On this Earth Day, pause to consider the true meaning of “going green.”
The phrase has become synonymous with environmental protection, sensibility and consciousness, but its overuse threatens to turn it into a cliché. Not everything that says it’s green is really green.
Maine has a great example coming up in November, in a referendum question to cut municipal excise taxes while providing new tax incentives for purchasing hybrid vehicles. Is slashing local tax revenue — regardless of how many hybrids Mainers buy — really good for the planet?
New research would say absolutely not. In an ironic twist, economists are finding that the old-fashioned definition of “green” — as in the precious hue of currency — is a most integral part of environmental protection. Earning green is actually going green, as it were.
Here’s how. In a New York Times piece published Tuesday, science columnist John Tierney detailed several academic examinations of economic effects on environmental progress. There is thought today that the global recession will hurt “green” efforts. The data says it will, but only temporarily.
It appears environmental gains are tied to only one thing — economic development, and the growth of affluence in a society. It takes money to go green. And recessions only constitute an intermission in gradual environmental progress that comes with a society reaching ever-higher standards of living.
Grand initiatives might not work, is another point, especially from government, which can excel at setting goals but may lack the ability to create the conditions to achieve them. In Maine, we have firm goals of electrical generation through wind power and for the weatherization of homes, for example.
Accomplishing these goals will take more than government willpower.
A potent economic atmosphere that makes such efforts not only possible, but viable, will be key. That will take money, and more so than the likely one-time interjection of federal stimulus or the carrots of tax incentives.
The paradox, of course, is that the growth of economies is often at odds with goals of environmental protection. The recent explosion of the Chinese manufacturing economy, for example, caused a tremendous increase in greenhouse gas emissions. But evidence now suggests that without this economic growth, and subsequent wealth, those same environmental goals will never be achieved.
But that’s the international view. Let’s bring it home for a second, for this Earth Day. The day-to-day environmental actions we all should take — recycling, carpooling, composting, etc. — are imperative, but they are small efforts within a bigger movement that is tied to our development and affluence as a society.
In short, it takes green to go green. Tax revenue to towns and cities is used to improve drinking water systems, sewage treatment, energy-efficiency projects and other initiatives to benefit the environment overall. So would harming this ability through slashing the excise tax be good for the planet?
We’d bet you a hybrid it is not.

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