Going far, quickly

Environmental and economic policy don't have to be at odds; in fact, what's good for one is good for the other"¦

We've heard that a lot through a series of recent elections, usually from candidates who sound like it's never been said before. Many of us believe it, partly from rational assessment and partly because we want to believe it. Because if you think that our kids and their kids have a chance to thrive only if we dramatically change our energy and consumption habits, and that as a practical matter we won't change if change means significant economic hardship, and if you're not ready to throw up your hands and give up on the whole damn thing, then the premise that economic and environmental values support each other has to be true.

But is it?

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On Thursday morning I was one of some 400 people packed into an industrial loft just across the river from downtown Portland to hear gubernatorial candidate Bill Bradbury talk about the thriving green economy he envisions for Oregon. His featured guest, visiting Oregon on a national book tour, was a man with some credibility on the subject; in the last decade he's won an Oscar, a Nobel Peace Prize and, say many who have pored over the data, a presidential election. "I'm here to speak proudly of my friend Bill Bradbury," Al Gore told the crowd. "I know this: This man will not let you down." He went on to praise the consistency and depth of Bradbury's environmental record, and how he was one of the first people Gore trained as an "Inconvenient Truth" presenter. "You will not hear a negative word from me about your distinguished former governor, John Kitzhaber," he added. "I'm not here to oppose him; I'm here for Bill."

So was the crowd. They stood and cheered as Gore passed the microphone to Bradbury, who called Oregon "the solar manufacturing capital of America."

"I'm running for governor because I want it to be the sustainable industry capital of the world," he said.

We've heard ideas like that before. Not so much what he said next: "But words without actions are just that: words." He probably stressed that point in reaction to what he singled out as the most common question he's hearing from voters across the state: How are you going to help us get back to work?

Here's how, Bradbury told the crowd: Let's support the vanguard of green businesses, those that advance sustainability in how they operate and what they produce, "in real and concrete ways," with tax credits and energy-efficiency requirements aimed at competitors who are more interested in cutting costs than reducing their impact on the environment. Let's shut down the aging and sprawling power plant in the northeast Oregon town of Boardman, part of Oregon's "dirty little secret" (which is that 40 percent of Oregon's energy is generated with coal). Let's say no to new liquified natural gas plants on Oregon's coast that would pipe what they process through the state to Northern California, because the imperative of cutting CO2 emissions makes it senseless to "make a new 30-year commitment to a fossil fuel." We know what we have to do, Bradbury said. "The only question is, will we do it?"

Maybe for the people in that room. But Oregonians who haven't bought into the possibilities of a green economy probably have other questions. They just might ask how we would replace the coal-fired megawatts that Boardman produces now, and at what cost. They probably want to know more about those green jobs that will result from targeted tax breaks. How many? How well would they pay?

There are some answers (we didn't hear them Thursday, but that's understandable; this was a campaign-launching rally for committed supporters). But they won't be exact. They can't be, because we're setting off into uncharted waters. And let's understand this: It's foolish to load the whole burden of proof onto the shoulders of green-economy pioneers to guarantee that their new strategies will bring happy days back here again. At least some of the burden goes to the nay-sayers: If you want to stick with fossil fuels and hyper-consumption, explain to us how that will lead us to high-quality jobs, restored prosperity and a livable environment. Details, please.

Even so, what came to me as I listened to one national and one state political leader is that there's an important role for green-economy believers. It's not to sit back and cheer, but to step into the role of constructive skeptics. We should be pushing political leaders we admire to deepen their research and sharpen their data, to make theoretical green jobs and economic activity as concrete and imaginable as yet-to-happen events can be. If we can't strengthen the evidence, our argument with the deep-dyed skeptics will be a lot like those we had on grammar school playgrounds: "Is too true!"

"Is not!"

"Is too!"

"Is not!"

"Too too too too too too too!"

"Not not not not not not not!"

One visual image from Thursday's Gore/Bradbury event won't soon fade away. They spoke underneath a big blue-and-white banner that said, "If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. We have to go far, quickly."

Jeff Golden is the author of "Forest Blood," "As If We Were Grownups" and the novel "Unafraid," with excerpts available at www.unafraidthebook.com.

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