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[GreenYes] Is a green economy on the horizon?

12/19/2008 12:03:00 PM  Email this article â?¢ Print this article
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Guest column: Is a green economy on the horizon?
By Watt Childress
For The Daily Astorian

When conventional wisdom gets us in trouble, we need to look beyond convention to work things out. "Thinking outside the box," is the boardroom cliché.

Easier said than done.

I felt the tug of convention 18 years ago while toiling in the fields of waste management. The head of a statewide recycling project said something one day that stuck in my mind. We were discussing ways to prevent waste in a pilot urban area.

"Has anyone ever told you about the inside and the outside?" asked my colleague, a not-for-profit executive and former member of a governor's cabinet. "The mayor and the public works director and the companies that make money on the current system - they are all on the inside. We are on the outside."

I nodded "sure" while mentally counting the months it would take for my allies to become the new i nsiders. Ah, youth.

At the time, I served on the board of a group called the National Recycling Coalition. The 45-person body consisted of industry representativess, public officials and environmental advocates from around the country. During quarterly meetings, we pursued "three-sector teamwork" to wean America from our wasteful habits. At least that's how some of the mission-driven directors saw our job.

Today we hear talk about the transformative potential of a green economy. Back then, as now, many of us believed that moving beyond our current dead-end system required stable domestic markets for recyclables.

I recall a pivotal debate in which a progressive paper merchant proposed stronger guidelines to promote the use of post-consumer recycled fiber. An attorney with a Wall Street firm argued against the proposal on the grounds that it would alienate corporate paper manufacturers. Following a lengthy debate, the board produced a tie vote that was broken by our chairman - the publisher of a trade journal. Siding with what he called the "status quo," the proposal was shot down.

I thought of that cave to convention when I recently learned how recycling programs are faring with the economic crisis. Many recovered materials that brought good prices in September are valued at nothing now. Waste managers are forced to either stockpile these materials or dispose of them at greater cost.

During times of duress, people have always relied upon the twin virtues of conservation and resourcefulness.=2 0The weakness of America's economy is exposed when hard times prompt us to become even more of a throwaway society.

We have not given adequate attention to our domestic markets. Many of this country's recycled paper mills were shut down during the last two decades. As Americans consumed, leaders outsourced manufacturing to take advantage of weaker environmental laws and cheap labor overseas. The economic incentive to cut forests for pulp was greater than the incentive to sequester carbon or curb waste. Dependence on foreign mills also lowered quality control for recovered materials.

That boardroom decision made by the National Recycling Coalition, and others like it, helped shape our situation today. It illustrates the containment of progressive change; and reminds us that escaping the box means confronting powerful players who make the container.

Here are some waste-related facts that shed more light on this civic conundrum. Before 1950, most beverages sold in the United States came in reusable bottles. As corporations consolidated their control of the economy, they centralized their production facilities. Transportation costs increased, but companies compensated by using disposable or "one-way" bottles. They transferred the expense of dealing with those empties to the public.

"The packaging industry justifies disposables as a response to consumer demand," writes Ginger Strand in this month's issue of Orion Magazine ( "But that's not exactly true. Consumers had to be trained to be wasteful. Part of this re-education involved forestalling any debate over the wisdom of creating disposables in the first place, replacing it with an emphasis on 'proper' disposal."

New leaders have promised change; yet the tug of convention always seeks to repackage the status quo to serve the same old insiders. Is a green economy really on the horizon? Will the new guard stop treating progressive thinkers as outsiders?

For a clue, watch what happens to our garbage.

Watt Childress is a Cannon Beach bookseller and freelance writer who lives on a Nehalem Valley farm.

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