2011 is Almost Over, Time to Look Back

Things are So Much Clearer In the Rearview Mirror

Famous investor Warren Buffett (who has been investing in solar power recently) likes to say that judging an investment's performance over the short term is meaningless. You can have someone doing the right things but getting bad performance because of factors that are out of their control or bad luck, and you can have someone doing the wrong things but outperforming everybody else because of good luck. It's only over the long-term that you can truly judge if you've been doing the right things. I think the same applies to the environmental movement: We'll have ups and downs, sometimes because of things we're doing right or wrong, but sometimes because of factors that are out of our control (in which cases, blaming ourselves is not productive). So with these thoughts, I decided to look back, not only at 2011, but at the past 5-6 years, a period long enough to identify the ups and down of the cycle.

For the past few days I've been thinking about the ups and downs of the past few years - not only for eco 'insiders' like activists and committed greens, but for everybody in the mainstream of our civilization - and I realized just how apt the economic analogy is. It's kind of sad, but it truly seems like for the average person, worrying about the environment is a luxury good that they can only afford in good times. During one of the biggest asset bubbles in the past century, the period leading up to the crash of 2008-2009, it looked like green themes were popping up everywhere.

The Ups...

Working as a writer and editor for TreeHugger.com during the 2005-2006-2007 period was very special, because it was the high part of the 'environmental mindshare' cycle. During those days, it seemed like we were making progress so fast; all kinds of newspapers, magazines, websites and television channels that never really covered green issues before started to give it lots of airtime and space. High oil prices following the Katrina-Rita-Wilma hurricane season had everybody thinking about fuel economy, global warming was on everybody's mind because of An Inconvenient Truth, and traffic to green sites was exploding. People were hungry to learn more about these issues and do their part. While some of that energy was misdirected and there was a lot of stupid "green" products and "greenwashing" PR campaign, a lot of good was done and the potential for big steps forward was present. It certainly was an exciting time!

Nissan LEAF wireless chargingNissan/Promo image

...and Downs

Then, over 2008-2009, things changed. When it became clear that the global economy was on the brink of catastrophe and people began losing their jobs, worrying about their pensions and investments, and didn't know how much the value of their homes would fall, green 'mindshare' went down precipitously and we entered the low part of the cycle. It's not like "someone flipped a switch and nobody cared anymore", there was still lots of media coverage and traffic to green sites still grew nicely, but the hunger from the mainstream wasn't the same. The excitement level changed a lot because people were preoccupied by other things. It's also easier for the "let's do nothing, there's no problem" crowd to convince people during hard times because that option looks like the cheapest alternative, even if it can be costlier in the long-term.

Pushing and Pulling

There's something strange about how people are most worried about the environment while they are damaging it the most with over-consumption, and care about it the least while they are damaging less because they are slowing down. It's like a counter-weight that dampens the variations in the cycle.

I think the lesson here is that we must remember to keep things in perspective. With the economy, experience has taught us that it doesn't stay depressed forever, but it also doesn't stay euphoric forever. Trees don't grow to the sky. I think it's the same with the green cycle: When we're in the low part of the cycle, we shouldn't extrapolate it to convince ourselves that it'll stay that way forever, but when we're in the high part, we shouldn't believe either that everybody's going to be hungry for it forever. The tides will come and go, but all we can do is do our best and not become discouraged.

In any case, I wish you a happy end of 2011, and I hope that 2012 will see us climb up the environmental mindshare cycle again!

2011 is Almost Over, Time to Look Back
Thinking about the state of the environmental movement and of green issues in the mainstream over the past few years, I've come to realize a few things.

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