Green the Public Square

The next president should include in his agenda the greening of all public facilities within 3 years. Such greening should be required of all federal facilities (from office buildings to prisons, from courts to military bases), and of all corporations that receive substantial amounts of federal funds in grants or contracts (e.g., Halliburton and Boeing). The same should be strongly urged for all state and local government facilities, for other public agencies (e.g., the nation's 35,000 school boards), and for the hundreds of thousands of not-for-profit organizations, such as the Gates, Ford, and Rockefeller foundations.

Granted, some public agencies already participate in some greening measures, but it's sporadic and not on a national level.

The greening of the public square should apply to all new facilities and tools (e.g., all new buildings should be required to meet basic green standards, all new vehicles to meet higher and rising CAFE standards, etc.) as well as to the retrofitting of old ones (through improved insulation, green roofs and so on). It should encompass both conservation (e.g., by turning off computers at night and on weekends and holidays) and requirements to purchase power from alternative, renewable sources (say, electricity produced by windmills rather than oil).

The greening of the public square would be self-financing.
The initial outlays would be provided by special bonds to be issued by a new greening authority. Those who receive the funds will be required to pay them back with interest by turning over half the savings they gain as a result of greening, until the funds and interest due have been repaid.

Such greening is for the common good to the fifth degree. Environmentalists have already pointed out (albeit not in these exact words) that green acts are winners to the fourth degree. They reduce our dependence on foreign oil; generate jobs at home; improve the climate; and stimulate our research and development, a major engine of a strong economy that is especially well-suited for the American place in the global economy. I add only that the greening of the public square also creates a powerful and reliable demand for new or improved green products by securing a mass market for them. Take the example of vehicles that are much more energy efficient than existing ones. To develop such vehicles requires a major outlay. If there is no secure and sizable market for such vehicles, car manufacturers and investors will be reluctant to make such investments. If, however, they knew that all new vehicles purchased by millions of public entities in the future would be required to meet ever higher CAFE standards, such investments would become much less risky. Moreover, such an ensured mass market would reduce the unit cost for the private sector.

Most discussions of greening focus on the private sector. However, the public sector is the best place to rush greening forward. It is much more amenable to national guidance than the private sector.

In short, there is much to be gained from greening the public square. The main losers would be the adversaries who are confronting us from Latin America to Eastern Europe, drawing on the funds and political leverage sky-high oil prices have granted them. That is, such greening provides yet another "win": more funds in our pockets, less in the hands of those who do not particularly love us.

Amitai Etzioni is Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University. For more discussion, see his book: Security First (Yale, 2007) or email: