It's difficult to maintain a glass half full mentality in these precarious economic times. The U.S. Department of Labor's announcement that 600,000 jobs were lost in January alone and 3.6 million jobs have evaporated since the recession officially began in December 2007 is not the kind of news that inspires confidence. And we continue to be plagued by the question: Have we hit bottom yet?

It's hard to remain optimistic, when circumstances seem out of control. That is why it is critical, in these times of economic hardship, that we do not let sustainable practices fall by the wayside and let their value be determined strictly by cost. The challenge is hardly new: positioning sustainability so that clients perceive it not as an expensive add-on, but as an essential. But the task has become even more complex, with difficult decisions being made daily about financial priorities. If we can control green, we can control our future.

There is no doubt that sustainability is on everyone's minds. This was in evidence as more than 150 people gathered for a program ARCHITECTURAL LIGHTING held on Jan. 28, 2009, in New York City. Titled “The Present and Future State of Green Lighting,” the event examined what green means for the lighting industry, in an effort to move beyond the incandescent vs. compact fluorescent lamps issue around which green lighting discussions have stalled. A distinguished group of panelists—lighting designers Kathy Abernathy, Mark Loeffler, Martin Lupton, and Michael Mehl—discussed the green initiatives of the Illuminating Engineering Society, the International Association of Lighting Designers, and the Professional Lighting Designers' Association. Despite the efforts of all three organizations, what was clear is the frustration that designers, manufacturers, public agencies, and clients feel about a code system and marketplace that do not fully support green lighting practices.

Already there are signs that current economic pressures are forcing individuals and businesses to forgo the energy-efficient choice. According to a report in The New York Times, “Dark Days for Green Energy,” alternative energy sources such as wind and solar power, which experienced substantial growth in the past several years, are now in decline because of the credit crisis and a lack of financing. At the consumer level, according to the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, the recent 4.8 percent drop in its Lighting Systems Index for the fourth quarter of 2008 reflects a decline in consumer spending on energy-efficient products such as compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs). The reason cited: higher first cost in comparison to traditional incandescent sources. It is hard to believe that with the phasing out of incandescent lamps and the billions of CFLs being produced in developing nations, where labor costs are shockingly low, that a CFL's price point still remains double to triple that of Edison's light bulb.

One way to ensure the green movement's survival is to reorganize the system in which it operates: Rather than reward those who practice green, through tax breaks and other incentives, penalize those who do not. A first step toward a monitoring system would be to require a digital counter in the lobby of every commercial and public building displaying electricity usage, materials consumption (i.e., concrete, steel, glass, and plastic), and greenhouse gas emissions. With this data made visible, building owners and tenants would have a more immediate understanding of the impact of their respective footprints—and so would everyone else. Shame is a powerful incentive. These displays wouldn't have to be large, although it would be a refreshing use for all those LED media façades to show something other than ads.

Imagine if buildings incorporated displays along the lines of the National Debt Clock. Created in 1989 by Seymour Durst, the late Manhattan real estate developer, to call attention to the then $2.7 trillion debt, the electronic billboard lived on the corner of 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue in New York. For a brief moment during the Clinton administration, when the U.S. had no national deficit, it seemed as though the sign would become an artifact of a bygone era. That didn't last long. The sign was moved to a less prominent spot on the corner of 43rd Street and Sixth Avenue when the Durst Organization began to develop the 42nd Street site into One Bryant Park, which ironically is the headquarters of Bank of America, recipient of some $45 billion in federal bailouts. Doubly ironic, the sign needs more digits to accurately display the national debt, now in excess of $10 trillion. (The Durst Organization says it will update the sign next year.) Placing an energy debt counter on every building would have a serious impact.

Sustainability cannot happen on an “as you feel like it” basis, or when time or money permit. If anything, the economic crisis will show who is in it for the long haul and distinguish the green advocates from the green washers.