Progress, profit, and the planet

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I’m a pretty conservative person, but I’m also a person who loves nature and the outdoors. That can leave me kind of conflicted sometimes when I think about the future of our planet. What scares me is the idea that companies aren’t designed to care about the planet–they’re designed to make money (and I think they should be). But that means they don’t really have any reason to pay extra to recycle, and things like that. I know the government steps in and tries to make things better by doing things with laws and taxes and stuff, but I’m not sure I agree with that. But I guess it’s the only way–though I’d rather not just be guessing, so that’s why I’m asking the experts. Can profits and the planet coexist?

The question that you raise is at the root of a major political issue: how much should the government do to encourage companies and individuals to take care of our planet?

There are a few things the government can do, and you have no doubt noticed some of them in your own life. Your local government may have rules regarding recycling, both for your neighborhood garbage collection service and for the fast food restaurant around the corner–to say nothing of office buildings and other business spaces. That’s a very simple method: a law that says you have to do something. It’s a method that several cities and states use or are considering.

Then there are other incentives. For instance, years ago Americans were given vouchers in exchange for old cars as part of a program colloquially called “Cash for Clunkers.” That program used economic incentives to encourage owners of older vehicles to upgrade to more fuel-efficient ones (the program was also, of course, designed to help stimulate the economy with new car purchases). The program was essentially a subsidy to car buyers, and governments can use such programs to encourage individuals or companies to go green.

It’s not just carrots–the government uses economic sticks, too. Take the deposit you pay on your cans and bottles in some states, for instance. You get your money back if you return the bottles and cans to be recycled; fail to do so, and you have essentially paid a penalty.

All of these methods involve government intervention, but it doesn’t always take a government program to make going green make fiscal sense, say the engineers at SeQuential, who turn recycled oils into biodiesel fuel. In some cases, green innovations are also money-saving measures. One simple example is the insulation in your home. New windows or doors can keep more of your air-conditioned or heated air inside where it belongs, say the craftspeople at Pella, and the same can be said of quality roofing, attic insulation, and even siding. In this case, your personal priorities align with the earth’s: you don’t want to waste energy because it costs money, not just because it’s bad for the environment.

This sort of virtuous alignment isn’t always the case, of course, which is why we have political debates on this subject. We won’t take a side, but the issue is clearly complicated. There are sure to be profits in green technologies, but are research costs worth it for the first companies to enter the fray? Is there enough incentive to release game-changing technologies before environmental disaster or a scarcity of traditional materials or fuels makes them absolutely necessary? The debate rages on, but it’s clear that profits and the planet are not always at odds. Getting them to be in harmony at key moments is the trick, and to that end, we’ll leave you to the debate.

“We have mortgaged the planet and spent the cash on trifles.” — Justin Cronin

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