Monday, March 05, 2007

A Green Future

Sunday's Washington Post Outlook section featured several articles prompted by last week's TXU deal, including an interesting commentary by futurist Bruce Sterling on the development of a greener society based on a fusion of environmental values and capitalism. For anyone concerned about the threats posed by climate change and energy insecurity, but daunted by the enormous scale of the required solutions, the "dot-green" boom Mr. Sterling proposes could hold the key to shortening an otherwise lengthy transition period. Green values are a pivotal uncertainty in assessing the rate of change that is possible, but despite some notable recent signposts, this remains one uncertainty among many, and a truly green future is hardly a foregone conclusion.

If you've ever had the opportunity to hear one of Mr. Sterling's conference talks, you know how stimulating and entertaining he can be. He was in full raconteur mode yesterday, extrapolating from failed states to a failed fossil fuel economy, laying out the blueprint for a world in which environmentalism becomes deeply embedded in everything we do, including the most mundane consumer choices. What he's describing goes far beyond the "green chic" on display at last weekend's Academy Award ceremony, and he's been writing and speaking on this subject since the late 1990s, when he founded the "Viridian Design Movement", built around the idea of making green deeply trendy. This is a very appealing notion, in many ways.

However, as optimistic as Mr. Sterling's view of the future might be, there are important reasons why it represents only one possible scenario, rather than quite the inevitable future he portrays. First, even if the ideas behind it take off, it will be a long time before we can know if they will have the necessary persistence. Climate change and energy security are not problems of the moment, to be solved in the moment. Both will be with us for decades, and the pessimists are right, the effects of climate change could plague our descendants for centuries. The same inertia that made it hard to discern a dangerous warming trend from the normal variation of the climate could produce an extended period in which our best efforts appear to have little or no effect, testing both our patience and our pocketbooks.

Green values could also be trumped by urgent economic and geopolitical challenges. Mr. Sterling's "dot-green" future must unfortunately compete with darker, bleaker possibilities. The same Outlook section published another op-ed, by another novelist, warning of the potential nuclear danger from a rapidly arming China. An electromagnetic pulse attack might be as crippling as anything global warming has up its sleeve. Nor is this the only security threat that could divert attention and resources away from environmental concerns. Islamic terrorism and the numerous risks of the Middle East will hardly agree to go into suspended animation, while we all address climate change.

Still, at a time when so many people are either pessimistic about the future or overtly fear it, it's important to have optimistic voices reminding us that other paths and better outcomes remain possible. Last summer I asked, "Where is the good scenario?" Bruce Sterling offers one positive answer, amid a host of scary ones.

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