Looking for Mr. (and Ms.) Goodrich

Bye-bye robber barons, hello next-gen cash machines! David Callahan exults in the Washington Post about today's enlightened billionaires and the twilight of the old style villainous extractors and manufacturers.

On one side are business leaders and shareholders who derive their wealth from resource extraction, fossil-fuel-based power generation and energy-intensive manufacturing -- they are the "dirty rich." On the other are business leaders who run knowledge or service companies that generate very little pollution -- the "clean rich."

The dirty rich are dying off, and the clean rich are coming of age.

Children of Light 1, Children of Darkness 0! But does economic dualism serve the environment or instead introduce what the French call a false clear idea? Extractive industries and manufacturing are essential even for developing greener technology. Wind turbines and solar panels are made of metals and minerals, too. Some mining and petroleum companies and their owners maybe sleazy, but others do the right thing. Many a green philanthropist is an heir of oil, steel, or automotive fortunes like some of the alleged dinosaurs cited in Mr. Callahan's piece. Does that make them evil? And if Chevron is developing ocean energy, does that make it clean? Even "Beyond Petroleum" BP was once owned by some environmental mutual funds.

Do Mr. Callahan's paragons really transcend the old industrial economy? Alice Walton, one of the "clean" rich, has inherited a fortune based on the big box store, with its 7,000 tractors and 50,000 trailers. Yes, Wal-Mart uses some hybrid Peterbilts, and is no doubt otherwise energy-efficient in its category, but it's still part of the highway-industrial complex. Likewise the financial fortunes that Mr. Callahan cites as "clean" derive in part from sprawl- and foreclosure-creating real estate deals.

Globally, old-style extractive, refining, and manufacturing remains alive, well, and more politically potent than ever, from Russian oligarchs in their London palaces to the Indian multi-billionaire who is building himself a 60-story single-family home in Mumbai. (See my friend Mark Reutter's site on the impact of overseas ownership on U.S. manufacturing.) Not that some of Mr. Callahan's holy green American hedge funders and software founders don't have megayachts and private jets of their own to display. But the real difference between the robber barons of yore and today's green rich is not the scale of living but the style of standing out  versus blending in. And unlike their peers of a hundred years ago, they don't like to be involved with smelly factories and personnel issues in their back yards, and they don't have to, when Chinese companies will do that for them. America's areas of poverty and high unemployment? They're just woefully deficient in "postmodern values."

What we don't have, either at home or abroad, is a green counterpart of the Rockefellers and Fords of a century ago, people making big fortunes creating employment with new technology. Yes, those bad old guys sent in the goons when the hands got uppity, but men and women still came from all over the world to work for them. The truly clean rich are what Gandhi said about Western civilization: they'd be a good idea.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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