Can Greed Be Green?

Why Al Gore and T. Boone Pickens think so.

Photo: Anne Hamersky

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if you’ve watched TV recently, you might have noticed the T. Boone Pickens ads: “I’ve been an oilman my whole life,” the old wildcatter intones over shots of burning wells and soldiers in Iraq; but America’s dependence on foreign oil “is one emergency we can’t drill our way out of.” We must build “a new renewable energy network” starting with hundreds of wind farms to generate 20 percent of our electricity, and switch 38 percent of our cars and trucks to run on natural gas.

Pickens isn’t just in it for the planet. He’s building a massive wind farm in the Texas Panhandle (for the hidden agenda in that deal, see “Ripe for the Pickens“), and one of his companies, Clean Energy, owns natural gas filling stations throughout the country. He’s also backing a California measure that would hand out rebates of up to $50,000 for alternative-fuel vehicles.

So? Just another not-quite-honest ad; it’s hardly the worst we’ve seen lately, and not even close to Pickens’ own lowest hour, the bankrolling of the 2004 Swift Boat campaign. (Ah, Swift Boat—the good old days, when politicians thought they had to have others do the lying for them.) But Pickens’ self-interest aside, his pitch does hint at the national debate we could be having if we weren’t talking about hockey moms.

True, Pickens is no Al Gore; his obsession is foreign oil, not climate change, and his plan is only about buying time until we get away from fossil fuels—another generation from now, he figures. (Gore, on the other hand, argues that we already have the means at hand—see “Can We Save the Planet and Rescue the Economy at the Same Time?“—and that we need to move to clean energy in 10 years, not 30, if we wish to preserve a habitable planet.) Still, the fact that T. Boone Pickens and Al Gore speak approvingly of each other these days points to a tide beginning to turn.

Perhaps the most recognizable term for the concept coming into our collective view is “sustainability,” which, stripped of its farmers market-meets-Madison Avenue gloss, means nothing more than “a way of doing things that ensures survival.” A financial market built around housing pyramid schemes, debt no one is responsible for, and loans no one can afford? Unsustainable. A federal climate policy consisting of fuel-efficiency standards that will take effect 12 years from now? Unsustainable. A politics built around stoking resentment at a time when we desperately need unified action? Exactly.

T. Boone Pickens seems to have caught, um, wind of this. He vows that his new passion has made him nonpartisan; he told the Washington Times he’s stopped giving to political campaigns and instead aims to shell out $58 million to advertise the Pickens Plan. He’s all about organizing a popular movement; so what if he intends to make money along the way? Greed is a great motivator, and if it can help bring change, we’re all for it.

What has become brutally clear the past couple of months, however, is that greed alone can’t fix the mess we’re in. Greed alone got us Enron and the mortgage mess and a civilization-endangering level of carbon; greed alone means that no one wants to be the first to stop burning coal or selling subprimes because the guy in the next corner office won’t be so thoughtful. Greed alone means delaying a more sustainable economy until ExxonMobil, General Motors, and whichever banks are still in business have extracted the last drop of profit from the current system.

Perhaps the war in Iraq didn’t demonstrate this clearly enough; perhaps back-to-back-to-back hurricanes didn’t either; maybe even the Wall Street meltdown didn’t quite make the point. But all three together add up to one inescapable conclusion. As Gore puts it, “We’re borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet.”

As a nation, we’ve barely even acknowledged this self-destructive feedback loop; we still need to have the messy, far-reaching debate that is the only way in a democracy to solve messy, far-reaching problems. No politician can be expected to have all the answers. What is borderline criminal is to lull the American people into believing we don’t have a problem, and that, should we have one, the fix won’t involve sacrifice. Even Barack Obama’s energy plan doesn’t see us getting more than 25 percent of our electricity from renewable sources by 2025 and sidesteps tough choices by betting on mythical alternatives like “clean coal.”

We’re not expecting Winston Churchill-level promises of blood, sweat, and tears—though some Churchillian spine would not hurt. But we do need a 21st-century version of “ask what you can do for your country.” We need an Apollo program-cum-Manhattan Project, and we need it now.

Over the past year, thanks to the perfect storm in our energy and financial markets, the possibility has emerged of a true moment of national focus—the kind of opportunity that we missed in the wake of 9/11. If T. Boone Pickens can figure that out, so should the rest of us.


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