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Can Obama Inspire A Green Business Revolution?

The economic stimulus that’s passing through the Washington machine is generally regarded as a boon for green-minded businesses, from venture-backed start-ups to large energy companies seeking to expand their clean-energy portfolios. And it’s a boon for green jobs, too, with the prospect of hundred of thousands, maybe millions, of new employment opportunities all this brings.

It’s all good. But is it good enough? That’s a fundamental problem with the green world: No one really knows what “good enough” looks like? And it explains why, after four decades of the modern environmental movement, only a relative handful of companies and citizens have joined in, while many more have dragged their heels to slow, or even reverse, environmental progress.

The fact is, no leader has created a vision of what happens if we get things right.

We have a crystal clear picture of the consequences of getting things wrong — thank you very much, Al Gore. We know well the potential devastation of unmitigated environmental problems: the droughts, floods, hurricanes, tsunamis, resource wars, famine, and pestilence. We know about epidemics of childhood asthma in inner cities, toxic rivers in impoverished lands, and depleted fisheries that may never fully recover. We see for ourselves the rampant development in formerly verdant landscapes. There are vivid pictures of denuded forests, strip-mined mountains, and strip-malled farmland. We read about these things, hear Hollywood stars fret over them, and may even experience them firsthand.

Solar panels are shown with the Frog's Leap winery in the background in Rutherford, Calif., Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2007. San Francisco-based Sunlight Electric has helped more than a dozen wineries, including Frog's Leap, to go solar. The company estimates there are 28 systems in Napa County and another 14 in next-door Sonoma County. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
Eric Risberg
Solar panels are shown with the Frog's Leap winery in the background in Rutherford, Calif., Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2007. San Francisco-based Sunlight Electric has helped more than a dozen wineries, including Frog's Leap, to go solar. The company estimates there are 28 systems in Napa County and another 14 in next-door Sonoma County. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Point is, we know what business as usual looks like.

But what about success? What happens if we get things right? What does that look like?

Beyond the much-needed economic stimulus and the myriad other policy prescriptions, this is the vision I'm hoping President Obama can portray to America and the world. Without the vision thing, even the best policies can only go so far.

This is no small matter. For decades, environmental leaders in business, activism, and government have expressed frustration that the public isn't behind them, except in disappointingly small numbers, despite a litany of increasingly dire environmental problems. These same leaders express bewilderment at the painfully slow uptake of green products and personal habits, from buying organics to recycling to energy conservation. Even when people understand the issues and consequences of everyday actions — the direct relationship between inefficient light bulbs and the threat of global climate change, for example — they usually fail to act.

We've long known that fear is a limited motivator. Think of how persuasion has changed. A generation ago, we were told by advertisers to worry about ring around the collar, iron-poor blood, waxy yellow buildup, and the heartbreak of psoriasis. Madison Avenue believed that driving fear into the hearts and minds of the public would unleash a wealth of sales and profits. No longer. Today, profits come from imbuing visions of sexual appeal, personal freedom, and a life without worry. Those positive images are the ones that inspire people to take action and, for better or worse, make choices in the marketplace.

E85 Ethanol gas pump, Ohio Department of Agriculture, Columbus, Ohio.
E85 Ethanol gas pump, Ohio Department of Agriculture, Columbus, Ohio.

What is the positive image of "green" that will inspire a nation — indeed, the world — to transform itself in the way that Obama and others are hoping: that create jobs, build economic opportunities, engender energy independence, attack climate change, improve public health, reduce environmental degradation, and ensure national security?

Ask yourself: What does a world look like where former autoworkers and steelmakers are employed in well-paid jobs to manufacture turbines and solar panels, and where mechanics, electricians, truck drivers, and plumbers are working fervently to build the smarter, upgraded electricity grid needed to distribute all this home-grown energy? Where a new generation of smart buildings and electric vehicles are operating in concert on cheaper, less-polluting energy, and a new generation of technicians is needed to build and maintain them and infrastructure necessary to power them? Where every home, office, factory, and store is retrofitted or rebuilt to be as energy efficient as possible, made so by armies of newly trained workers from local communities? Where entrepreneurial companies are mining landfills in order to turn waste back into raw materials at a fraction of the cost and environmental impacts of mining or manufacturing new ones? Where food is grown and distributed regionally, reducing transportation emissions and ensuring food security, creating a wealth of jobs for local farmers, food processors, distributors, and others?

Can Obama incite and excite the populace by painting an enticing picture of a greener world? Of course: Yes, he can. But will he? Amid the many pressures he'll have — to cure an ailing economy, world strife, and, God knows, the common cold — will he be willing and able to place his political currency in the green vision thing?

And what about the rest of us? What's the uplifting story each of us is willing and able to tell? How much of your own personal and professional currency are you willing to expend to help not merely portray this good, green vision but also to ensure it becomes reality?

Wind turbines generate power at the Searsburg Wind Power Facility in Searsburg, Vt. Thursday, July 21, 2005. Two ridge lines in the southern Green Mountain National Forest soon could sprout 370-foot tall wind power generators, if the U.S. Forest Service approves what would be the first wind energy project on its lands anywhere in the country. A company called Deerfield Wind LLC has proposed up to 30 of the towers in a special-use application to the Forest Service. The review is expected to take
AP
Wind turbines generate power at the Searsburg Wind Power Facility in Searsburg, Vt. Thursday, July 21, 2005. Two ridge lines in the southern Green Mountain National Forest soon could sprout 370-foot tall wind power generators, if the U.S. Forest Service approves what would be the first wind energy project on its lands anywhere in the country. A company called Deerfield Wind LLC has proposed up to 30 of the towers in a special-use application to the Forest Service. The review is expected to take

Without that vision, the notion of a greener economy is destined to be seen as a "nice to do," not a "need to do." It will be easily countered by the incumbent interests who hope to continue to profit from the existing model, and who will warn that this is no time to tinker with radical, untested ideas about how our world works. And our political leaders will follow the money, and the votes, watering down the green ideal until it becomes yet another tepid policy soup.

We've seen vividly what happens when presidents squander opportunities. After 9/11, President Bush could have inspired Americans to demand energy independence as a means of avoiding future terrorist attacks, enacting a wealth of policy directives to promote more efficient buildings and vehicles and develop oil alternatives. He could have inspired us with a hopeful vision born of the tragedy we'd just endured. We would have swallowed hard to pay a dollar extra tax on gas, maybe more, knowing it was going to a worthy cause. But he told us to go shopping and left it at that. Eight long years later, we have another chance.

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Joel Makower is Executive Editor of GreenBiz.com and author of Strategies for the Green Economy.Makower is a strategic advisor to dozens of U.S.companies and recently served on the National Steering Committee to help define clean and green business strategies for Obama’s campaign.