The 2008 West Coast Green conference came at a fascinating but troubling time in American history. While building professionals and environmental experts came together in San Jose last week to brainstorm ways of improving building efficiency or incorporating alternative energy, many citizens had their eyes on the news and their wallets, debating how to solve our economic crisis amidst a credit crunch, declining home values, and high energy and food prices. With that backdrop, calls at the trade show from Al Gore, environmental activist David Suzuki, and others for a reinvented economy with a focus on the environment seemed like the right idea at the right time.
Why shouldn't our leaders be just as concerned about the environment as the economy? At a time when the economic crisis threatens to overwhelm Americans struggling to keep their jobs and homes, the environmental crisis threatens to drown the countries that can least afford it. Gore compared carbon emissions to the human rights crisis: "An increase in carbon emissions anywhere is a threat everywhere." As Americans debate whether to drill for more oil, for example, rising tides from global warming threaten to inundate vast swaths of Bangladesh.
But the simultaneous economic and environmental crises provide an opportunity to address both concerns. As we and our representatives debate how to bail out the financial markets, we should, as Gore and others suggested, discuss how we can "bail in" renewable energy and talk about why our economic system doesn't internalize sources of pollution that affect our air and water. After the takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac by the federal government, Gore looks prescient for suggesting two years ago the establishment of the Carbon Neutral Mortgage Association, or "Connie Mae," that would give home buyers a way to invest in efficiency improvements.
As energizing as I found West Coast Green, though, I came away concerned that its environmental message would go unnoticed or unheeded by most building professionals and the public at large. Not until my final session, a panel about using social networking applications to market green, did I hear any speaker discuss how green builders could spread their message to potential customers who aren't already believers. Trade shows like West Coast Green can create an echo chamber effect, where one starts to imagine that the whole world is on the brink of a green revolution.
The financial crisis shows that we're not there yet. So builders and others who believe that building efficient homes with renewable energy is the right thing to do need to reach outside their network and connect with customers who aren't on the green bandwagon. As panelists at that final session discussed, the Web is a great place to start reaching interested consumers receptive to your message. But there is an untapped market of potential customers concerned about the environment and their wallets. Make your homes eco-friendly and reach out to clients who want to not only help the Earth, but save money, too.
Jeffrey Lee is Senior Associate Editor, Online for EcoHome.