Gov Careers

By Phil Piemonte

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So how green is green?

Every year when Earth Day rolls around, just about every federal agency and department touts its successes from the prior year and reminds everyone — employees and public alike — that being “green” is a year-round objective.

But the problem is this: Trading one thing for another doesn’t always fix things.

Most obvious example: Paperless offices may save trees, but the computing and communications technologies in those offices still suck up energy generated by other natural resources – often pollution-producing coal or natural gas.

At the same time, because of continual technological advances, the microscopic switching and processing that goes on in a whole range of electronic devices today requires less and less energy. But when devices are portable, as a lot of them are, you still have to store that energy. As a result, even the most green-minded person out there owns one or more handheld, wireless devices powered by batteries that require special disposal when they wear out. There are millions of those toxic batteries out there. Ditto for those new energy-efficient light bulbs that contain mercury.

Another consideration: All sorts of electronic devices contain bits of hardware that rely on minuscule bits of rare earth material to work—stuff that someone, somewhere, is destroying the landscape to obtain.

Fact: My grandfather never heard the term “green” outside of his vegetable garden. But he used a prehistoric Western Electric landline telephone that lasted for 40 or 50 years. On the other hand, my kids grew up thinking green. But the way things look from here, they will buy 20 or 30 or 40 wireless, multifunction phone-like devices over that period, in the process consuming all the resources that the manufacture of those products will entail.

Then there is ethanol. Some people now argue that making fuel out of food (corn) is unethical, maybe immoral — especially since the rising price of oil is driving up the price of corn and the land it is grown on. But at one time, the idea that people could grow a renewable source of fuel in a corn field seemed like a brilliant solution. Wind power? What about all the dead birds piled up under them?

New fuel-efficient fleet?  Wait — before you decide, first trace your way back the supply and production chains and see how much energy and how many resources you’re going to consume to obtain them. (In the big picture, is it more environmentally sound to wear out the old fleet first?)

I've mentioned only a couple of things here. There are thousands of parts to the "green" puzzle.

So, for all our efforts, are we making any progress?

I don’t know. At noon on the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, I was a pallbearer in a funeral procession at my high school. Like the five other pallbearers, I wore a gas mask. We carried a borrowed, open coffin containing a plastic skeleton lent by one of the biology teachers. Someone held a poster that said something about pollution, a kid from the band beat a funeral march on his snare drum, and the procession slowly made its way around the campus during lunch hour.

At the time, to a kid especially, it seemed like a few policy changes would fix the problems — which back then mostly seemed to be roadside litter, and polluted water and air. But now, more than 40 years later, in spite of countless policy and technology changes, environmental problems have become even more varied and complex. Now in addition to worrying about polluted water and air, I worry about the dangers posed by climate change, nanotechnology, biological superbugs, and other new threats.

Am I geezing? Probably. But we’ve been working on these problems for a while. The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, like Earth Day, traces its origins back to 1970. The EPA and many other agencies have been working on various parts of the problem for four decades.

In recent years, the federal government has made more of an effort to implement environmentally sound policies and practices, and when it does, to become an example for others.

But is it working? Or are we playing environmental Whac-a-Mole, where a new problem pops up every time we solve another one?

You tell me.

Posted by Phil Piemonte on Apr 22, 2011 at 12:13 PM


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