Scales of Green

Greening the Leviathan

Oct 11

Posted: under Green Governments.

“The only way to erect such a [common power to keep the people in awe, and to direct their actions to the common benefit] is to confer all their power and strength upon one man, or upon one assembly of men, that may reduce all their wills, by plurality of voices, unto one will…This is the generation of that great Leviathan to which we owe our peace and defence.”

From Leviathan, or The Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil, by Thomas Hobbes, 1651

Real green progress, some might argue, can not, in the long term, be accomplished through corporate actions, innovative products, or individual virtue, but only through public laws and regulations.  As Thomas Hobbes explains in the Leviathan, only the government can legitimately direct and command the actions of its citizens to a common benefit, and it may be that the use of such sovereign power is necessary to enact any meaningful change in society.  For “niche” issues, it is fine for individuals and organizations to try to change the world, but when real emergencies emerge — military, financial, environmental, etc. — it is to presidents, kings, and legislatures to whom we turn.

And turn to them we have, to protect our most beautiful landscapes, our air and water quality, our endangered species, and increasingly our climate.  But those government efforts, whether they are the be-all and end-all or not, vary greatly in terms of their content, orientation, and effectiveness.  Some governments may emphasize keeping waterways clean, while others may focus on protecting open spaces.  And they may pursue different means to reach the same green end, and have dramatically different results.

While they may operate directly on environmental problems, governments can also fundamentally affect the environmental performance of both corporations and individuals within their borders.  Strong laws that are well-enforced can incentivize better compliance and greener behavior, while weak or non-existing laws can encourage a “race to the bottom.”  Voluntary programs may have a greater effect on environmental performance when government agencies support them, lending them a sense of legitimacy and authority.  The regulatory environment is a key determinant in environmental performance across a range of scales.

But just as with the iceberg and the grail, with corporate and product performance, how is the greenness of these regulations being measured?  Who is assessing how green the clothes of the Emperor are?  Or does he have any green clothes at all?  A growing number of initiatives have begun to look at how environmentally responsible various levels of governments are, from cities to states to nations to elected officials themselves.  This section of the website will look at these efforts, their methods, and their conclusions, and discuss their implications for the “greening of government” and orienting the power of the Leviathan to build a sustainable society.

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Green Icebergs

Oct 09

Posted: under Green Companies.
Tags: ,

Nice living on top, but what about the bottom?

Nice living on top, but what about the bottom?

Since the density of pure water ice is ca. 920 kg/m3, and that of sea water ca.1025 kg/m3, typically, around 90% of the volume of an iceberg is under water, and that portion’s shape can be difficult to surmise from looking at what is visible above the surface.

So-called “green products,” from “eco-pencils” to “hybrid SUVs,” have been proliferating in recent years, and the “Green Products” section of this site will be exploring this growth and their measurement in detail.  These products, however, usually only represent a very small portion of any one company’s total production — they are, in effect, only the tip of the iceberg.  It is the tip that remains out of water, the public face of the company that offers green solutions to “saving the world,” while most of the company’s products and processes remain submerged and out of sight, their environmental performance unseen and unknown.

If we want to know how the private sector is really affecting the planet, we must understand the overall impacts of corporations rather than just focus on their most innovative (but usually niche) products.  Many organizations, including companies themselves, recognize this basic fact, and regularly issue reports and ratings assessing corporate environmental performance. Companies issue Sustainability Reports, government agencies reward or punish companies for their levels of emissions, and non-profit organizations grade companies on their overall policies and programs.

But more often than not, these activities often have only a limited view of the iceberg’s underside, and fail to take a holistic view of its size, dimensions, and direction.  It is similar to the problem of the blind men and the elephant; each man is correct in describing the part he is touching, but all are radically wrong in describing the whole elephant.  We need to bring together these perspectives so we can accurately understand how green these icebergs, elephants, and companies really are.

So in this section, I will explore different efforts to measure the environmental performance of corporations, rather than single products.  I will look into who is doing this measuring, what they are measuring, and what they are not measuring.  Are environmental inputs, outputs and impacts being asssessed, as opposed to just policies and programs?  Are effects on air, water, and wildlife being evaluated, as opposed to only those on the most popular issue of the day, the climate?  For that matter, are all policies relevant to climate change being investigated, or only the most obvious (but perhaps not the most important)?

The state of the whole iceberg, and not just the one the penguins are frolicking on, must be known if we want to know how “green” it is, and how green it may become.  Ultimately it is more the trends of the mainstream market and not the “green products” market that drive corporate decisions and the private sector’s environmental impacts.  Since 90% of its mass is underwater, it is the currents of the ocean, and not the wind, that determine the iceberg’s direction.

Images: Iceberg is from and Elephant is from

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The Green Grail

Oct 09

Posted: under Green Products.
Tags: ,

Perceval finding the holy grail...but was it made from recycled gold?

Bridgekeeper: What… is your quest?
King Arthur: To seek the Holy Grail.

Bridgekeeper: What… is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?
King Arthur: What do you mean? An African or European swallow?
Bridgekeeper: Huh? I… I don’t know that.
[he is thrown over]
Bridgekeeper: Auuuuuuuugh.

Sir Bedevere: How do know so much about swallows?
King Arthur: Well, you have to know these things when you’re a king, you know.*

From Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

A growing number of consumers in today’s marketplace are searching for a new kind of holy grail — the “Green Product.”  Like King Arthur and his knights, these consumers are often motivated by both a sense of personal sin and guilt and a desire to discover some kind of perfection and beauty.  In some ways, they are questing after the eternal life that drove those same knights as well, in their belief that finding their “Green Grails” will buy “sustainability” for themselves and their society, and the gratitude of future generations.

And so we set out into the wilderness of the market, searching for the greenest cars, energy sources, computers, jewelry, and food products.  What’s better — the Prius or the Insight?  A Dell laptop or an Apple MacBook?  Organically-grown or locally-sourced food?  We listen to green claims from companies about their products, and to gatekeepers who judge the greenness of those claims, and in some cases the greenness of the seekers themselves.  But who are these retailers and gatekeepers to make these claims?  And what exactly are they claiming — what do they mean by “green?”  Do they really point the way to the Grail?

In order to answer these questions, we must therefore, like King Arthur, be armed with knowledge to judge these claims for ourselves and to test those who block or point the road for us with our own questions.  We must know something about the underlying science used to evaluate a product’s environmental performance.  We must know something about the values and ethical tradeoffs involved in the design of products.  We must know something about the people and organizations manufacturing and evaluating products, and the political dynamics surrounding them.  And we must know something about the other scales of environmental performance beyond the product itself — the overall performance of the company making it, the performance of the country it is made in, and the lifestyle of the individuals who use it.

And yes, we may even need to know the air-speed of an unladen swallow, African or European…

To help us with our preparation and our journey, I will explore in this section of the website examples of green product claims by companies, non-profit organizations, government agencies, and private rating agencies.  I will look at the transparency of these claims, their credibility and underlying science, and their usability and “understandability.”  I will also look into who exactly is making the claims and is accountable for them.  Where its relevant, I’ll also discuss some of the implications of these claims for different actors and policies, and society’s more general quest for improving our collective environmental performance and protecting our planet, perhaps the ultimate “Green Grail.”

Watch the Monty Python scene:

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