By SHELLEY RIGGER
An audience at Davidson College Wednesday fired tough questions one after another at experts on a panel about energy and sustainability at Davidson College, wondering why government and corporations aren’t doing more to address environmental and energy problems. Even the panel’s moderator Eric Roston, Bloomberg.com’s sustainability editor, got in on the act, asking whether “sustainability” – a central goal for all the panelists – is even meaningful. He pointed out that that an anagram for “sustainability” is “banality: it is us.”
The informal discussion at Duke Family Performance Hall included executives from Siemens Corp. and Duke Energy Corp., Charlotte Mayor (and Davidson alum) Anthony Foxx, and a Davidson environmental studies professor. It among a series of events at the college coinciding with this week’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.
And even as they answered questions, panelists had a few of their own.
Siemens CEO Eric Spiegel had a question for national leaders: Why are they unable lead the U.S. to European levels of performance on energy conservation and other environmental measures?
Panelist Vincent Davis, of Duke Energy’s “Envision Charlotte” initiative, asked the audience: If our company gives you the information you need to reduce your energy consumption, will you actually do it?
But the toughest questions came from the audience, a mix of students and others who came to press the experts on the issue of sustainability. One woman even brought a large colored pie chart painted on a bed sheet, as she challenge Duke Energy’s power generation plans for the next few decades.
The hard questions made for an interesting discussion in which four individuals charged with promoting sustainable energy practices acknowledged the difficulty of their task.
Mayor Foxx observed that while private businesses are able to make the case for sustainable practices that save money over the long run, in the public sector “we’re still responding to the knee jerk” opposition to increased spending, even when it will pay off later.
Graham Bullock, a Davidson College Environmental Politics professor and co-founder of GoodGuide, said giving consumers information they need to make environmentally-friendly purchasing decisions doesn’t necessarily mean they will choose “green” products.
Finding ways to quantify the costs of inaction and the benefits of action and making those costs and benefits clear to consumers, corporate managers and political leaders is a key to progress, Mr. Spiegel said.
Still, the panelists were more optimistic than the questioners. A persistent theme of the discussion was the degree to which concern for sustainability – which Mayor Foxx defined as “the creation of life patterns that can be repeated intergenerationally” – has become a mainstream value.
Mr. Spiegel said discussions like this one are a recent phenomenon, driven in part by the normalization of sustainability. As Prof. Bullock pointed out, the term “sustainability” is more flexible and less polarizing than “environmentalism,” which is often dismissed as “tree hugging.” Duke Energy’s Mr. Davis agreed, saying young workers are especially open to messages about energy efficiency, and expect their employers to adopt sustainable practices in the office.
The panelists concluded that cities are a promising venue for progress on energy issues. Global-scale efforts to address problems such as climate change often falter because of the massive coordination they require; individual conservation can seem pointless. A city like Charlotte, however, has the capacity to achieve meaningful results, such as Duke Energy’s goals of reducing energy consumption in the downtown core by 20 percent and halving its reliance on coal-based power generation.
Some in the audience remained skeptical – and no one was arguing that luring more Charlotte commuters onto buses will end climate change. Nonetheless, the panelists made a strong case that while there is no “big fix” for our energy sustainability problems, individuals, communities and corporations taking many different measures simultaneously not only can improve the outlook for our energy future, but already are making a difference.
Watch a video replay of the panel discussion and Q&A on the Daybook Davidson blog