Entrepreneurship as a Green Political Strategy

Entrepreneurship as a Green Political Strategy

Can entrepreneurial small businesses save the planet? Maybe they can -- one innovation at a time. Here's an example. The 1.3 million long-haul trucks operating in America waste 4.4 billion gallons of diesel fuel each year when drivers stop to rest and leave their engine idling. (Amazingly, 2.6 % of all the foreign oil we import is consumed in this manner.) Thanks to IdleAire Technologies Corp., a new small business in Knoxville, Tennessee, this problem may soon be eliminated. IdleAire has developed a technology that allows long-haul truck drivers to heat and cool their cabs without having to idle their engines.

IdleAire installs individual heat and air units above parking spaces at truck stops. A tube attaches these units to a console that allows drivers to turn off their engines and adjust temperatures as needed. Besides reducing emissions, the technology saves the trucking industry money. Even with a charge of $10 for eight hours of IdleAire service, truck owners save as much as 40 percent over the cost of fuel. And drivers are given a safer, quieter sleeping environment while neighborhoods close to truck stops are exposed to far less air and noise pollution.

IdleAire is not alone. (For other examples, visit www.greengazelles.org.) In fact, there are approximately 350,000 entrepreneurial small businesses in America that have been classified as gazelles -- the nickname applied to innovative, fast-growing small firms. Many of these small businesses are profiting by producing or using innovations that solve or reduce environmental problems and that dramatically increase efficiency and resource productivity. This makes them green gazelles and, cumulatively, their creative power is one of the planet's best political hopes for survival. Here are six reasons why I think so.

1. Technological innovation is what humans do best.

Democratic voluntary collaboration for the common good is the ideal of social movements, but in fact it's very hard to achieve. I can’t help recalling something that folksinger/environmentalist Pete Seeger once told me. I asked Pete what he thought was the most important thing environmentalists should know. “Learn how to work together,” he answered. “I know that sounds simple, but actually it’s the hardest thing in the world.” What comes easy to humans is technological innovation. From our cave-dwelling days onwards, that's always been what we do best. Let's go with the flow.

2. Technology is often more creative and powerful than laws and regulations.

Irving Berlin once declared, "I'd rather write the nation's songs than the nation's laws." As for me, I'd rather choose the nation's technologies than write the nation's laws. Technological innovation usually determines reality, like it or not.

One hundred years ago today's industrial giants were themselves small, struggling innovations. But they possessed the innate power to impose themselves on society. For example, what law could have effectively prevented the manufacture and sale of the automobile? The useful new tool comes along and everything must follow in its wake. Environmentalists should harness this power.

Here's a simple example. Old paint guns used in auto repair shops waste 40 percent of the paint -- which becomes pollution. New, innovative paint guns achieve 85 percent efficiency. Why waste paint, particularly when a new paint gun will soon pay for itself in reduced paint costs? And the shop owner who doesn’t make this investment will face competitors who gain advantages by doing so.

3. Technology leapfrogs over partisan and ideological barriers.

Entrepreneurs focus on solutions, not on partisanship or ideology. That's why Green Gazelles can leapfrog over political barriers to progress. They aren't entangled in ancient, bitter partisan rivalries and irreconcilable ideological disputes. IdleAire's technology, for example, is not Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative. But it's a solution that can appeal to both sides of the aisle.

4. Technology creates jobs and economic opportunity.

From Earth Day on, two accusations have been hurled at the environmental movement: (1) that environmental protection destroys jobs and (2) that it harms small businesses. These accusations have hurt. Images of loggers on welfare, and of Mom and Pop being thrown out of business have repeatedly blocked environmental progress.

Now these images can and should be supplanted by the image of Green Gazelles. By definition, Green Gazelles create jobs. (IdleAire, for example, expects to create 3000 jobs.) By definition, Green Gazelles are small businesses profiting because they protect the environment.

5. Technological innovation is often easier and more efficient than political solutions.

Politics is slow, cumbersome and fractious work. To start with, environmentalists must work hard to win elections, and often they lose. If they do win, then they must work hard to get the official they've help elect to deliver on commitments. Politicians often waver when pressured by the other side.

Environmentalists work hard to get a law enacted, and even if they succeed, what they want usually gets watered down in the process of passage. Then they must work hard to get regulations issued, and then to get them enforced. Years of struggle can go by with little progress being made.

In contrast, imagine a system wherein millions of energetic, highly committed people work their tails off to demonstrate that they’ve got a better idea. What's more, they're willing to bet all they possess on their new idea even though the possibility of failure is extremely high. The process is incredibly tough and unforgiving. The rules of the game are harsh but clear. Risk-takers who win are amply rewarded, sometimes fabulously so. And society is benefited because a better mousetrap has been built. That's entrepreneurship.

6. There's a huge political constituency to support such a strategy.

Technology is not Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative. Its appeal is across the board. Here's how this can work to the political advantage of the environmental movement. According to the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press, “new economy voters” -- workers and executives in the technology sector -- made up about one third of the electorate in the last Presidential election. These voters are fiscal conservatives who tend to be pro-business, pro-choice, liberal to moderate on social issues and deeply pro-environment. They are also suspicious of big government.

Clearly, massive political support exists for an environmental strategy that's both pro-business and pro-environment. And entrepreneurs offer non-bureaucratic solutions that do not depend on massive new federal legislation, government regulation or large-scale, costly new programs. It's a platform to win on.

Byron Kennard is executive director of the Center for Small Business and the Environment.