Stimulate Greening in the Public Square II

A good debate has started as to the size of the stimulus package the economy badly needs, and above all regarding what it should include. I suggest that paying in part for the greening of all public facilities should be included. I urge focusing on public facilities because these are much more amenable to guidance from the government, and hence one can expect much bang for the buck and much quicker results than if one deals with the private sector.

We first called for greening public facilities here on September 5th, 2008. On Saturday, December 6th, President-elect Obama announced, as part of his economic plan, that "...we will launch a massive effort to make public buildings more energy-efficient. Our government now pays the highest energy bill in the world. We need to change that. We need to upgrade our federal buildings by replacing old heating systems and installing efficient light bulbs." Of course, no claim of credit is implied, merely delight that this position is gaining the attention it deserves.

Greening should be required of all federal facilities (from office buildings and prisons, to courts and military bases), and of all corporations that receive a substantial amount of federal funds in grants or contracts (e.g., Halliburton and Boeing). It should be required of all who receive new funds under the stimulus package that they use part of these funds to green their facilities, a requirement that should include state and local governments as well as other public agencies (e.g., the nation's 35,000 school boards). Greening should also be asked of the hundreds of thousands of not-for-profit organizations, such as the Gates, Ford, and Rockefeller foundations, that benefit from tax privileges. (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 be set as a requirement for 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.) and applied 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).

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. These products would of course also be available to the private sector; however, we can access them much more quickly in this way then if we first wait for the private sector to build them. After all government investment in research and development is the way we got computers, the internet, microwave ovens, satellites, and commercial aviation technology.

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, to reiterate, the public sector is the best place to rush greening forward. It is much more amenable to national guidance than the private sector. The military can be ordered by the commander in chief. Agencies can be turned around by Congress and state legislatures. In contrast, if the government seeks to impose its preferences on the private sector, it either has to pay through the nose or face the charges that it is weakening the economy by imposing various mandates. I am not suggesting that the private sector should not be encouraged to participate in the grand greening drive, but that it is much easier to move the public sector.

There is no reason for the stimulus package to pay in full for the greening at hand. A substantial amount of seed money should suffice. The rest can be funded by special bonds to be paid off by the savings the various agencies will reap by greening their facilities. For instance, for every ten thousand dollar reduction they experience in their electricity bill, five thousand should go to pay off the greening costs, and the rest could be used by the agency involved as they deem fit.

In short, there is much to be gained from focusing on 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 which selling oil grants them. That is, such greening provides yet another "win": more funds in our pockets, less in the hands of those who do not particularly care about our well being or that of people in other parts of the free world.

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