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Green with Envy

Efficiency products will proliferate, for better or worse.

Fortnightly Magazine - April 2009

Recently an acquaintance of mine, who shall remain nameless, gave a diamond engagement ring to his girlfriend. She joyfully accepted the ring. But soon her joy turned to disgust when she learned that her lovely “diamond” actually was a cubic zirconium.

Last I heard, she’d broken off the engagement and was dating her ex-fiancé’s former boss. So it goes.

This incident got me thinking. What the hapless suitor failed to appreciate—aside from the importance of honesty and integrity—is that an engagement ring isn’t just a sparkly crystal clamped onto a piece of metal; it’s an idea. A diamond ring, offered on bended knee, is a gesture, a symbol, and something more. It’s a meme: a cultural archetype that takes on a life of its own, as it’s transmitted from person to person, from generation to generation.

The idea of being “green” also is a meme, and that’s both good news and bad news. It’s good news because memes grow and evolve to suit their survival in human culture. This suggests green values will continue growing as long as they find fertile ground in our culture. Richard Dawkins, who fathered meme theory in 1976, wrote, “Given the right conditions, replicators [including both genes and memes] automatically band together to create systems, or machines, that carry them around and work to favour their continued replication.” 1

The green meme 2 is bad news for the same reason. Memes grow and evolve to suit their own survival—irrespective of logical considerations like economics and common sense. That means we can’t really control the green meme. The best we can do is to understand it better than my lonely friend understood the concept of an engagement ring.

Cool & Green

In practical terms, a fake diamond serves the same essential purpose as a real one— i.e., to sparkle and look pretty. In a perfect world, the decision to buy a low-cost cubic zirconium instead of an expensive diamond might be considered a sign of economic wisdom. But in our world it represents, at best, cheapness. Only a real diamond projects prestige and permanence.

The same thing is true for efficiency-related products. The most obvious example is the Toyota Prius, which has succeeded because a large number of car buyers perceive it as attractive, intriguing, prestigious … in a word, “cool.” Granted, it’s a geeky kind of cool—the green kind! Every Prius driver I know is proud of the vehicle, and is eager to brag about its fuel economy (48 mpg in the city/45 on the highway). But that pride is about more than just fuel economy; Prius buyers line up to pay a premium for the perception that their $23,000 car is greener than the next driver’s car.

Contrariwise, a college student I know recently paid $1,800 for a 15 year-old Civic hatchback. The car serves him well, but he gets absolutely no props for driving it, even though in real terms

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