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What Will Spark That Green Revolution?

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Even President Obama has been spotted reading Thomas Friedman’s best-selling book “Hot, Flat, and Crowded:  Why we need a green revolution and how it can save America,” which is this year’s One Book One Northwestern selection. 

All year, free public events will explore themes of the book, including two at which Friedman will speak during the inauguration celebration of Morton Schapiro as the 16th president of Northwestern.

But first, Evanston resident and environmental expert Kimberly Gray, professor of civil and environmental engineering in the Northwestern McCormick School of Engineering, will present “What Will Finally Spark That Green Revolution?” at a Science Café event on October 7. “Whether you’ve read the book or not, this will be a lively evening of food, drink, and conversation,” she says. Here’s a preview.

Kimberly GrayKimberly Gray

In his book, Thomas Friedman calls for economic policies that will unleash energy innovation. Is innovation the only answer?
Tom Friedman says our battle cry should be “Innovate Baby Innovate,” which is an unbelievable improvement over “Drill Baby Drill,” but I’m worried that the kind of technological innovation he advocates can’t do enough. There are all kinds of opportunities for sophisticated technology to help, but the framework should be different. We really to need to look backward to leap forward.  

What do you mean by ‘we should look backward to leap forward’?
The year 2007 was a record-setting year for the number of trademark filings, a metric of new and innovative products in the pipeline. And the single most commonly used word in these filings was the word “green.” This notion of green has been capitalized upon, but if you scratch below the surface, you see that all it does is make the consumer feel better. The consumer is still consuming in the same way. Unless we fundamentally change the framework, I worry we cannot reduce our carbon footprint by 80 percent in 40 years, which is what experts recommend.

The framework should foster innovations that let us do things the way we did in the era before cheap energy, like build buildings that use natural light and the local climate, so we are less dependent on carbon-based fuels. 

The framework should also better emulate and imitate natural ecological systems. Nature has all of these effective and elegant ways to clean itself. Look at wetlands—they’re nature’s kidneys. We are really good at draining them, but not so good a restoring them. 

In my own research, I try to develop materials that harvest CO2 from the environment and turn it into fuel.

Friedman also talks about energy efficiency. Will that do it?
Energy efficiency is actually a good example of something that makes us feel good, but doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It doesn’t reduce use of the resource, but rather increases it. For example, most of our homes and the devices in them are much more energy efficient than they were in the 1970s. But now, the houses are bigger and we have ten devices to every one we used then. 

And as Friedman rightly points out, this issue is not just for the developed world anymore. There are massive numbers of people around the world who want to emulate our lifestyle.

Kimberly Gray will present a Science Cafe titled "What Will Finally Spark That Green Revolution?" followed by group discussion on October 7 at 6:30 pm at the Celtic Knot, 626 Church Street, in Evanston. 

Other activities sponsored by One Book One Northwestern this fall include Mr. Friedman’s talks, a presentation by an expert landscaper on creating eco-friendly gardens, and an academic symposium on climate change. Visit their website for more information, including a list of all the free events that are open to the public. 

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