From Wall Street to Silicon Valley, money is chasing “green energy.” Foreseeing a move away from coal, oil and gas, professional investors are looking to find the next big thing in the energy market and make a bundle off of it. But be it ethanol or hydrogen or wind or solar, all energy alternatives have their shortcomings – but for one: conservation.
No one has figured out how to monetize conservation – doing more with less – on a broad scale. Not yet.
America let out a collective guffaw in April when singer Sheryl Crow, blogging about her environmental activism tour, proposed, “a limitation be put on how many squares of toilet paper can be used in any one sitting.” To protect the forests, Crowe was arguing, we all needed to reduce our consumption of paper products—and how much toilet paper to tear off is one choice most of us make every day.
Conservation is all the rage in Hollywood these days. According to an article in a recent issue of Angeleno Magazine, it is no longer sufficient for Hollywood celebrities to drive a Prius. The new hip thing is to downsize their mansions and live in more appropriately-scaled homes.
If only we could all afford such luxurious sacrifice!
But I have to say that, from my personal experience, Hollywood has it right. The best way to cure our addiction to oil or save the environment isn’t to chase after replacements for our current consumption habits – it is to change our habits to encourage conservation.
In the last year, I have gotten to the point that I seriously consider getting rid of my car altogether – and I live in Los Angeles where the car is king. I’ve managed to make lifestyle choices that allow me to walk to work, walk to get food, walk to the dentist and so on. My car has never seen the parking lot at the gym. I only fill the tank with gas about once a month and the calories I burn walking everywhere keeps off at least a couple pounds a month.
Corporate America – from Exxon Mobil on down – must be hating me. Telling people to consume less – be it gasoline or toilet paper – means less stuff gets sold and that cuts into the profits of Big Oil or Kimberly-Clark.
Besides, conservation is that it isn’t sexy as, say, coming up with the next fuel source. And it’s hard for anyone to make money off of it. Particularly since spending – buying stuff – is an important part of any capitalist society. That’s why it’s so hard to get conservation to work on a grand scale. And if we’re going to save the planet, someone needs to figure out how to make a buck off of selling conservation to the masses.
With the introduction of hybrid vehicles, the car industry has found a way to monetize conservation, but they’re just getting started. The trash business has done quite well for itself in this regard. In the 1990’s, trying to polish its public image whilst wrangling business away from the shadier elements of the waste industry, Browning Ferris Industries launched a public relations campaign to promote recycling.
Recycling, they found, was not only good for the environment, but it was good for business. By taking recyclables out of the waste stream, they conserved valuable landfill space – which is getting harder to permit each day – and at the same time, generated a byproduct which was marketable on the back-end. Along the way, they generated goodwill with the public by appearing to be environmentally-friendly – a message their chief rival, Waste Management, is now spending millions in television ads to promote.
Wall Street is clamoring to invest in green companies with a heavy focus on alternative energy sources like ethanol or solar or what have you. But if someone could find a way to sell conservation they’d make big bucks. And help the environment!