And Idealism Coëxist?

Doing good things is very subjective, of course. So let’s agree that “good things” can turn out to be bad things (“The road to hell is paved with good intentions”).

So let’s get over our ideals about what is right and wrong. It’s not black and white.

I can say with absolute certainty that the company I joined, Energy Circle, is based on the idea that we can, as a business, move along what we believe to be a very important change in our society. We are reading the signals of the markets, taking opportunities where we see them arise, and trying to build a business that helps people make their homes and offices more efficient.

Our goal as people, the members of the corporation, is to be part of the movement that solves what we think is one of the world’s most significant problems. Our goal as a corporation is to survive, and thrive as a business so that we can continue to be part of this movement. Otherwise, we’ll need to get a job for another company.

If you’re angry that Earth Day has turned into a massive commercial opportunity, take a look around and realize that while some, even much, is purely “green washing”, some businesses using Earth Day to sell is motivated by genuine desires to do the right thing. It’s hard to tell which is which, but over time, the idea started 40 years ago turned from a movement to a full-blown part of our society.

In the US this pretty much means that we start businesses and sell things. I highly recommend starting with an energy monitor (free shipping Earth Day Special!), which we happen to sell at my company’s online store.

2 Comments

  1. Okay whatever, but rock and roll definitely wasn’t new in 1970.

    Comment by John S. — April 22, 2010 @ 10:15 am

  2. John — yes good point indeed :-). I have edited the paragraph to reflect my meaning more accurately.

    Comment by Tom Harrison — April 22, 2010 @ 10:20 am

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