Is Latest Green Movement Sustainable?

Green being back in may well be the hook we need to get young people re-engaged in careers in engineering.

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By Keith Larson, VP Content, Putman Media

Turns out, Kermit was wrong.

Or so you might think, if you focus exclusively on the relatively recent, $85-barrel-of-oil, climate-change-run-amok past.

Indeed, it’s been more than 30 years since Jim Henson as Sesame Street’s diminutive frog first crooned, “It’s not easy bein’ green.” But lately the color has been on a fashion tear, as skyrocketing oil prices and mounting evidence of global climate change have everyone from politicians to rock stars donning green in numbers sufficient to put to shame a Boston St. Patrick’s Day parade.

The latest green nod comes from the Nobel Prize committee, which on October 12 awarded the 2007 Peace Prize to Al Gore, former U.S. vice president, together with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for their “efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.”

Gore said in a news release, “The climate crisis is not a political issue, it is a moral and spiritual challenge to all of humanity. It is also our greatest opportunity to lift global consciousness to a higher level.”

The Norwegian Nobel Committee said that Gore was “probably the single individual who has done most to create greater worldwide understanding of the measures that need to be adopted. (Perhaps it’s just me, but given the ongoing controversy over the scientific claims of Gore’s book An Inconvenient Truth and Oscar-winning film of the same name, isn’t it a bit ironic that the prize is in neither Physics nor Chemistry?)
But I digress. The least of my concerns is whether the specific motivations behind the green resurgence are precisely correct. Regardless of your particular convictions regarding climate change, the finite nature of the world’s fossil fuel and mineral resources isn’t up for debate. Conservation and recycling, together with the development of sustainable and preferably non-greenhouse-gas-producing energy sources, is at its highest level of awareness in the minds of both policy makers and society at large since the 1970s.

Of great concern is not only the sustainability of resources, but, in the nearer term, the sustainability of our renewed commitment to the problem. America, especially, has a notoriously short attention span, and I believe the graver danger is that as we get used to high energy prices, we’ll revert to our old attitudes—and an opportunity to affect real change will have been wasted.

A bit closer to home, even automation and control companies are jumping on the green bandwagon, making explicit the long-standing links between effective automation, manufacturing excellence and environmental responsibility.

A recent experience of mine punctuates this trend. In my role as publisher and director of content, this is the time of year when I  make my annual pilgrimage to many of the instrumentation and control companies represented in the pages of Control and on the ControlGlobal.com web site, to communicate our plans for the coming year. More than once I was asked what editorial initiatives around the topic of “green engineering” we had planned for the coming year.

I have to admit I was a bit taken aback by the question. The application of  control and instrumentation technologies to make manufacturing enterprises more efficient and more productive permeates what we cover every day and in every issue. Indeed, a subsequent visit to this company’s website framed “green engineering” as the application of instrumentation and control to conserve energy, address manufacturing inefficiencies, decrease downtime and improve quality. Turns out, us process automation professionals have been green along—but it sure is nice to be fashionable again!

On the positive side, the resurgence of “green” as an “in” idea may well be the hook we as a society need to get young people re-engaged in careers in science and engineering. If the movement has legs, it might be just the leverage point we need to attract young people into careers of significance—careers in which they really can be part of something bigger than themselves.

Green posturing is easy, but making a real difference will prove hard. And when it does, take solace in Kermit’s last lines: “It’s beautiful. And I think it’s what I want to be.”

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