Joel Makower grew up in California and graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in journalism. He worked as a journalist and nationally syndicated columnist and is a prolific author, with more than a dozen books published, including the oral history of the Woodstock music festival, a book that Rolling Stone called "the definitive history of the mega-event." He has focused on the environment for more than 20 years and is a well-respected speaker, writer and consultant on all things green business including regular appearances on NPR's "Marketplace" as a commentator. Joel is the chairman and executive editor of the GreenBiz Group and founder of GreenBiz.
I have been a fan of Joel's writing for as long as I've been reading environmental news and commentary. His book "Beyond The Bottom Line" was one of the first green business books I read and was a major influence in how I see the intersection between business and environment. I'm thrilled that he so kindly took the time to answer these seven questions.
MNN: Does the world need saving?
Joel Makower: The world doesn't need saving — it will endure long after we've clearcut the last tree, poisoned the last breathable air, and extinguished the last endangered species: us. What needs saving is humans' ability to lead happy and fulfilling lives in harmony with the planet. Of course, parsing what it means to be "happy and fulfilling" is the beginning of a really interesting conversation. Over the past few decades, we in the developed world have been taught to believe that the latest, greatest stuff — and lots of it — will make us fulfilled and content. But that hasn't been the case — in fact, studies show that we're less fulfilled and content than ever.
So, it's us that needs saving. We need to rediscover a sense of balance and well-being in our homes and communities that is defined in part on our comfort and well-being, but also by our connections to one another and the pleasure that they bring. We need to reconnect with — or simply meet — our neighbors. We need a culture based on the growth of happiness, not the growth of stuff. We need to create a culture of sharing what we own — what some call "collaborative consumption." We need companies — both incumbents and start-ups — to step up to the challenge with bold new and innovative products, services and business models. We need everyone's good ideas.
What's the difference between green and greener?
They're both words that have no definition, at least in the environmental realm, so it's all in the eye of the beholder. By my reckoning, the former is a destination while the latter implies a process. And since there really are few absolutely green products, the latter word, greener, is probably a more apt adjective. That's why on GreenBiz, we named three of our channels "GreenerDesign," "GreenerComputing" and "GreenerBuildings" — because there really is no absolutely green design, IT technology, or building — only those that are greener than others.
As I said, they're just words, but words matter. A great many people — consumers, companies, activists, and those of us who communicate to them — have been grappling with what words to use. "Green" vs. "greener" is just one example. "Green" versus "sustainable" is another. The S-word is more comprehensive, covering social equity as well as environmental issues, but it's often used inaccurately as a synonym for "environmental." And no one has come up with a good alternative to either (and several have tried). This conversation likely will continue for some time.
What's the biggest single impediment to a truly sustainably world?
In a word: Change.
Change is hard — whether for individuals, families, companies, activists or politicians. And as much as segments of each of these constituencies may want to see action in addressing our serious environmental challenges, far fewer want to change. Oh, they may say they do, but when it comes time to take action, people overwhelmingly stick to what they know. As I've often said: When it comes to change, people love the noun but hate the verb. They want change without changing.
The problem is that most of the changes we're being asked to make — buy something different, buy less, change habits, transform business operations, or pass new and different laws — don't typically benefit us individually, at least not in the short term. They have longer-term benefits to society as a whole. And as much as we may know in our hearts that these are the right things to do for our family and future, we'd still rather not be bothered. So, people do a few, largely symbolic things — change a light bulb, recycle, bring a reusable bag to the market — and feel that they've done their part. These are all good gestures, of course, but hardly sufficient to solve the problems at hand.
What's needed is an understanding that "green" succeeds only to the extent that "green" = "better." Of course, "better" can be defined in dozens of ways: cheaper to buy, cheaper to own, more convenient, higher performance, higher aesthetic, healthier for my family, durable, less wasteful, cooler for my image, among many others. Unfortunately, a lot of the changes we're being asked to make, including products we "should" be buying, aren't better. They cost more, are harder to find, don't work as well, require us to do things differently — and some of the claims, such as being healthier for humans, aren't always believable, or must be taken on faith.
Ironically, we make changes all the time in our lives toward greener practices, except that the products and services in question aren't marketed that way. Things like email, downloading movies instead of buying DVDs, or making PDFs instead of printing — all are changes we've been willing to make because they're variously easier, more convenient, faster, cheaper, better experiences, or less wasteful — that is, "better." So, we need to align green innovations, and the marketing that goes into them, with the idea of being better, not just greener.
What's the quickest environmental turn around you've seen a corporation make?
The biggest turnarounds have come from brand leaders that came under fire from activists and consumers, and saw their brands eroding. Companies like Nike, McDonald's, Starbucks and Walmart are great examples of companies that went from being pariahs in the environmental world to being leaders in their sectors, and among companies overall. What's more admiring about these companies is that they take the actions — sometimes bold audacious actions — despite the fact that they know it will take years, even decades, before the public is able to give them credit for their leadership.
Consider Nike. It is one of the most progressive, innovative companies I know, from an environmental perspective. They've been asking all the right questions about their company and making and meeting bold commitments about how their products are designed and made, where they come from, and what happens to them at the end of their useful lives. But the company knows that it will be years, a decade or more, before people stop associating Nike with sweatshops, the result labor abuses it faced in the 1990s and has largely solved. It knows that it won't likely sell many additional products because of its environmental vision and innovations. But it continues down this path anyway, ahead of all its competitors, because it believes its innovations make for better products and a better company. (There's that word again: "better.")
The same is true for McDonald's, which is light-years ahead of Wendy's, Burger King, and all the others, environmentally speaking, even though the company knows that the minute it starts crowing about its environmental leadership, people will start talking about nutrition and obesity and other issues. And yet the company continues aggressively down an environmental path.
I admire these leadership companies. They are true turnaround artists.
What could the U.S. government be doing to facilitate business doing better for the environment?
I don't pretend to be a policy wonk. I rely on some very good friends and close colleagues who know this stuff inside and out. But I know enough to appreciate that the number-one need is that energy be priced accurately — that the price we pay for fuel and electricity reflect their actual production costs and the costs they impose on the planet. It's the inaccurate price signals that have skewed markets in unhealthy directions, leading us to consume excessively, travel inefficiently, design and build inappropriately, and do other things that have contributed to our environmental problems without necessarily improving our quality of life.
The idea of pricing energy accurately is to let all energy sources compete on a level playing field. As it is now, we heavily subsidize oil, coal, natural gas and nuclear — all the while grumbling at the minuscule subsidies that support renewable energy technologies and a similar pittance going to promote efficiency measures. Our priorities are out of whack with our goals for a healthier, more secure, and prosperous future.
How you price energy in a way that doesn't engender economic upheaval is another issue, and that's the challenge that's been debated for 40 years. It's the reason that we're the only major economy on the planet that doesn't have a comprehensive and sensible energy plan. It goes back to our unwillingness to change: we want a livable planet but also cheap gas. Something's going to have to give.
What we need most of all from government — at all levels — is leadership. Specifically, we need leaders who can inspire us with a vision of what's possible, a story of what happens if we get things right. A story of economic recovery, job creation, innovation, healthier communities, energy and housing security, and all the rest — all stemming from a transition away from fossil fuels. I don't see anyone telling that story. I had hoped that President Obama would, because I believe he understands that vision. But he hasn't been willing or able to go there.
What was your favorite set at Woodstock?
Ha! You're assuming that because I wrote what Rolling Stone called "the definitive story of the mega-concert," that I have a good answer to that question.
My glib answer is: "I don't remember."
The real answer is: "I wasn't there." I was 17 during the summer of Woodstock, living in California, and while my older sister managed to hitchhike to the event in upstate New York, I was a bit young. (I did spend the summer playing rock 'n' roll in a band back in the Bay Area.)
The story of Woodstock is a fascinating microcosm of who we were in 1969 — the music, politics and cultural sensibilities that endured at the time, both in the counterculture and the mainstream. The festival should have been a disaster for a myriad of reasons. The fact that it wasn't is a great window into the creativity, humanity and ingenuity of the day. And of the entrepreneurial, can-do spirit — the spirit that would eventually unleash the technology revolution and the environmental movement, among other things. I had the great privilege of interviewing all of the major producers, some of the performers, and other key players, from Abbie Hoffman to Wavy Gravy. It's a terrific story.
(Shea's note: I invited Joel to come up with and answer his own question here)
At the end of the day, are you more optimistic or pessimistic that we can meet our environmental challenges?
I wake up most days on the optimistic side of the bed. And while I have great concerns about the speed, scale, and scope of change, I am encouraged every day by what I see going on in business. It might not be widely known or understood by the public, but there's a revolution going on in the corporate world. Most companies are now thinking deeply about sustainability, and while not all have commitments and achievements to show for it, many do. In fact, as I've often pointed out, sustainability is one arena where companies are walking more than they're talking — that is, they're doing more than they're saying. By a long shot. One reason is that most of this stuff is no longer news — it's just good business. For example, did you know that more than half of General Motors' 140 or so assembly plants around the world have achieved zero waste — nothing going to landfills — and the rest are getting close? They don't really promote it. They just do it and reap the benefits.
I'm particularly encouraged by how technologies are evolving in ways that address sustainable solutions. GreenBiz produced an event called VERGE, a global virtual event based in Shanghai, London and San Francisco, focusing on the convergence of energy, information, building, and vehicle technologies. As they converge, they're creating next-gen efficiencies in energy and resource use, all while creating better ways to live, work, shop, travel, and play. In some ways, it's the marriage of green business and clean tech, two arenas in which I've been toiling for a long time. They're now coming together in some very existing ways and it gives me great hope.
Also on MNN: Read profiles of many other fascinating people in the sustainability realm