By Eric Thomas Weber
For quite some time, people have associated environmentally focused efforts with the Democratic Party, and hence with partisan disagreements. Fortunately today people are coming to see that environmental friendliness generally saves money and is a cause motivating big business development. Mississippi could benefit from greater understanding of environmentally friendly developments. There are many opportunities for industry to save money through greening efforts and also for businesses to expand in the areas that service demand for green technologies and energy saving investments.
President Carter put up solar panels on the Whitehouse, which were soon after removed in Reagan’s administration. Then, Vice President Al Gore came to be well known for his advocacy on environmental issues, to the point that he has been a key spokesman for related movements. Opposition to environmentally beneficial technologies were often motivated by a desire to keep industry free from excess government imposition. Plus, religious motivations were at times raised, with the explanation that the Earth was created for mankind’s use. Human beings have dominion over the Earth, so why not make use of it as we please?
In the last few years, a number of factors have refocused discussions about the environment. First, rising gas prices have called into question for many the wisdom of driving Hummers, for instance. I suspect that they might be incredibly fun to drive in obstacle courses, but regular travel would be hugely expensive in one, compared with the great, fuel efficient cars that are taking over the market. In a Toyota Prius, for example, my family and I can drive to Atlanta, 6 hours away from Oxford, MS, on slightly less than 10 gallons of gas. With regular driving in the last few years, the fuel efficient car has been fantastic for us. Whether one feels for environmental considerations or not, people can understand the savings.
It helps, I think, to note the differences between people’s experiences of environmental forces. For example, having lived near New York City, then in Atlanta and Nashville, I saw recycling efforts everywhere I have lived. There are prices associated with landfills. The farther away are the landfills, the more fuel is spent bringing trash to dumps. Plus, the slower one fills a dump, the cheaper it is – the more delayed further costs are. So, recycling in my experience has always had a clear and substantial impact economically on large population centers I have known. Now that I live in Mississippi, by contrast, land is quite cheap and the motivation for recycling is far weaker here. Add that to the history of associating the practice with the minority political party in the state and it becomes easier to understand why the recycling movement has only lately caught on in small towns in the state.
Two developments, one at the national level and the other at the state level, have inspired some changes as well. Historically strong critics of people like Al Gore, such as Rupert Murdoch, who owns News Corp and thus Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, have come to see the powerful forces of environmental change. Murdoch saw the spreading wildfires in his native Australia and understood quickly that climates have changed, leading to dangerous conditions for a number of parts of the world. He wrote a letter called “Duty to the Future,” published on the National Review Online, explaining why his companies were going green. Beyond Murdoch, Pat Robertson has helped reshape the religious message on the Right about the environment, to recognize the idea that dominion over the Earth is consistent with the demands of stewardship of such a great gift from the Divine. He made a fun commercial with Reverend Al Sharpton for the sake of seeking common ground about the environment.
The second development is that Mississippians recently experienced significant environmental problems. People all around were saddened by the photos of wildlife affected by the B.P. oil spill. Mississippi’s shrimping and coastal tourism industries were deeply affected for some time. Beyond that, many people who have been quiet about the environment, but who have loved it all along have begun speaking up. In particular, I am thinking of hunters, who love the outdoors, the beauty of creatures and the connection to the world that capturing your own food can motivate. In fact, people often forget that the environmental philosopher Aldo Leopold was a hunter.
A bright conservative student of mine at the University of Mississippi, Elliott Warren, had a number of these connections click. His love of hunting and the outdoors motivated action and leadership for green initiatives on campus. He was so driven and successful that he won a Sustainability Leadership Award the next year at the University of Mississippi. He is centrally responsible for the great program of game-day recycling for football games at the university, which has kept literally tons of waste from going into the ground. Instead, the new program provides the city of Oxford with materials that it can sell to companies seeking cost-saving recyclables.
With all of these developments in the background, there are nevertheless those who are skeptical of “green” initiatives, like the one the University of Mississippi signed a few years ago. However particular people feel about this initiative, there are great examples of substantial savings already at work on campus, and ones that can be emulated in various ways by businesses around the state.
I work in Odom Hall, which is one of the wings of the building called the Trent Lott Leadership Institute. I have learned from campus sources that our building in peak hours uses 65 to 70 Kilowatts per hour for its power. Nearby, the newly built Center for Manufacturing Excellence, a larger building, had solar panels installed on its roof. The panels do not provide all the power for that building, to be sure, since it is a very large building. But, they do provide more in peak hours than my building uses in its peak hours. Those panels produce 80 to 90 Kilowatts per hour in their peak hours. They generate 8 megawatts per month on average, according to Professor James Vaughn, Director of the Center for Manufacturing Excellence at the university.
Investments in technologies like the panels atop the Center for Manufacturing Excellence may not yet be feasible for widespread use in homes or in smaller businesses around the state, of course. But, technologies like these are getting cheaper and cheaper to make. Plus, there are countless efforts that are low in cost to adopt. A student of mine years ago gave a speech in one of my courses and convinced me to change to compact fluorescent bulbs around the house. The next month, I saw a drop in my electricity bill from the previous month and in comparison with the year before. The initial investment was about $150 for all new bulbs. Many people are using low water usage toilets and shower heads now, for similar reasons. Better insulation can make a big difference in the summer heat as well, of course, and all of these efforts are small and accessible ways that business can shave costs.
Those larger institutions that have to do maintenance with some regularity, furthermore, such as the university, which has projects and updates to complete each year, can budget for the long-term benefits of doing things in the smartest way with regard to energy. Many of these ideas involve small changes, but can make a difference to the bottom line. Plus, when one makes an effort in this way, we can brag about it to those who will be attracted by the idea. My favorite Oxford dry cleaner, Rainbow Cleaners, for example, posts notices about the new methods it uses to cut down on waste products and energy use. Plus, companies that profit from doing what is less responsible, morally speaking, sometimes get hit hard in lawsuits, when the results really hurt people, or in public image at least, which is itself a very expensive thing to clean up once tarnished.
Beyond the process of making industry “greener,” there is also exciting growth taking place in Mississippi in “green” industries. Both of these terms, “greening” industry and “green” industries, are worth encouraging. “Greening industry” is the process of making industries and institutions more energy efficient, which makes for savings in money and from unwanted environmental effects. It can include cutting costs on public schools and other government buildings as well as in introducing cost saving measures in the private sector. Next, “green industries” are generally associated with things like electric windmills, fuel efficient cars, and solar panels, but they refer equally, in my view, to the sale of products and services that somehow take advantage of more energy efficient means of production or usage, or of products made from materials that cost less environmentally speaking.
Green products can be quite simple, not always technical in nature. When shopping at Walmart, if you have not tried out their great “Reusable Bags,” you have no idea what you are missing. They cost 50 cents each. I use these bags everyday for all sorts of reasons, including for carrying my lunch to work or groceries home from the store. Granted, you have to pay for these once, but they are much more comfortable to carry than everyday plastic bags – given their thick handles – and they hold much more and more robustly, all while being light to carry. Plus, they are strong, have many uses, and also are made of reusable plastic that would otherwise eventually cost us money to throw in landfills.
The more sophisticated forms of “green industries” are growing also, and in Mississippi. Among these are Twin Creaks, Stion, and Soladigm, to name a few. A former student of mine landed a job right after graduation in 2011 with one of these companies and had only exciting things to report about his experience.
There are other countries and other states fighting to be at the forefront of business development in green industries. There are also other states doing more with tax incentives than we do in Mississippi to empower individuals and institutions to green their workplaces. At the same time, Mississippi has advantages for attracting business and can build on these, including low taxes. We can also work to take advantage of the recent developments through which people have come to see that “green” is not a partisan issue. It is at times a matter of cost savings and at others of potential new markets. We should welcome our new opportunities and think about how we can build on them for cost savings and profit. Here at the University of Mississippi, where tuition is around $6,000 per year, we can envision energy savings translating into the language of scholarships made possible per month, for example. When buildings cost thousands of dollars per month to power, the value of alternate energy sources that can offset big institutional costs become easier to imagine and understand.
If you are thinking of moving in the direction of energy cost savings only, there are do-it-yourself options available at places like Home Depot, which has a great guide online about all manner of products that can save money and energy in the long-run. There are many more of these as public awareness continues to grow.
We can all see that gas prices at best will only rise more slowly even if new sources are found. It makes a lot of sense for business people to think of long-term investments. We can save money, and make more too, by thinking about industries that until recently seemed only to be of interest to small numbers of Mississippians. Today, minds have changed and a culture has set in that recognizes the need and opportunity for growth in green industries and in greening industry.