Dotcom lessons for going green

Don't let real ecofriendly innovation go the way of pets.com.

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The Super Bowl has gone carbon-neutral. Wal-Mart has "seen the light" – and it shines from a compact fluorescent bulb. Even President Bush now feels the need to at least talk about the human contribution of greenhouse gases.

Seemingly all at once, the politics of climate change have shifted – and the free market smells profits. There's talk of a greenhouse-gas "rush," with literally billions to be made in lessening the eco-impact of our insatiable appetite for energy.

Pundits are heralding a new era of technological innovation, new business models, and radical changes in our consumer behavior and personal habits.

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It's the kind of hype that calls to mind the broken promises and unimagined positive outcomes of the dotcom era's adolescence a decade ago. Many fundamentals of the dotcom era are different from those of the current era of "climate change chic" – and the stakes are much higher. But one common warning applies: Whatever is said and believed can overwhelm actual achievements. That's why it's important to bear these dotcom lessons in mind:

Tax-incentive training wheels. One of the first major Internet policy dust-ups dealt with e-commerce taxation. "New economy" gurus, worried that adding sales tax to our Amazon.com orders would snuff out innovation and entrepreneurship, helped keep e-commerce largely tax-free for years.

Likewise, today, enemies of fossil fuels will continue efforts to assign a tax to these energy sources commensurate with their tax on our planet; and eco-entrepreneurs will rely on various incentives to develop alternative energy sources.

That can work for a while, but market safety nets won't nourish the long-term health of a green economy. That's why new technologies and delivery systems must demonstrate a specific path to remove their tax-incentive training wheels and allow real competition.

It's all about the network. Construction of the information superhighway arguably began in the 1960s with the Pentagon's ARPANET, but even until the 1980s, it was like one straight route from point A to point B without any exits or onramps. The Internet didn't become a network until the 1990s, when the "last miles" were added: personal AOL accounts and T1 lines that helped millions connect to the Internet highway – and to one another.

Today, any low-carbon energy source must be able to quickly find and flow along the "first mile" that leads onto America's 100-year-old power grid, with all its vastness, complexity, and occasional dysfunction. Even the greenest, keenest energy source that ends up being a square-peg idea that doesn't fit into the round hole of the current power grid is a nonstarter.

Proof is in the profit. During the most irrational days of the exuberant 1990s, actual profit was deemed an old-fashioned concept. "Eyeballs" were the greatest success metric – specifically how many of them were viewing (and, it was hoped, clicking the banner ads) on a particular Web page. History proved to be unkind to those who felt that profit was passé. Today's low-carbon energy options must likewise pass the profit test.

Incubate ideas with friends and even some foes. Many dotcom successes were hatched by lifelong friends and roommates in garages and dorm rooms. Today, savvy environmental activists are learning when to demand change as well as when to be a part of change through real collaboration with business, government, and academia on R&D and bringing ideas to market.

Al Gore was right. He may have been lampooned for claiming he helped invent the Internet, but there's no denying that America's former vice president was far ahead of his time in promoting the potential of the information superhighway.

A decade later, he has successfully led the effort to make climate change part of the mainstream political and social conversation in America. He is, in fact, America's first climate-change-chic pop-star icon, whose words of encouragement or endorsement can move markets and make people change their personal carbon footprint.

During the dotcom boom, there were perhaps 10,000 pets.com-like failures for every eBay-like success. The heady days of climate change chic will almost certainly involve similar disappointment, but also similar singular successes that radically change our lives. Amid a climate-change innovation acceleration, diligence and sobriety are needed to separate what's truly green from what's just fool's gold.

Chris Deri is the global corporate social responsibility & sustainability practice leader for Edelman, the world's largest independent public relations agency.

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