Price of Green

I’m trying recently to look more into different disciplines in order to get better perspective of my own field, especially architecture and product design which I find are pretty related to building Web apps, in a way (I’ll write about it some more soon). I’ve been interested in architecture, especially sustainable architecture, long before I got into software, actually. Well, one really cool thing about living in New York is that there are so many opportunities to hear smart people talk about interesting stuff, and I took one of those today and heard Buzz Poole, Alex Marshall and Shin-Pei Tsay talk about environmentally friendly cities, buildings and products.

But as the talk proceeded, something started to bug me. The attitude seemed to be that people should buy “green” products and live a “green” lifestyle as a sort of sacrifice one makes for the greater good. The solar panels might be a bit pricey and the electric car won’t go very fast, but it’s good for the planet.

This seems a defeatist attitude to me. I thought about the iPod in my jacket’s pocket: if it were more energy efficient, the battery would last longer between recharging. If it was recyclable, it might cost less because the materials can be reused. And yet, if Apple were to launch a “Green iPod” tommorow you can pretty safely bet that it would cost more than the other models, and that most people attending that discussion would actually pay the extra price, genuinely believing they are doing the right thing.

I’m beginning to think they’d be doing the wrong thing. Think back to the early days of PCs, or cars or airplanes. They were all expensive, hard to operate and generally pretty worthless. But they didn’t improve by people saying “buy that PC, it’s good for the planet”. Maybe the opposite – they improved because people did *not* buy them, as they weren’t very useful, and therefore people who built PCs and airplanes had to put a lot of effort into making them into something you could afford and wanted to have.

I know such views are suspect today in the US, and not without reason. I’m very much aware this is a simplistic view and that, for example, we’re all ultimately subsidizing polluting technologies when companies producing them are not being charged according to the true cost of using it (i.e, the damage to people’s health caused by car emissions is covered by the public, not by the car companies) . I’m still paying my monthly shekels to Greenpeace because political action is necessary. But still, it makes me wonder whether we’re hurting eco-friendly tech’s advance by cheering it so much.

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