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Green Living is a Necessity, Not a Luxury: Interview with Dan Shapley

Is green living experiencing a downturn? Are people still interested in making green lifestyle adjustments? Or has environmental economics and politics dulled the revolution? How can we turn environmental green into the color of money? “Green living” often conjures up images of hippies in hemp clothing preaching an apocalyptic message, or upper middle class people who can afford to be environmentally self-righteous.  The reality is - or should be -  much different. Dan Shapely, senior contributing editor for TheDailyGreen.com - a consumers’ guide to living green and saving money--helps us shed the hemp and the sandals and tells us what we really want to know: How green living benefits the environment, communities and … your wallet.   

In the interview Dan speaks about the following topics and more:

•    Making green living a necessity rather than a luxury?
•    Green jobs – sectors we can expect future growth from
•    Why green living changes from country to country
•    The shale boom's impact on renewable energy investments
•    Why investors should be looking to energy efficiency
•    What’s stopping the electric car revolution

Oilprice.com: Who is living ‘green’ today? Would it be safe to say that green living is a middle class trend that has found itself embroiled in politics to the point that it alienates many and polarizes the public?

Dan Shapley: While traditional environmental activism is indeed political and often polarizes the public along political lines, I would not say the same for "green living" more broadly. I define "traditional" environmental activism as the activity of citizens and citizen groups advocating for such long-term environmental improvements as cleaner water, air and food, and for a stable climate and species protection. "Green living" plays a role in these issues, in that individuals take personal responsibility for actions that affect the air, water, food, climate and wildlife. But because the individual actions are so varied and personal, ranging from reducing energy use to choosing organic foods or starting a home garden, there is much broader appeal among people with varied political views. Many elements of "green living" align well with conservative values, for instance--thrift, self-reliance, etc. That said, the ongoing economic difficulties in the U.S. have affected the movement toward green living, since education and affluence have always and continue to correlate well with environmental awareness.

Oilprice.com: How can we ‘re-spin’ green living and give it mass appeal to Americans? In other words, how can we make green the most common color? What will it take for this to happen?

Dan Shapley: This is a process that is actually ongoing for years, and The Daily Green is an embodiment of it. Launched in 2007, it has always aimed to inform the general consumer about green living and personal decision making relative to the environment. It has found a large audience, and is among the top destinations on the Web for this kind of information. The way we frame issues is perhaps instructive. In the tradition of service journalism, we look for everyday problems people face -- how to feed your children healthy food, how to save money with tight family budgets, etc. -- and promote solutions that are green because they are better for the environment, and useful because they solve the problem as well or better than alternatives. There are many activities that fall into this category, wherein the green choice is the smart, affordable and healthy choice. On issues where there is less or no practical, affordable solution that matches American consumer concerns, or on areas where individual actions won't solve environmental problems, there is going to be less broad support for green living, and a need for political action or regulation to alter behaviors broadly in a way that benefits the environment. It's likely that those areas will remain less widely supported, while trends toward green living continue. One other thing -- taking steps to reduce one's environmental impact is a conscious-raising act, and tends to lead people to be more receptive to the harder or more politically sensitive actions without a near-term upside. In the end, environmentalism is a forward-looking way of thinking. It can involve short-term sacrifice for the sake of future generations and for the environment.

Related article: Have Canadian Researchers Cracked How to Store Renewable Energy?

Oilprice.com: Globally, it is interesting to look at the differences in ‘green living’ and we see a lot of both cultural and commercial aspects contributing to these disparities. To take one example, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, what Americans call ‘organic’ food is the main staple, because it is cheap and plentiful, while processed food is expensive and less accessible. So here we have the reverse situation. While healthy eating seems to be the privilege of the upper classes in America due to prohibitive prices, in Bosnia processed food is the privilege of the upper classes. But in other areas, clean energy technology and energy efficiency technology are more accessible to Americans.  The question is, how can we make green living a necessity rather than a luxury?

Dan Shapley: Some of this happens through consumer choice and demand leading the market. If there is a strong demand for affordable organic foods, the market will meet it. But it may take a long time and if the market is not large enough on the demand side, the supply side won't find a way to meet it. Many have pointed out how government action could influence this through re-distribution of farm subsidies. Put simply, if we put fewer subsidies toward the corn that is processed into so many of our manufactured foods, for instance, and more toward local organic farms, we'd soon enough have a variety of locally grown produce available cheaper, while processed foods would become less profitable, or less cheap. The profit motives would shift toward healthier, environmentally friendlier foods. The two forces working together -- consumer demand and political action -- are the key to shifting many of our systems in a more sustainable direction.

Oilprice.com: ‘Green jobs’ is an increasingly hot topic, and one that is often used to score political points. Which ‘green’ sector is the most promising for new jobs over the next 1-2 years, over the next 5-10 years, and even further afield?

Dan Shapley: Science, engineering and technology sectors are still suffering from a shortage of workers. So if my son were ready to enter college and hunting for a major, I would encourage him to pursue his interests there if he is inclined. It's likely that these skill sets will be in demand for clean tech, in whatever forms prove most viable in the U.S. economy. Again, much of the answer to this question will depend on federal subsidies, too. But looking broadly at the U.S. economy, the more growth in more profitable jobs is in technology and engineering sectors, and I suspect green jobs growth will fall disproportionately in that area as well. Both of the ways I've defined these -- "technology" and "green" are less sector themselves than cross-sector categories, I understand, but how do you define green jobs? Is it the person designing the electric car as well as those on the assembly line producing it? Are those new jobs if they are working at a factory retooled after a generation of creating SUVs? You'll have to find another "expert" to untangle that one.

Oilprice.com: There have been a number of recent reports saying that alternative energy is still growing, although not as fast in 2012 as in 2011. Why is this and what should we expect for 2013?

Dan Shapley: In the U.S., much still depends on federal policy for renewable energy research and development. The growth in shale gas fracking is also an influence, because it has suppressed energy prices and makes otherwise competitive technologies less appealing.

Related article: Real Pragmatism for Real Climate Change: Interview with Dr. John Abraham

Oilprice.com: Electric vehicles have continued to experience major ups and downs. How long do you think it will take for EVs to make a clean sweep of the market? How long will it take for the right technology to catch up here to make EVs both commercially viable and attractive to the average consumer? What is lacking?

Dan Shapley: Part of this will take time for consumers to grow comfortable with the technology. Look at how many vehicles today employ hybrid technology, when a decade ago there was a single car on the market, and the target group buying it were primarily wealthy, elite environmentalists. Electric cars are likely to penetrate the market in somewhat similar fashion. They face greater stumbling blocks because there is less ready infrastructure to support them. You can stop at a gas station every couple miles down the road in most communities, but consumers are anxious about being able to charge and reach their destinations. The solution to this could come in any number of forms, but the basic problem--consumer confidence--must be solved before there will be widespread adoption. With rising fuel economy standards, there will be more incentives for car companies to figure out how to make these cars appealing to consumers, because they will have to sell low-MPG, hybrid and electric cars in greater numbers to reach the mandated fleetwide averages. Never underestimate smart marketing, particularly if it's coupled with an increase in gas prices (such as might occur with a carbon tax or other regulations to stabilize the climate.)

Oilprice.com: Forbes recently released a ‘study’ ranking the dirtiest US cities, with Californian cities featuring on the top of this list. California is also probably most frequently in the news in terms of clean energy topics and projects, so this might have come as a surprise to the average reader who happened upon the Forbes list. Can you give us some insight into these rankings?

Dan Shapley: I hail from Poughkeepsie, NY, which was recently named in a Forbes most miserable list, a year after being named in a Forbes "best place to raise a family" list. These lists rely on different data sets, and come to widely varying conclusions. They're great tools for finding readers, and they can be thought provoking (The Daily Green is not immune from the list-making urge--far from it), but to arrive at a true list of the greenest or least green places would require a computation of such complexity that you would not find many readers for it!

Oilprice.com: In terms of policy, how would you gauge the adequacy of the federal stimulus bill for clean energy, and are you concerned about the impact of the sequester on clean energy and green living in general?

Dan Shapley: I would expect the sequester and the House's unwillingness to invest in research, technology and infrastructure will be harmful to clean energy development.

Related article: Climate Change without Catastrophe: Interview with Anthony Watts

Oilprice.com: What can we expect from Congress for the rest of the year in terms of renewable energy tax advantages?

Dan Shapley: It doesn't look good, based on the House's unwillingness to spend on long term investments. That said, my expertise in politics comes from reading journalism on politics, so I can't claim any inside knowledge.

Oilprice.com: Is it possible that the natural gas boom will actually help foster renewable energy efforts?

Dan Shapley: It's mostly thought of as a "bridge to nowhere" among environmental advocates, since an abundant cheap fossil fuel will--absent stricter regulations or higher taxes--impede renewable energy development for some time.

Oilprice.com: Growing ranks of companies are pursuing energy efficiency measures in order to cut operating costs, who is the leader in these efforts and what can other companies learn from this?

Dan Shapley: Many companies have done this, and because of their different businesses, each could be considered a leader in their field. It's difficult to name leaders for this reason. How do you compare Wal-Mart's energy efficiency and supply chain improvements across the world's largest retail chain, to Seventh Generation's commitment to low-impact products, broadly defined, in a relatively small retail category?

Oilprice.com: Is there a trend for investors to look more to companies who are pursuing energy efficiency in earnest as a wiser investment?

Dan Shapley: I'm not your best source for info on what investors are looking for, I'm afraid. There is a lot of money to be saved from smart energy efficiency investments, particularly, and money saved is money earned... so it's something investors should be aware of. Broader green initiatives depend on the sector. Water savings are likely to become as valuable as energy savings in the not-too-distant future.

The green revolution is alive and strong despite a slowing economy, cheap natural gas and environmental politics.

Related article: Real Pragmatism for Real Climate Change: Interview with Dr. John Abraham

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  • Chris Mayhew on June 03 2013 said:
    Great interview. It's so important that people are educated more about green living and how easy it can be. People still have the idea that it's going to involve making drastic changes to their lifestyle but this isn't the case at all. Green living can easily be adopted by anyone.

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