I have written before about how the word ‘sustainable’ is frequently abused. People often refer to anything done with the slightest bit of environmental awareness as ‘sustainable’. Thus, it is ‘sustainable’ to bring your own mug to Starbucks or turn off the lights when you leave the room. In reality, a sustainable process or situation is one that can be carried on indefinitely. Sustainable electricity generation must be based on renewable sources of energy, and sustainable agriculture must have no non-renewable inputs.
If anything, the word ‘green’ is even more abused than the word ‘sustainable’. The U.S. Air Force claims that its synthetic jet fuel is ‘green’ even though it is made with fossil fuels. Any time there is a marginal improvement in a dirty process, it is heralded as a ‘green’ accomplishment.
None of this is to say that small improvements don’t matter. The global energy system needs to be reformed from the ground up, in big ways as well as small. What I am arguing is that we should not allow the definition of words like ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ to be diluted to the point where they are just public relations tools. A green initiative or innovation is one that contributes meaningfully to the kind of sustainable world we need to build. It is not just something that can be marketed to those who find it chic to care about the environment.