A few weeks ago, I highlighted a post by Mathew Honan which pointed to former gubernatorial candidate Steve Westly using his campaign mailing list to promote Akeena Solar without bothering to disclose that he's an investor and sits on the company's advisory board. Which prompted Akeena design consultant Jamie Belliveau to write me personally: "In your recent Valleywag article, are you implying that Steve Westly is doing something wrong by promoting alternative energy solutions in the Bay Area?" Look, I have nothing against renewable energy, but I'm not willing to hand out an ethical free pass just because some wealthy capitalist is in the business of selling solar panels instead of gas-guzzling SUVs. Belliveau disagrees.
My counterpoint is that it’s hard to criticize a guy who’s made millions of dollars on a company like eBay and then goes spending it on technology development and integration that will promote the alternative energy economy, no? We’re talking about an industry that simultaneously improves our economy and national security while lowering greenhouse gas emissions and water usage from power generation. The fact is that there are many solar installers out there of questionable skill level. Westly invests in and promotes Akeena because he knows we’re one of the best, and people will be well taken care of when purchasing from us. At some point, it’s not worth criticizing and we should applaud people for their efforts. If your mom makes you a sandwich for lunch, are you going to get mad at her for not telling you what’s in it?For starters, if Westly was so eager to promote Akeena to people who presumably trust his judgement (like campaign contributors), one would think that his willingness to invest in the company would be a point of pride. But according to Belliveau's logic, the alternative energy industry is good, investors and proponents of said industry are well-intentioned, and all of it is therefore above criticism. This sentiment is not unique to Belliveau — and the argument sounds like something you'd hear from a recently born-again Christian willing to eschew reason in favor of the pious faith that their own decisions, and the judgment of church leaders, is beyond reproach because they are blessed by God. Which doesn't surprise me, as I've long argued that the style of rhetoric employed by Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth borrowed heavily from the genre of end-times sermons which he surely studied in his time at Vanderbilt's Divinity School and probably heard growing up in Tennessee. It's this uncritical perspective that feeds the greenwashing publicity machine that allows companies like Exxon to reap windfall oil profits on the one hand while painting itself as an environmental crusader on the other. Or Google to garner praise for its plug-in hybrid program and electric car investments while the CEO and founders jet around the globe in not one but two private planes which measure fuel consumption in gallons per minute. So three cheers for Westly as champion for the environment, but let's be honest — he's a typical Valley entrepreneur who sees an opportunity to make money and lots of it, just as Al Gore promised to the faithful in his own self-interested way. So are we supposed to throw out commonsense ethics in the name of Mother Earth? Just because Mom packed you a baloney sandwich doesn't mean you have to eat it.