Before frequent flier miles and credit card points, there were S&H Green Stamps. As as kid, I remember my mother saving the stamps that we collected from supermarkets and gas stations, sticking them into books and then turning them in for gifts, like transistor radios or a toaster. (During the 1960s, about 80% of U.S. homes collected green stamps, and the company printed more stamps than the post office, according to this story from The New York Times.) Not long after, as an undergraduate at Yale, I remember many happy hours studying in the the underground reading rooms of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The Beinecke (pronounced buy-nicky) collection includes a copy of the Gutenberg Bible about which, it was said, the librarians turn a page every day.
I never connected those memories until last week when I had lunch with Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, whose family gave the money to build the library. It turns out that she entered Yale, as I did, in 1969, and so I asked her where the money to build the library came from. She told me that her family made its fortune from S&H Green Stampsâ€”which were especially popular with the post-World War II, post-Depression generation that had the patience to collect and save the stamps until they had enough books to warrant a visit to the redemption center. They were a more frugal generation than the Baby Boomers they raised, and they were also willing and able to save for the future. Americans today are more likely to â€œbuy nowâ€ and â€œpay later.â€ Alarmingly, our personal savings rate dipped into “negative” territory a couple of years ago, meaning that, collectively, we spend more money than we earn, as this chart from the Commerce Department shows.
No wonder we are struggling as a culture to come to grips with the problem of climate change. Unlike, say, pollution that soils rivers and lakes or the smog that makes the air harder to breathe, climate change is a (mostly) invisible environmental problem that is going to affect our children and grandchildren more than it will bother us. It requires thinking and planning ahead, and making some sacrifices. It requires conservation, and a longer term mindset. Do you see the connection to Green Stamps? (OK, I admit itâ€™s a bit of a stretch.)
Back to Beinecke. She has worked at NRDC since 1973, when she began an intern while doing graduate work at Yaleâ€™s school of forestry. She worked on land use issues for many years, took time time off when she had her three children and became the groupâ€™s second president, succeeding John Adams, last year. Her focus will be climate change, which is the No. 1 issue for all of the 25 environmental organizations that make up a loose coalition known as the â€œgreen group.â€
To address climate change, Beinecke told me, weâ€™ll have to do many things right. One is not especially controversial: We have to use energy much more efficiently. California provides a roadmapâ€”its economy has grown in the last 25 years, but its consumption of energy has stayed almost flat. Energy efficiency will be driven by regulatory changes (decoupling utility company profits from the electricity they sell), higher minimum standards for appliances and buildings, and personal choices (CFL light bulbs and smaller cars). â€œEfficiency is the cheapest and easiest way to save energy and reduce emissions,â€ Beinecke said.
The NRDC also supports â€œclean coal,â€ which provokes a lot more arguments. The idea is to generate electricity from coal using technology that captures carbon dioxide emissions and stores them deep underground. Utility companies say this is not yet practical or economical. Other environmentalists argue that â€œclean coalâ€ is an oxymoron, and that we need to shift the global economy more rapidly towards renewables. For her part, Beinecke says there are more than 150 coal plants in the planning stages in the U.S., that many of them are going to get built and that carbon capture and storage is the only practical way to make sure they donâ€™t make the problem of climate change a lot worse.
Whatever path we follow, solving the climate change problem is going to require making some sacrifices today to save the planet for our children and grandchildren. A bit harder than saving Green Stamps but the stakes are a lot higher.