Written by: Jerry Adler, Newsweek
One morning last week ... 29 years after president Jimmy Carter declared energy conservation "the moralequivalent of war" ... 37 years after the first reference to the "greenhouse effect" in The New York Times ... one day after oil priceshit a record peak of more than $75 per barrel ... Kelley Howell, a 38-year-old architect, got on her bicycle a little after 5 a.m. and rode7.9 miles past shopping centers, housing developments and a nature preserve to a bus stop to complete her 24-mile commute towork. Compared with driving in her 2004 Mini Cooper, the 15.8-mile round trip by bicycle conserved approximately three fifths of agallon of gasoline, subtracting 15 pounds of potential carbon dioxide pollution from the atmosphere (minus the small additionalamount she exhaled as a result of her exertion). That's 15 pounds out of 1.7 billion tons of carbon produced annually to fuel all thevehicles in the United States. She concedes that when you look at it that way, it doesn't seem like very much. "But if you're notdoing something and the next family isn't doing anything, then who will?"
On that very question the course of civilization may rest. In the face of the coming onslaught of pollutants from a rapidly urbanizingChina and India, the task of avoiding ecological disaster may seem hopeless, and some environmental scientists have, quietly,concluded that it is. But Americans are notoriously reluctant to surrender their fates to the impersonal outcomes of an equation. Oneby one and together, in state and local governments and even giant corporations they are attempting to wrest the future from thedotted lines on the graphs that point to catastrophe. The richest country in the world is also the one with the most to lose.
Environmentalism waxes and wanes in importance in American politics, but it appears to be on the upswing now. Membership in theSierra Club is up by about a third, to 800,000, in four years, and Gallup polling data show that the number of Americans who saythey worry about the environment "a great deal" or "a fair amount" increased from 62 to 77 percent between 2004 and 2006. (The2006 poll was done in March, before the attention-getting release of Al Gore's global-warming film, "An Inconvenient Truth.")Americans have come to this view by many routes, sometimes reluctantly; Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, thinksunhappiness with the Bush administration's environmental record plays a part, but many of the people NEWSWEEK spoke to forthis story are Republicans. "Al Gore can't convince me, but his data can convince me," venture capitalist Ray Lane remarks ruefully.Lane is a general partner in the prominent Silicon Valley firm of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which has pledged to invest $100million in green technology. He arrived at his position as a "Republican environmentalist" while pondering three trends: globalwarming, American dependence on foreign oil and the hypermodernization of Asian societies.
Others got to the same place by way of religion, most prominently Richard Cizik, director of governmental relations for the NationalAssociation of Evangelicals but also people like Sally Bingham, an Episcopal priest in San Francisco and a founder of the religiousenvironmental group Interfaith Power and Light. A moderate Republican, she had to defend herself on a talk-radio show from alistener who accused her of buying into the liberal myth of global warming. "I am," she pronounced frostily, "a religious person calledto care for creation from this platform." And many followed their own idiosyncratic paths, like Howell, who started researching theconnections between food, health and the environment after her mother died of cancer. Soon she and her husband, JD, foundthemselves caught up in replacing all their light bulbs and toilets with more-efficient versions and weighing their garbage, which byobsessive recycling they have reduced to less than 10 pounds a week.
But probably the most common formative experience is one that Wendy Abrams of Highland Park, Ill., underwent six years ago, asshe was reading an article about global climate change over the next century; she looked up from her magazine and saw her fourchildren, who will be alive for most of it. That was the year the hybrid Prius went on sale in the United States, and she bought one assoon as she could. This reflects what Pope describes as a refocusing of environmental concern from issues like safe drinking water,which were local and concrete, to climate change, which is global and abstract. Or so it was, anyway, until it came crashing intoNew Orleans last summer with the force of a million tons of reprints from The Journal of Climate. Katrina, says Pope, "changedpeople's perceptions of what was at stake" even though no one can prove that the hurricane was directly caused by globalwarming.
All over America, a post-Katrina future is taking shape under the banner of "sustainability." Architects vie to create the most sustainable skyscrapers. The current champion in Manhattan appears to be Norman Foster's futuristic headquarters for the Hearst Corp., lit to its innermost depths by God's own high-efficiency light source, the sun. The building's "destination dispatch" elevators require passengers to enter their floor at a kiosk, where a screen directs them to a cab, grouping them to wring the last watt of efficiency from their 30-second trips. But it is expected to be challenged soon in Manhattan by a new Bank of America tower, designed by Cook & Fox, which takes "sustainability" to a point just short of growing its own food. Every drop of rain that falls on its roof will be captured for use; scraps from the cafeteria will be fermented in the building to produce methane as a supplementary fuel for a generator intended to produce more than half the building's electricity; the waste heat from the generator will both warm the offices and power a refrigeration plant to cool them.
Far away in Traverse City, Mich., a resort town four hours north of Detroit, home builder Lawrence Kinney wrestles with a different problem, people who want 6,000-square-foot vacation houses they will use only a couple of weeks a year. Outraged by the waste, he refuses to build them. His preferred size is about 1,800 square feet, 25 percent smaller than the national average; he has rediscovered the virtues of plaster walls instead of resource-intensive drywall, uses lumber harvested locally by horse-drawn teams and treats his wood with stains made from plants, not petroleum. When Jeff Martin, a program manager for Microsoft, set out to build a sustainable house near Charlotte, N.C., he specified something that looked like a house, not "a yurt, or a spaceship, or something made out of recycled cans and tires in the middle of the desert." He turned to Steven Strong, a Massachusetts-based renewable-energy consultant who says he "fell in love" with solar energy when he realized that "you could put a thin sliver of silicon, with no moving parts and no waste, in the sun and generate electricity forever." Strong designed an unobtrusive solar-cell array on theroof of Martin's conventional stucco-and-stone house to provide free electricity, and a sun-powered heater that produces so much hotwater Martin can use it to wash his driveway. "We never run out," Martin boasts, "even when my wife's family comes to visit overChristmas."
The sun: sustainable energy that not even in-laws can exhaust! The same sun that for years shone uselessly on the roof of FedEx'simmense Oakland airport hub, through which passes most of the company's traffic with China. Since last year, solar panels covering81,000 square feet have been providing 80 percent of the facility's needs. The sun that also creates the wind that powers the windturbines that Chicago which is seeking to be known as the environmental city as well as the windy one is building atop the DaleyCenter, a high-rise courthouse. But among cities, few are as sustainable as Austin, Texas, which recycles its trash so assiduouslythat residents generated only 0.79 tons of garbage per household last year, down from 1.14 tons in 1992. Austin's city-ownedelectric company estimates that "renewable" power, mostly from west Texas wind farms, will account for 6 percent of its capacitythis year, nearly doubling to 11 percent by 2008. Beginning in 2001, customers were allowed to purchase wind power at a priceguaranteed for 10 years. But since it was more costly than conventional power, most people who signed up did so out ofconviction until last fall, when rising natural-gas prices meant that conventional customers were paying more, and suddenly thecompany was overwhelmed with new converts to sustainable power.
Another thing the sun does, of course, is grow plants. Agriculture is being reshaped by the growing demand for corn to produceethanol which can be blended with gasoline to stretch supplies, or can power on its own the growing number of "flex-fuel" cars.Four billion gallons will be produced this year, a doubling just since 2003. Dave Nelson of Belmond, Iowa, now devotes as much landto growing corn for fuel as for food the same variety and after the starch is extracted for fermentation, the protein left behind getsfed to his pigs, which produce manure to fertilize the fields. "Not a thing is wasted," says Nelson, who is chairman of a farmer'scooperative that runs one ethanol distillery and is building another. The problem, though, is that people and livestock eat corn, too,and some experts see a time, not too far off, when the food and fuel industries will be competing for the same resources. Biotechcompanies are scrambling to come up with processes for getting ethanol from cellulose the left-behind stalks and leaves of thecorn plant, or other species such as switch grass that can grow on marginal land. One can envision vast farms devoted to growingfuel transforming the Midwest.
Even Wal-Mart wants to help shape a sustainable future, and few companies are in a better position to do so. Just by wrapping four kinds of produce in a polymer derived from corn instead of oil, the company claims it can save the equivalent of 800,000 gallons of gasoline. "Right-sizing" the boxes on just one line of toys redesigning them to be just large enough for the contents saves $3.5 million in trucking costs each year, and (by its estimate) 5,000 trees. Overnight, the giant retailer recently became the largest purchaser of organic cotton for clothing, and it will likely have a comparable impact on organic produce as well. This is in line with CEO H. Lee Scott's goal of reducing the company's "carbon footprint" by 20 percent in seven years. If the whole country could do that, it would essentially meet the goals set by the Kyoto treaty on global warming, which the United States, to the dismay of its European allies, refuses to sign.
Wal-Mart's efforts have two big implications. One is cultural; it helps disprove the canard that environmentalists are all Hollywood stars. Admittedly, some of them are, like "Entourage" star Adrian Grenier, whose renovated home in Brooklyn will have wall insulation of recycled denim, or Ed Begley Jr., who likes to arrive at show-business parties aboard his bicycle and markets his own line of nontoxic, noncaustic, biodegradable, vegan, child-safe household cleansers. (Begley concedes that "there are some insincere people in this community" who may havelatched onto the environment because Africa was already taken, but, he says, "even if you're only into this cause for a week, at leastyou're doing something positive for that week.") But it wasn't movie stars who snapped up 190,000 organic-cotton yoga outfits atSam's Club outlets in 10 weeks earlier this year.
And even as "green" products make inroads among Wal-Mart's budget-conscious masses, they are gathering cachet among anaffluent new consumer category which marketers call "LOHAS": Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability. "The people who used todrive the VW bus to the co-op are now driving the Volvo to Whole Foods," exults David Brotherton, a Seattle consultant in corporateresponsibility. Brotherton estimates the LOHAS market, for everything from organic cosmetics to eco-resort vacations, at up to $200billion. This is the market targeted by AOL founder Steve Case, who has poured much of his fortune into a "wellness" companycalled Revolution (it will own eco-resorts and alternative health-care ventures), and by Cottages and Gardens, a publishing companythat is launching an upscale sustainable-lifestyle magazine in September called Verdant (a chic synonym for "green").
The second effect of Wal-Mart's entry into environmental marketing is to give eco-awareness the imprimatur of the world's mosttightfisted company. "If they meet their [20 percent] goal," says Jon Coifman, media director of the Natural Resources DefenseCouncil, "it's going to demonstrate irrefutably that reducing your carbon footprint is not only possible but financially efficient." AndyRuben, Wal-Mart's vice president for "strategy and sustainability," said the company had assumed that certified organic cotton wouldcost 20 to 30 percent more than the ordinary kind, grown with pesticides and synthetic fertilizer. But when its representativesactually talked to farmers, they found the organic cost about the same. Within five years the company intends to sell fish only fromcertified sustainable fisheries in the United States. Wal-Mart, Ruben says, plans on being in business a long time, and it wants fishto sell.
Wal-Mart, the retail behemoth, is working on an eco-makeover in response to critics who say its enormous stores createunnecessary environmental hazards. This experimental super-center in McKinney, Texas, employs a combination of renewable and conventional energy sources. Cooking oil used to fry chicken is mixed with used auto oilfrom the center's Tire and Lube Express to create heating fuel for the building. In July 2005, employs a combination of renewableand conventional energy sources. Cooking oil used to fry chicken is mixed with used auto oil from the center's Tire and LubeExpress to create heating fuel for the building. In July 2006, Wal-Mart invited former vice-president and environmentalist-in-chief AlGore to speak to execs at its Bentonville, Ark. headquarters.
FedEx is taking advantage of a sunny climate and a surfeit of roof space by installing Sharp solar panels at its Oakland, Calif.,shipping hub pictured here in June 2006. The system provides 80 percent of the hub's power.
Small Changes: While more expensive initially, compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs use approximately 70 percent less energy thanstandard light bulbs, put out less heat and last much longer. Sales of the bulbs have more than doubled during the past seven yearsand are expected to increase with rising energy costs.
Wind-power generators dot the hills near Palm Springs, Calif. Wind turbines are still a relatively minor source of electricity, but windpower output more than quadrupled between 1999 and 2005 and now makes up about one percent of global energy production.
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