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A Little Long-Term Vision, Please

Clint Wilder's picture

Early this month, April 1st, to be specific, in Vancouver, B.C., Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin unveiled his government's support for a bold plan to build a "Hydrogen Highway" of fueling stations for fuel-cell vehicles between Vancouver and ski resort Whistler by 2010, when the region hosts the Winter Olympics. Martin made the announcement at the biennial Globe 2004 environment and sustainable business conference, becoming the first prime minister to appear at the conference since its 1990 inception. On the same day, there was also big energy news among government leaders in Washington, D.C. Two U.S. senators unearthed and reintroduced a four-year-old bill calling for antitrust action against OPEC after the petroleum cartel announced a production cut that will likely keep oil prices at their current high levels. It's not that Canada has all the right answers, or that there aren't hundreds of positive renewable energy initiatives in the U.S. But which of these two April Fool's Day news items represented a look to the future, and which looked like a desperate, knee-jerk, reactive attempt to get out of a present-day economic squeeze caused by fossil-fuel dependence? A recurring theme at the Globe conference, and indeed in most discussions of transition to a sustainable energy future, is the challenge of changing a systemic inability (or perhaps refusal) to think long-term. The United States is hardly alone in this problem, although we often seem to be among the leaders in the short-attention-span rankings. We have politicians who don't see past the next election, businesses that don't look beyond the next quarter, and consumers whose idea of a long-term concern is the threat of high gas prices at the pumps this summer. You wouldn't know it from perusing today's mainstream media headlines, but we are on our way to a very different world. In his must-read book The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies (New Society Publishers, 2003), professor Richard Heinberg estimates that worldwide oil production will peak between 2006 and 2015, based on a consensus of industry experts. At the same time, the global demand curves for all energy uses are pointing skyward. "Worldwide electricity demand will double in 25 to 30 years," says BC Hydro president CEO Bob Elton. "Most people don't think about that." Fortunately, most people in the clean energy business are thinking about such trends; many got into the business for just that reason. And many overall signs for our industry are very positive. Venture capital funding is on the rise, global giants like General Electric, BP, Shell, and Toyota are making big clean-tech plays, and market growth predictions (like those in Clean Edge's recent Clean Energy Trends 2004 report) are strong. But I fear that most mindsets are not changing fast enough. "We must face the prospect of changing our basic ways of living. This change will either be made on our own initiative in a planned way, or forced on us with chaos and suffering by the inexorable laws of nature." Those could be the words of a leading environmentalist in 2004, but the man who said them was former President Jimmy Carter -- 28 years ago. Words not exactly heeded, to say the least. To cite just one telling example, the proposed three-year extension of the wind energy production tax credit in the U.S. continues to languish in Congress, mired in the bloated, expensive, and pathetically wrongheaded energy bill. This is unconscionable. Is there any doubt at all that encouraging the development of wind power is in the best interest of our country and the future of the planet? Yet the PTC is held hostage to a broken system of decision-making, the result of mindsets that haven't changed fast enough. In Albert Einstein's oft-repeated words, "The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them." So where's the new level of thinking going to come from? Tomorrow's business leaders are one good place to start, but most business schools have been slow to bring the concepts of finite nonrenewable energy resources, environmental and social impacts, and long-term sustainability into their core teachings. There are exceptions; Heinberg teaches at New College of California in Santa Rosa, one of three U.S. schools that offer an MBA in sustainable business. The others are Presidio World College in San Francisco and Bainbridge Graduate Institute near Seattle. "It's not long-term vs. short- term thinking -- you need both," says Lorinda Rowledge, dean of academic programs at Bainbridge. "Business has to be viable in the near term, but also has to consider long- range impacts." Clean-tech companies must be on the forefront of that change in thinking. Their challenge is not only to change how the world produces and consumes energy, and to make money doing it, but also to change how their customers, partners and suppliers -- and politicians -- view the future. If you're in the clean-technology business and not already doing this, start today. You didn't get into this business because it was easy. Wilder is Clean Edge's contributing editor. E-mail him at wilder[at]cleanedge[dot]com.