A Conservative Petrolhead Business Student Reacts

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Today we continue our series of the winning essays submitted to Dean of Freshmen, Fred Siegel.  These freshman were selected from over 300 of their peers to attend a dinner with Dean Siegel and author, Thomas Friedman.

Our featured essay of the day is by freshman, Kevin Curtin.

Green is my least favorite color. It’s so earthy and natural, so timid and soft, so conservative. Sure, neon green can be evil, as the menacing “M” on the front of a Monster energy drink attests to. Green can even be creepy, or gross: when was the last time someone found a booger to be anything but? That perfect little shade of not-too-encroaching green that everybody has come to know and love is the most abundant color presented by nature, the color children most readily recognize. Too bad, then, that it sports a history lacking any interest or flair.

The green revolution in media and pop culture (or as Thomas L. Friedman would put it, “green party”) only reestablished green as the color I’d voluntarily eradicate from my own spectrum. Green now has a personality, and I hate it. Green is the new movement embraced only by tree-huggers and hippies who love their Toyota Priuses. To me, people who “go green” are trendy folk who spend their mornings on their Macbooks and their afternoons sipping Chai-Mocha-Peppermint-Frappucino-Tazo Lattés at Starbucks.

The fact is, green is just unattractive to an eighteen-year-old guy hell-bent on building himself a fire-breathing Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. To a “petrolhead” like myself, green is the antithesis of being. Green is what is responsible for the CAFÉ standards that are slowly but surely reducing cars to little else but bland and economical transportation from A to B. Green limits the octane of our gasoline, and green prevents exhaust systems from unleashing all of our hard-earned horsepower.

So one can only imagine my delight as I discovered that our summer book selection was Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Thomas L. Friedman. As I began my assigned reading, I admit that I admired Friedman’s immense body of research and all-too-convincing writing style. I was floored by how effortlessly he managed to intertwine research, persuasive techniques, and intelligent prose; though at times he was extremely long-winded and repetitive. But for those first few pages, I was terribly bored. Friedman’s initial chapters were lessons in struggle, as I was unable to remove the hum of a V8 from my brain as I read them. I wanted to give up, convinced that this author was simply the most literate agent of the Starbucks-Macbook-Prius Green Party.

But such is a trial of maturity: to learn to abandon one’s preconceived notions and to give every opinion a chance. I continued on, and by the end of Friedman’s 412 pages, was all too happy that I had. The truth is, no other written work has so opened my eyes to such a pressing issue. While I do not exactly see eye-to-eye with Friedman on global warming, his other points have turned this conservative young fellow into… dare I say it…

an environmentalist.

I assuredly will not be sporting a Prius or shopping with a recyclable tote anytime soon, but I do now see the importance of acknowledging “green” as America’s future.

As Friedman so thoroughly explained, “green” is not just a temporary movement to stop the Earth from getting a few degrees warmer. Green is very much a buy one, get ten free approach. Going green is much larger than simply cutting 1% of the plastic from water bottles. If we do it right, we can actually curb petrodictatorship and help to spread democracy. We can ensure biodiversity, and we can keep our climate in check. We can encourage businesses to further innovate and be more competitive in a market that includes an exponentially expanding and increasingly interconnected middle class (“flat and crowded”). We preserve the only planet that we have for ourselves and our children, and we maintain America’s role as the superpower of that planet. We create jobs and we create an example in efficiency for the entire world to follow. We don’t need to worry about harvesting coal from the depths of a dangerous mine, nor will we fret when the world’s oil runs out. By beginning to act now, America can lead the carbon-free charge into the future.

My immediate reaction to the book was one of fury; half for the stubbornness of our own policymakers and half for how political these very bipartisan issues have become (they affect all of us!). Inaction is one of my biggest pet peeves; I pity the child who complains of heat while sitting next to an air conditioner he’s simply too lazy to turn on. Our situation here is the same. The standard use of energy seems to be working fine at the moment simply because the public is blind to its effects. As long as people can turn on their PCs, drive their cars, and work in their offices, life is fine. But Friedman’s point stands – “the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones.” The Stone Age ended because of man’s ingenuity and a desire to change his own life for the better. We should not need to run out of oil before America finds a solution that is better. Our policymakers, though, have chosen to turn a blind eye to the raw facts of the situation (it appears as though Washington would benefit from Friedman’s research) in favor of forming party opinions for each. Since “liberals” want to act to curb global warming, “conservatives” must therefore find ways to discount its legitimacy. I’m as skeptic as they come, but if there are solutions we can implement to prevent us from possibly melting ourselves and our world, I see no reason not to try them.

I must concede, however, that in the energy-climate era I feel like an ant. As I read a book talking about figures in the billions (of dollars), trillions (of pounds of CO2), and hundreds (of years), I feel as though I am completely insignificant.  There are no “fifty easy ways to save the earth now”; there is nothing that I can do all by myself that will have any real impact. I am not a government official, nor a lobbyist, nor a CEO of a utility company, nor an engineer. Even if half the country doesn’t leave the water running when they brush their teeth, our corporations will continue to leave entire buildings illuminated overnight, and coal will continue to power most of our “dumb” utilities. The book just begs someone to pass it along to a member of Congress or someone with actual influence; the average American is sadly overwhelmed. I am a regular college student looking to study business. I know Mr. Friedman suggested I do my part (as all those get-green-quick guides suggest), but then I’m just sipping a cocktail at the green party, not fueling the green revolution.

How can a student studying business do anything about this? The fact that just about anyone can help is the beauty of greening America. As a business major, I could financially advise developing alternative energy companies. I could become a venture capitalist who funded green startups. With such necessary innovations coming down the line, investing in a stable green-engineering company might be about the safest financial bet in this down economy. I could go on to get my MBA, and from a higher position in a company, could reform its practices to be an example in efficiency. I could help to start up a solar power company, much like First Solar, and reap the benefits of their eight-hundred-percent production boom. First Solar’s success was primarily thanks to Germany; I think we need to have the same economic incentives in America. And who could make a better case for that than a bunch of business majors?

The economist in me is all too scared of China’s growth as well. A country with a population of over one billion with a government that obligates them to work together is without a doubt a force to be reckoned with, especially when that force is responsible for expansion and development at the rate China is. The facts Friedman presented blow me away; the amount of energy China uses, and the rate at which it needs generate more dirty energy to keep up with demand is staggering. But the Chinese government doesn’t grant choice the way ours does, and as Friedman mentioned in “China for a day (but not for two)”, its people are quick to change their ways when the government mandates it. Massive amounts of cheap labor and a very strong GDP-based approach to communism have made China the economic powerhouse it is today, and America already has entirely too much debt vested in it. Should China be able to develop a green approach to their massive energy needs (as they already have begun to do), the American economy will be left in their wake. An America that cannot support itself economically or environmentally is not an America I want to be a part of. During the American Revolution, both of the Great Wars, and the Space Race, it was American ingenuity and the ability of our nation to act as one that resulted in our successes. If green stays a political issue, the divide will result in a national tragedy. The human race is now running from a bear, and China is sprinting ahead while we stop for a breather.

Yes, I am a conservative environmentalist who wants smaller government, but at the same time who wishes there was more government regulation to aid in greening America. I am a petrolhead, a young man with a lust for acceleration and the internal combustion engine, but also someone who finds the idea of a hydrogen car quite interesting. I feel small and insignificant, but at the same time, charged enough to actually do something about the problem. It is conflict like this, amidst many others (interests of big-business utilities, big oil, foreign relations, and GDP to name a few), that are largely responsible for the lack of forward direction when it comes to greening America for the future. But there is just something so inspiring about being a real superpower in the future, unafraid of China and cut loose from the Middle East’s oily strings. Once again America could take its place as the world’s greatest country, respected instead of hated.

Before reading Hot, Flat, and Crowded, I didn’t care about how electrons got to my house, or just how many degrees warmer the Earth is. Now, I am a conscientious young citizen ready to take a chance and give this green thing a whirl.  To those whom this book “depressed” more than anything else, I invite you to feel just as empowered and angry as I do. You people at Starbucks can keep your Macbooks and Priuses and enjoy the eco-chic party until last call. I, on the other hand, want to do something about this. I am ready to abandon the party lines and the political labels, and I think it’s about time Washington does the same.

Oh, Mr. Friedman… I hope you print your books on recycled paper.

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