The Long Green Tail

I want to put an idea out there that I think is going to be very important to the long-term question of sustainability. The good news is that there’s a catchy name for the idea, so hopefully it will stick around.

This idea originated with Steve Heller, one of the senior scientists here at Sun Labs. Steve’s observation is that there are some major shifts that will (hopefully) happen that will get us a long way to sustainability, but that there are a very large number of small things that will have to happen as well. Steve realized that this sounds a lot like the popular “Long Tail” power curve that’s suddenly ubiquitous, so he named it the Long Green Tail.

In this case the horizontal axis are events or changes that result in lower energy usage or GHG emissions reductions, and the vertical access is the environmental or sustainability impact of those events. Like other power curves, there’s a small number of changes that have a large effect, and a very large number of changes which each have a very small effect, but in aggregate can have a major impact due to the large number of them.

Under the left side of the curve you can expect to see events like major investments in alternative energy, shifts in the efficiency of the operating vehicle fleet, and efficiency gains in office buildings. Each of these events would represent a major stride toward sustainability. Although individuals are involved in these at various levels, they are more driven by a mix of technology, legislation (through laws, building codes, incentives, etc) and macro economics.

Under the right side of the curve (the Long Green Tail), there’s a very large number of changes, each of which has a small impact by itself, but when you add them all up the total is important. This is the set of things President Carter was getting at in his now famous fireside chat about energy. It would include things like fixing that drafty window in the den, or remembering to get milk at the store and avoiding a separate trip out, or powering down the servers in a lab over a holiday. While its tempting to lump these together into categories like “everyone fix their drafty windows”, the truth is that people have to actually make local decisions or change local behavior in order to bring these about.

For me, this is a critically important observation about tackling sustainability in a large corporation. In our small, central group we can identify and drive the major programs on the left side of the curve, but tackling Sun’s Long Green Tail is a whole different story. This is about reaching out to the individual employees, helping people see the big picture, and making the seemingly insignificant, well, significant. Everything from goal setting to measurement to status tracking is different in the tail.

I wish I could conclude this post with a great observation of how Sun or other companies can be successful in the Long Green Tail, but I can’t (yet?). Hopefully we’ll have some successes in that space, and I’ll try to make sure to blog about our attempts either way.