Going for the green

It's a pretty basic question, but of course there is no basic "yes or no" answer. Some prognosticators have estimated that when you combine the current pace of the U.S. economy with the torrid expansion of China's economy, the amount of readily available oil to run all those vehicles and heat and cool all those homes will start running out within a single generation. The better the economy, these analysts predict, the quicker we'll deplete our supply of oil.

Then there's the school of thought that argues that rather than waiting till it's all gone, we should stop using the oil that we have right now because a century of burning the stuff has finally caught up to us and is largely to blame for global warming trends. Al Gore is back in the news and staging his improbably political comeback on the strength of his new documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," which argues for the development and adoption of alternative sources of energy. The underlying premise of the film is simply this: If you're still relying on traditional energy sources, like oil and gasoline, knock it off already.

Having gotten a lot of mileage out of his " globalization is good" book The World Is Flat, Thomas Friedman has moved on to champion environmentalism in a crusade that might well be titled, "The World Is Green." Friedman recently told Newsweek magazine, "Being green is going to be a source of so much industry in the 21st century, whether it's green appliances, green design, green manufacturing, green consulting. Green is the new red, white and blue."

The implication is clear: If your business relies on the use and consumption of massive amounts of fossil fuels, then not only are you unpatriotic, but you're hastening the meltdown of the entire planet. And when you consider that the transportation industry by its very nature consumes more fuel than anybody else, plus a number of influential advocacy groups just don't seem to like seeing trucks on the highway, logistics once again ends up playing the bad guy.

Once upon a time in America, transportation workers and infrastructure builders had such a tremendous public image that they ended up mythologized as national heroes. I grew up hearing the stories of John Henry and Casey Jones and Paul Bunyan, folk legends whose heroics centered not so much on their prodigious strength or tenacity so much as their ability to make something out of nothing — to turn a vast wilderness into a bustling economic force the likes of which this world has never seen.

These tall tales helped a young nation create its own identity as a community of people who would never give up, who would never take "no" for an answer, and who saw endless opportunities beyond every horizon. For generation after generation, we celebrated those pioneers whose vision kept them constantly on the move, and who brought the rest of us along with them — the railroad workers, the whalers, the cowboys, the barnstormers, and in more recent memory, the truck drivers. Transportation was their lifeblood, just as their feats fed a nation always ready for a new challenge.

Then something happened. Coincidentally or not, it seems that the public image of the logistics industry started its decline about the same time deregulation took hold in the early 1980s. Even though the roads are in better condition today, and trucks are more environmentally friendly, and the entire transportation industry is more efficient today than ever before, the industry's image has evolved from positive connotations — honest, dependable, hard-working, adventurous — to decidedly negative ones — air polluting, technology-phobic, asleep at the wheel, greedy and surcharge-happy.

These stereotypes are of course unfair, but they're dominant in certain circles that carry both economic and political clout. So let's not kid ourselves that public relations isn't a vital component to getting the nation's lawmakers to spend more time and money on improving the state of the logistics industry.

If we assume that Friedman is right, that the world is indeed going green, then maybe it's time to celebrate a new breed of folk heroes — the hard-working shippers who keep the country's economy rolling by ensuring that goods and services are delivered on time all the time while doing their part to keep the environment clean and safe. Those are the stories that ought to be told, and told often.

This is my final issue as editor-in-chief of Logistics Today. I won't be moving very far — just down the hall, actually, to take on the role of editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek. Our paths may very well cross again, but I'd like to take this opportunity to thank my staff, as well as all of you in the logistics community, for your consummate professionalism, dedication and integrity. You're all heroes in my book.

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