Moving Green Forward, One Step at a Time

Steven Johnson, in his book Where Good Ideas Come From (read an excerpt here) explained that great ideas, the ones that transform the marketplace, are based on the “adjacent possible:”

The phrase captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation. In the case of prebiotic chemistry, the adjacent possible defines all those molecular reactions that were directly achievable in the primordial soup. Sunflowers and mosquitoes and brains exist outside that circle of possibility. The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.

Treehugger reports today that a cutting-edge green community, breaking ground both in its design and its site (it was gentrifying an historically lower income, African-American community) is facing foreclosure. The explanation, in part, is because the development skipped ahead of the adjacent possible:

This was a cutting edge design, by the greenest of cutting-edge architects. Most developers build the same thing over and over again so that they get to know their costs really accurately; when you are the first, you don't. You build in contingencies, and may even benefit from the fact that in a downturn, construction costs drop significantly, but green roofs, solar thermal hot water and other green features cost money. Purchasers are not often willing to pay their full value because they are thinking about investment and resale, and banks don't make it easy to get mortgages on the green goodies, so your margins on a green, innovative or different building are often smaller.

Move one square to the left, and you are a genius. Skip over a square, and you are a failure, ahead of your time. This seems to be one of the classic problems with the green movement. We try to skip over steps, assuming that the rest of society will make the leap with us. Not so. 

With respect to cap-and-trade, there has been significant argument that its advocacy skipped a vital step—linking cap-and-trade to where the American public is now. In the Daily Kos, Frank Luntz, the pollster and wordsmith, had this to say about bringing climate change into the adjacent possible:

Luntz's report, "The Language of a Clean Energy Economy," finds that the majority of the public across the political spectrum is convinced that global warming is happening and caused at least in part by humans. But, Luntz says, talking about the problem won't win support for the legislation that would solve it. Among both Democrats and Republicans polled by his firm, addressing climate change was the least important reason to support a cap-and-trade policy.

So what should environmentalists say instead? Luntz suggests less talk of dying polar bears and more emphasis on how legislation will create jobs, make the planet healthier and decrease US dependence on foreign oil.

In innovation, there are no skipped steps. Moving from the present to the adjacent possible is the only route to transformation, one step at a time. Many have argued that there is no time for incremental change, but moving along the continuum of the adjacent possible does not necessarily mean a lengthy timeframe. Rather, it means linking the next vision to the one we are already connected to. For example, the internet went from text based pages to picture to video to facebook in just over a decade.

Now let me bring this back to law. Laws, regulations and programs promoting green and energy efficient construction must build on the adjacent possible. When they do not, as in the IRS Bond Requirements for the Destiny USA Project (which mandated completely unattainable green features and job creation obligations), they are destined for failure. When they do, like the 1603 grant for solar power (great article on 1603 grant results here), they can spur a whole industry forward and radically reduce the price of solar panels. 

As of February 25, 2011, a total of 7,180 alternative energy projects were funded through the §1603 program, totally $6.4 Billion in Treasury funding...Whereas solar P.V. installations in 2010 grew by 114% over 2009, netting $757 Million in 1603 grants, industry analysts forecast that solar installation will grow by an even larger factor through 2011. Solar has been receiving more attention in recent months from consumers, industry analysts and property owners alike. This attention has raised awareness of the benefits to installing solar, resulting in a spike in ground mounted and rooftop P.V. installation. In 2011 and beyond, the authors are confident improved technology and increased economic incentives will meet with this awareness to result in a marked increase in the amount of cash grants dedicated to solar technology.

The most audacious ideas are those that build on what already works, and makes it better, faster and more impactful. The same is true for regulation. Move forward to the adjacent possible, one step at a time.

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