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Is "Green" The "New Imperialism" Or The "New Communism?

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on December 19, 2009

The real failure in Copenhagen to get firm, legal commitments to cut greenhouse gases to slow global warming is a failure of paradigm and process. It is time to end the guilt-tripping, finger-wagging, top-down, United Nations-based regulation-and-punishment paradigm and shift to a more positive, bottoms-up, individual-behavior, incentive-based model. It is time to design a positive, glowing picture of a better possible life for Asians, Americans, Europeans, poor and rich alike by presenting positive pathways of behavior to a sustainable future. Innovation to create incentives to change individual and CEO behaviors will ultimately prove better than negotiations among 197 national politicians. If ever there was a job for innovators and design thinkers, this is it.

I just came back from an international design conference in Singapore that basically had European and American post-consumerist innovation/design consultants presenting to a pro-consumerist Asian audience. They offered a strident hair-shirt message of cutting back, saving, and sobriety. In short, moving to a limited-growth kind of economy to stop the planet from dying. The Asian audience wouldn’t buy it. In fact, it infuriated many in the audience who saw the message as a new form of Western imperialism.

I have seen the same thing happen at the World Economic Forum in Davos and at conferences in China and India. Western preaching on cutting back, Asian anger at limiting economic growth. The inevitable response to the West is “you have a great way of life, we want it too. Don’t you dare tell us to stop growing and lifting our people out of poverty.”

This is not entirely an Asian point of view either. China isn’t the only country with deep poverty. Global warming isn’t at the top of the priority list among the unemployed in Michigan, Florida or the Navajo reservation in Arizona. It is no accident that in the US, “green” is quickly becoming viewed as the “new communism” by the political right

afraid of big government, lower economic growth and higher unemployment. In a weird way, it parallels the perception of green as the "new imperialism" by the left in India, China, Africa and other poorer countries fearful of the West imposing limits to their growth.

What struck me in Asia was how advanced the discussion on sustainability already is and how similar it is to the conversation in the US. Actually, I believe there is less "denialism" going on in China on climate change than in the US. Chinese parents in Shanghai know that the filthy air isn't good for their children.

Copenhagen shows that we need to design innovative systems that allow strong economic growth while changing the way we achieve it.

We need to design new personal status systems that emphasize services over stuff, renting/sharing as well as owning (ZipCar), reuse and open source over throw-away and closed, non-carbon over carbon. We need tech platforms and tools that provide us with the information on how to build our own low-carbon lives.

And yes, we need government help in generating these incentives-- serious tax and capital incentives to get us to a high-growth, low pollution future. China has 100 million all-electric scooters on the road, tens of millions of hot water solar heaters on roofs and millions of electric space heaters replacing coal stoves in homes because the government offers individual incentives. It has the fastest growing solar panel and electric car industries in the world because the government offers business strong financial incentives.

It's time to shift the perception of green from the "new communism" and "new imperialism" to the "new individualism" and make better choices and behaviors the driving force of a high-growth, low-carbon future.

Reader Comments

nina simone

December 20, 2009 3:38 PM

The Asians are absolutely right and so are the Conservative Americans. These spoiled socialist elitists "Progressives" want everyone to rewind time and go back to living in the stone age so they can save a planet that isn't in peril, it is all about controlling the people and stealing individual wealth and liberty.
CO2 is a necessary, naturally occurring element of the environment. If these "greenies" really cared about the environment or had even a shred of knowledge about science they would realize the fact that the trees they hug need CO2 to survive and without it we would all be dead. This is a ruse a ponzi scheme to tax hard working people to death. Socialism, fascism and communism DO NOT WORK. These systems have not only failed but have killed hundreds of millions of people in the process of such failure. Those fortunate to survive the tyranny of Marx, stalin, mao, lenin, and hitler did so in poverty which now the Chinese people are finally recovering from and GOD willing will rid themselves of the communist system that brought the death, poverty, forced abortions, infanticide and Tienanmen square's to name a few. I am shocked that people have forgotten such truths.


December 20, 2009 3:47 PM

Basically good article with some interesting observations and a good viewpoint/perspective.
The problem with terms such as "new communism" or "new imperialism" arises when governments make an attempt to legislate and even force individuals via laws in their countries and on a global basis to conform and live according to their perception of what is "green" and an acceptable environmentally-friendly lifestyle, ... that's communism.

We must understand that we are all individuals and while we need laws to protect us from each other in society, governments have no business to curtail individuality, creativity and personal learning experiences (in growing up and growing old) as long as these activities and experiences don't hurt others.

We all know that "global warming" (once called "global cooling" and now called "climate change") are not scientifically proven facts and many think that all this talk is just a fairytale. Clearly, nobody wants to give in and/or invest in a myth or a fairytale and curtail their economic growth just because of such vage ideas.

Human behavior in general won't change because there's always greed, jealousy, etc. just as on the positive there's love and sharing, but mostly the desire to make a better life for our kids than what we as parents had, and this desire includes economic opportunity which in turn feeds progress.
It just makes common sense to utilize as much of solar and wind energy and hybrid and/or electric cars, etc. and to take care of the environment but without going nuts about various restrictive laws to produce conformity to some "standard" some radical environmentalists desire. Common sense should dictate human behavior like e.g. the use of natural gas as it is more efficient, less polluting and so forth than other sources of energy.

Bottom line is that it would greatly help to educate the world population about the benefits of a environmentally safer and friendlier energy sources as well as an environmentally friendlier lifestyle. Such education will produce a desired behavior over time with most people and most countries.

Claire Solt

December 20, 2009 5:34 PM

That's right, as far as it goes. but government is lousy at choosuing winners and losers and should stay out. We will probably end up[ junking all these inefrficient windmills and selling the steel to Japan to make Toyotas.

electric space heaters?

December 20, 2009 5:57 PM

Are you serious?

No thanks, I'll continue to use my central heating system this time of year!

Nice warm air when the outside temperature is 20F.

Christian Verstraete

December 20, 2009 7:36 PM

Welcome to reality. There is way less scepticism in both Asia and Europe, which are way smaller polutors than the US. Only Australia beats the US in per capita polution levels. We have the impression of a very selfish US. What astonishes us is even the fact people put the scientific evidence in doubt. As everywhere a small minority will disagree with everything, but having terms like "the new socialism" or "imperialism" being used about the world effort to reduce polution and leave our planet livable for our children is shocking to Asians and Europeans alike. When will the US media be willing to clearly point that out. Your article is a starting point, but you need to go way further to create the electroshock necessary for the US to continue being perceived as a leading country in the world. I do know President Obama is claiming victory for Copenhagen, frankly, we are not impressed.

D Brydone

December 20, 2009 9:16 PM

New imperialism, new communism, new driving forces, new design. What a load of tosh. Less of the sound bites, more in depth reality, and a full explanation of our plight to the piggy backers, and the no changers, and we might appreciate what needs to be done, and do it.


December 21, 2009 12:11 PM

If the Western Climate Colonialists are serious about trying to reduce global warming, there is a sure-fire way to demonstrate how serious they are. Abandon all American and European cities and move their populations to the countryside. Force Western populations to live off subsistence agriculture. Set an example to the developing countries that Westerners are willing to live poor lives too in order to 'save' the planet. If you can't do that then kindly just shut the hell up!


December 21, 2009 2:37 PM

First, design has reached too far ... it must stop presenting itself as the solution too all problems ... it's NOT.

Global warming is not understood to be a problem by a rapidly growing number of people who are starting to question the science and the motives of those raising alarm. What are their motives ... you keenly place two options that are well worth exploring ...

In either case design offers NO insight in the best way to proceed ... Design needs to solve a problem, not a set of amorphous feelings that have not yet coalesced.

Thus back to your question imperialism or communism ... not a design question


December 21, 2009 2:45 PM

Christian- Europe and Asia could learn much from the US. It has done more to reduce pollution and poverty than any other nation in the history of the world. It is time for Europe to stop preaching and start learning.

Europe and Asia pollutes far more than the US, if we are talking about real pollutants. This is evidenced most clearly by measures of consequences (i.e., mortality).

As for your claim of less skepticism please look at recent polls. THe rising tide is in Europe.

The authors questions remain vital for progress that intelligent, reasoning people engage in.


December 21, 2009 7:44 PM

Nice observation, Bruce. I witness these sentiments - and they are by no means exclusive to Asians - on a daily basis in Brazil.

I think a fundamental dilemma in the "new individualism" you talk about is people's confusion about which way is right: being irresponsible (such as driving a big car and bringing home a big bonus at the end of the year), or being responsible.

As long as the case for the former hasn't yet clearly been established at mass scale, and as long as the benefits of the corresponding behavior aren't yet evident, the challenge remains very much alive.

And I agree, this is not a mere economic dilemma. We know, for instance, that "design thinkers" have some of the tools to imagine, invent and inspire us out of here. Yet the real work (and equally important, impact) of all these design thinkers in this debate remains next to invisible. Many not-for-profit project examples from design consultancies have been featured in magazines like Business Week, yet the real impact - at a systems level - from these prophets in emerging markets is still small.

This raises an interesting question: are we going to wait for IDEO et al. to open up offices in every BRICS country? OR will the next generation of consultants-slash-design-thinkers emerge from one of these countries themselves? Imagine the impact of a McKinsey-IDEO hybrid, focused on emerging markets, with their origins in a country like Brazil or India...


December 21, 2009 8:26 PM

Unfortunately, relabeling it “individualism” will not make it so. In reality, it’s just the opposite - Statism. The government is using shoddy and politically-influenced science to widen it’s ever expanding control over our wealth and personal freedoms. It's sickening.


January 15, 2010 2:08 AM

Oh well, better luck next time, Bruce, your clarion call for design thinkers and innovators to create the "new individualism" (a call for more of the same behaviours that helped us into this problem in the first place) has only unearthed the ranting deniers. I agree that the future can be created positively but I am not sure that you will get it from the design community.


February 23, 2010 9:52 PM

I think most designers are thinkers and dreamers and problem solvers. When ideas for living mix with business, the ideal is brought into the practical. When capital gets in the game, some make lots of money. Greed motivated by narrow self interest is what hurts.
Humans are smart. When industrialization was designed into being, we looked at ways to make it all work and chose energy sources that we now know are dirty and excessively exploitive of finite natural resources. We can discover the ways to make it all work better and cleaner if we try. Awareness is the start, and broad common interest can motivate todays smart and talented people to solve problems. "Accentuate the positive" (Johnny Mercer).


February 26, 2010 6:11 PM

The Copenhagen plan failed to get any controls on pollution, but only "succeeded" in getting the US and Europe to pay money to poorer parts of the world. It was a plan completely devoid of environmental concern or science, but instead filled solely with wealth re-distribution. Do we really have to ask if it's about "new communism"?! More government is not the answer, it's the problem. We don't need government to "give us incentive". Instead, we need the government to stop destroying incentive by taxing and regulating us to death.


February 28, 2010 10:52 PM

All the people complaining about Communism here are kind of ridiculous. Cap & Trade policies and carbon taxes are the essence of free-market economics... they are simply internalizing the externality costs of GHG pollution. The science is clear that there are costs to GHG pollution. If we free-market capitalists in the US want to make rational decisions about consumption and production, we HAVE to account for those costs. There is no "free" option... the world either pays upfront through cap&trade or carbon taxes, or we pay for the cleaning up the impacts later. This is Adam Smith at his finest, so complaints that these policies are "communist" are patentedly absurd. No one is prevented from polluting... you just have to pay the real costs of that action rather than letting the atmosphere or other folks subsidize your action.

Now, "imperialist" is a much fairer complaint, because folks in China/India/etc. rightly question why they should take on these internalized costs if the US is unwilling to do so...

Mike B

March 19, 2010 4:12 PM

Until it makes sense at the dollars and sense level to individuals, it's all a bunch of talk, platitudes and bull.

As long as being green is a nicety and not a necessity to the individual, not much will change.


March 23, 2010 1:05 AM

The impact of additional CO2 is faster and stronger growing plants with deeper root systems. CO2 is a trace gas and is only used as a "forcing" agent in the GHG scam. It's water vapor that's the real culprit. Get a bucket and start collecting that vapor! I'm sick to my soul of these doomers who have for decades called for demise of everyone and everything. There is still too many gullible fools around who righteously buy into this twaddle.

Focus on real pollution, not CO2 which people exhale. But that's where the money is because everyone and everything emits CO2. What fools these mortals be...


March 29, 2010 10:28 PM

I completely agree with Asia on this. This "greenism" is led by the ilks of Al Gore and Obama - those who are elitist socialists. They talk down to other people. Al Gore himself has a 6,000 sq ft home that burns through tons of energy. When confronted, his people excused his own pollution and explained it away saying his environmental activism offsets his own polluting activities - it does work that way!

For the West to come to Asia, to China, India, Japan, and say "Open your markets to us" but cut back on your pollution - drive less, use less energy, use more expensive alternative energy, - and yet still demand cheaply made goods for Americans to buy is outrageous.

Lead by example! Why do fat Americans buy cheap, rainforest depleting beef? Why do fat Americans insist on buying large gasguzzling SUVs and use drive thrus? Why do fat Americans insist on buying 3,000 - 6,000 sq ft McMansions, clear cutting forests all bought on subprime loans? And for all that, Americans complain that the gov't doesn't give them enough money to buy homes, doesn't do enough to protect them from fatty meat-rich foods. They make NO strides to curb their own excesses and have the audacity to dictate to the rest of the world how to live?!

Why should the rest of the world live with less just because the US and the West says so - but THEY take no steps to live what they preach?

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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