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When Politicians Can't Be Entrepreneurial, Entrepreneurs Must Be Political

Mark Marich

Guest post by Byron Kennard 

Byron KennardIs DC defunct? It sure seems that way. Just about everybody is bemoaning Washington’s dysfunctional political system. According to a recent Rasmussen Poll, 73 percent of respondents consider the system “broken.”  Only 15 percent think it workable. Fifteen percent?!  Louis XVI had higher public approval ratings on the day the Bastille fell. What’s next? A guillotine installed on Lafayette Square?

Now, ordinarily, I’m a meek, peace-loving fellow but when I contemplate the chronic and abysmal failure of the Washington system to address global warming I wouldn’t mind seeing a few heads roll down Pennsylvania Avenue. But these bloody fantasies are vanquished by a reassuring thought: sometimes the market does things that the government can’t or won’t do.  

Government, we know, is often beleaguered, trying to please many masters and ending up pleasing none of them very much. But we can always throw the rascals out, can’t we? In contrast, the market works through impersonal forces that have their way with us, like it or not. Since the market is imperfect, the results are mixed, sometimes bad and sometimes good.

When it comes to global warming, the results are good. While Congress has been dithering, a swarm of entrepreneurs has seen the opportunities in this crisis and has rushed to exploit them, in the process creating many new green technological innovations.   

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to these entrepreneurs, most of whom, by the way, are struggling small business people often forced to play on a field that’s uneven. But thanks to their perseverance, we now have in our possession all the technology we need to combat the threat of global warming. 

Here’s evidence to back up this claim.  Energy guru Scott Sklar, who was for fifteen years Executive Director of the Solar Energy Industries Association, has collected 23 studies that, he argues, “show how commercially-available energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies can meet all of the world’s and the United States' energy growth without fossil fuels (petroleum and coal) and nuclear energy."   

Sklar’s collection, for example, encompasses options for commercial building rooftops, probably the most wasted real estate in the country. They soak up huge amounts of solar energy that could be used to generate electricity. A report of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory asserts that 22% of all buildings could be zero-energy consumers using today’s solar roof technology.

All 23 studies are recent. Most emanate from Federal agencies and national laboratories.  According to Sklar, an aggregation of the most conservative estimates of these studies adds up to more than 100% of U.S. future energy needs.  

More powerful evidence along these lines is available from the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, which regularly briefs Congress on the availability of new low-carbon, efficient energy technologies. And the annual Congressional Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency Expo showcases scores of these technologies.  

This cornucopia of clean technology benefits the nation, the planet, and humanity in general. It’s been quietly produced while all the partisan fuss and ideological bother in Washington garnered the headlines – as if the only game worth playing is the government game.  Thank goodness, that’s not true.  So maybe the public has been watching the wrong game. Maybe the public should be watching the entrepreneurial game that Sklar watches. There they’d find something to cheer about.  

What this boils to down is a willingness to take a risk.   

Entrepreneurs embrace risk while politicians – most of them – are risk-adverse. Or, maybe, to be fair I should rephrase this observation to state that entrepreneurs can afford to take risks that politicians cannot. Too many voters crave reassurance that cheap and abundant energy will be available always and forever, and too many politicians are ready, willing and able to provide it. (“Drill baby, drill!”)  

I’ve always been morbidly fascinated by the fact that, as Presidential candidates, neither Al Gore in 2000 nor John Kerry in 2004 dared to mention global warming – even though the two of them were then among the best informed and most concerned individuals on the planet. Their handlers, it seems, absolutely forbade them to bring the subject up. 

We should thank our lucky stars that entrepreneurs are there to provide an alternative leadership when our political system fails us.  Now the job is to deploy all this wonderful new technology throughout the nation. Government can and should play a role in this deployment, if only to level the playing field. But whether government does its job or fails to, I trust that entrepreneurs will find a way to complete the green revolution they’ve begun. 

So let’s cancel that order for a guillotine and, instead, let’s organize a big parade down Pennsylvania Avenue to honor America’s green entrepreneurs.  

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Byron Kennard is Executive Director of the Center for Small Business and the Environment, a non-profit organization located in Washington, DC

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