Doors of Green Perception: The First Step to Going Green is Putting the Cart Before the Horse

Paul McGinniss chats with Craig Newmark of craigslist about the state of sustainability here in the Big Apple as compared with Craig’s native San Francisco.

Paul McGinniss Talks with Craig Newmark at Inman News Real Connect NYC 2008

Yes, New Yorkers are always in a hurry. We always seem to be moving too fast. But lately I’ve been thinking that, maybe, despite all the fast paced running around, we’re not moving fast enough.

And maybe that’s because we think New York City is the center of the universe and every other city out there needs to be just like us.

Hold on a minute. Maybe other people in other places have figured out something we haven’t. People on the West Coast, for instance. So who better to ask than San Francisco resident and worldwide legend Craig Newmark of craigslist fame?

Last year when I went to the Inman News Real Connect in Midtown, I heard Craig speak on a panel and I remember him saying that real estate in New York City is a “blood sport” and how much different it is than in many other cities across the United States, including San Francisco. I can’t argue with Craig because, as a real estate broker here for many years, I know that New York City real estate is, in fact, a blood sport of sorts, as if somehow we’re all buy low, sell high vampires looking for the next real estate killing, whether we’re a developer, doorman, builder or bartender.

Unfortunately, last year at Real Connect I was feeling a bit under the weather, so I did not go over and speak with Craig when I saw him. I promised myself that if Craig came back this year, I would go say hello and ask him a few questions. (I told all my friends last year that I did meet Craig as he’s somewhat of a legend and it just sounded so good.)

This year, Craig’s notion of real estate as a blood sport was reinforced. Right as I was waiting on line to speak with him a broker from a New York company literally cut right in front of me, as if I wasn’t standing there, only to tell Craig how he’d “made so much money off of craigslist” and proceeded to take a picture of himself with Craig. Surely he put it in the file of pictures of himself with famous people. (Okay, so a press photographer at Real Connect happened to take my picture with Craig for this article. Who’s perfect?)

Being a total green fanatic, I thought I would focus my conversation with Craig about San Francisco versus New York in terms of each being a sustainable city, though there was a very specific reason why I wanted to do so. In the past few months, several people from San Francisco who recently moved to Gotham to work in the New York offices of California-based companies have called for advice on local green resources. I ended up talking with them, and these folks told me that New Yorkers seem pretty oblivious to being green and that the city as a whole just did not seem that focused on or concerned about the green awakening. One of the callers actually told me that compared to San Francisco, New York was in the dark ages when it came to being green. One of the biggest concerns for the callers was that other than paper, no recycling is performed in their office buildings.

Being totally immersed in all things green in New York, and constantly going to green-related events, I’ve thought that New Yorkers were generally doing okay. For me, this past fall was a flurry of green events, and in the next few months I’m going to a green consumer expo, a green electronic gadget show, a green materials seminar, a USGBC event, Green Drinks, and the list continues. It seems that every time I turn around I’m meeting other green New Yorkers who really care about sustainable issues and are walking the green walk. What’s more, back in December of 2006, Mayor Bloomberg announced his PlaNYC 2030, which was billed as a “plan that can become a model for cities in the 21st century” and focuses on 5 key dimensions of the city’s environment and intends to contribute to a 30% reduction in global warming emissions.

Not being sure what to think about all this, I thought I’d ask Craig some questions to get some perspective. Who would have better insight than a guy who lives in San Francisco and does customer service for web site that gets some 27 million hits per month? So I asked him how San Francisco compares to New York City in terms of being green and green awareness.

Craig prefaced his comments by saying that he didn’t have the answers and could only give his opinion. He went on to say that “in San Francisco, being green is perceived as more fashionable, and it is perceived that people are more aware and this perception feeds on itself. For example, for a mixture of reasons our Governor is supposed to be behind this stuff and San Francisco as a city is as well.” I followed up by asking him whether Governor Schwarzenegger was truly behind these efforts. Craig responded that he finds it “hard to distinguish hype from reality. When George Bush talks about these things you know he is faking it because there’s no follow through. In the city of San Francisco there is follow through. For instance, today I just got an estimate to do an energy audit at my house. Not just to use less electricity but less heat and less energy.”

Craig told me that he’s looking at alternative power for his house, but he’s not sure of potential for solar because his roof is shaded during winter days. He also told me that Martin Roscheisen, the CEO of Nanosolar, is a semi-regular at his neighborhood coffee house so he’s able to ask Martin for advice. (Nanosolar’s backers include the Google founders, and back in December London’s Guardian said that British scientists hailed its mass-produced, wafer-thin solar cells as a “revolution” in generating electricity. The solar panels produced by Nanosolar are radically different from the way most solar panels generate power from roofs. Printed like a newspaper directly on to aluminum foil, they are flexible, light and, reportedly will make it as cheap to produce electricity from sunlight as from coal.)

Sounds like Craig will be getting some good advice at his local coffee house.

I asked Craig if he thought that the Mayor of San Francisco was committed to green issues and he said he thought that their Mayor did seem to be seriously committed as was various government and non-government groups which were also trying to make things happen.

Towards the end of the interview I asked him again what he thought about New York in terms of sustainability and he said that there is “perhaps a lack of perception and this lack of green perception means a lack of critical mass. I’m sure there are lots of people who are interested. But I have the feeling that perception in longing. Somehow there does seem to have been a migration west in the past of green thinking people and perhaps because there was more sun in much of California that things like solar power took off more quickly.” (Thankfully, of course, new solar technology is enabling better efficiency even with less sun so places like New York are now able to use solar with much better results)

After I spoke with Craig I thought that perhaps being green does start with a matter of perception. I kept thinking about what he said- that “perception feeds itself.” Maybe the first step to being truly green is just thinking green- perceiving sustainability, and having the perception that New York is a green city. Accordingly, if enough of us start thinking green we’ll reach a critical mass. Of course we’ll need to follow through with real programs, but after talking with Craig I realized that perhaps it’s now okay to put the cart before the horse, and swap the accepted order of things. The Greeks called this phrase “histeron proteron”, which translates in English to “preposterous.” Let’s be preposterous and open the green doors of perception and perceive green all around us.

If a guy who started a simple web site that attracts almost 30 million viewers a month thinks perhaps it’s all about perception and that perception feeds on itself, well, maybe it’s time to be just a little preposterous. And if enough of us start opening the green doors of perception surely the Big Apple’s green day will come.

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