As an entrepreneur, strategic communications professional, and policy wonk, I've worked on social innovations in the for-profit and non-profit world, helping to develop campaigns and solutions to social and natural resource challenges.

I'm constantly tracking and analyzing what make us as humans, inspired to act and respond to new ideas. This is where I share my thoughts and notes. 

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Tuesday
Dec152009

Next Up, A Major Environmental Dilemma

The opening line of this video says it all. "Next up, a major environmental dilemma...".  For quite some time I've considered the potential communications conundrum presented by the clean technology economy's need for raw resources, and the very clear fact that many clean energy advocates don't consider the supply chain of natural resources for building wind turbines, solar panels, and hybrid cars.  I've always asked, what will environmentalists do when they realize what kind of process and materials are needed for producing a clean energy infrastructure? While triple-bottom line systems, closed loop manufacturing, and sustainable design and materials sourcing have been a major part of the sustainability movement as brought forward by leaders such as Bill McDonough, these principles have primarily taken a back seat in the manufacturing of new clean energy technologies. 

So it was only a matter of time that the media considered the contradiction that could provide a dilemma for environmental advocates. This report on PBS News Hour is the first I have seen that provides a in-depth look at the environmental impact of the critical rare earth elements that are the natural resource supply for clean energy manufacturing in China. 

While a strong report and a very important one to consider, this story could have been more comprehensive by examining the percentages of rare earth metals used in manufacturing of non-clean energy products.  Additionally, the report doesn't fully expand on the lack of environmental regulations for manufacturing facilities in China. While very hard to quantify at this stage, the counter point that was not leveled in this report is the consideration of the environmental benefits gained by decreasing our carbon emissions and the impacts of industrial process used in developing conventional energy sources. 

If it is inevitable that we use rare earth materials in our production of the items needed for society, there is an argument to be made that while we switch other process toward more sustainable materials, the clean energy economy may demand less and impact fewer than did previous systems of production in the industrial revolution.  The verdict is still out whether or not there is a balance to be achieved. 

None the less, I predict that clean energy companies will be pushed more in the new decade to begin sourcing their materials from recycled and reprocessed sources, rather than building the new green economy on the very philosophy that moved our society toward our current dilemma; progress is worth the cost we pay both in human and natural capital. Hopefully we won't have to re-learn that lesson again.

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