Like a cloth bag with the words “I am not a plastic bag” stitched across the bag’s top, many of today’s green products serve as symbols that “convey responsibility while glossing over the more significant issues of what goes into those bags, how much, and how often,” writes author and journalist Heather Rogers in her latest book, "Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy is Undermining the Environmental Revolution" (Scribner, $26).
Rogers, who has also written for the New York Times Magazine and Mother Jones, makes a convincing argument that, as most of us have probably already suspected, we can’t simply buy our way out of the crisis that our planet is experiencing.
In other words, if you feel like you’ve done your part by buying local and organic, think again. After traveling the globe and examining the many green market-based solutions available to conscientious consumers, Rogers finds that, at best, these so-called solutions are distracting us from finding real ways to prevent catastrophic climate change. At worst, they’re doing more harm than good.
Though many sustainable food advocates rightfully argue that we “vote” three times a day by the kinds of food we choose to purchase and eat, Rogers’ book proves that achieving true environmental sustainability goes far beyond the checkout counter. She concludes that just as our environmental problems run deep, so must our solutions. Otherwise, we end up placing all of our efforts to correct environmental ills in buying things like organic sugar. Although its purchase does signal to the industry that consumers want (and will pay premium prices for) products that aren’t doused with chemicals, the mad dash to increase organic sugar production has also led to, among other things, the clear cutting of diverse native forest in Paraguay.
The increased demand for biofuels is another disheartening example of green gone wrong. Aside from jacking up food prices and often creating more carbon emissions than the very fuels they were meant to replace, this “eco-friendly” solution to our endless need for energy has led to palm oil companies taking a blow torch to carbon-sequestering forests in Indonesian Borneo and forcing native communities off their land. I doubt that’s the image green consumers have in mind when filling up at the biofuel pump.
Of course, a discussion of market-based incentives for environmental do-goodery wouldn’t be complete without mentioning carbon offsets. The idea that we can tack on a few extra dollars to our airfare to help make up for the tremendous amount of carbon emissions we’re about to expel by flying is extremely enticing. And as carbon offset companies have shown, that’s a feeling that they can bank on. Yet, for so many reasons, one of which is that the offset industry is entirely unregulated, these programs more often than not fall far below the bar.
Rogers also takes to task the U.S. automakers and their inherent aversion to creating more fuel-efficient cars. Her description of GM’s diabolical role in buying up and systematically dismantling the comprehensive and efficient public transit systems that once blanketed a number of U.S. cities and towns will just plain make you angry.
But though the author’s findings are both frustrating and depressing, they’re also refreshingly eye-opening, such as her argument that we need to question the limits of market mechanisms like organic and fair trade labels as tools for curing environmental harm. As Rogers concludes, “Most of the projects I saw in researching this book were born out of letting the market take the lead in solving ecological crisis, and they aren’t working.”
It’s this kind of commonsense conclusion that keeps the book from being tossed in the “total downer” bin. That, and the fact that, as Rogers reports, there are truly sustainable methods already out there that can dramatically reduce greenhouse gases and our environmental footprint. But first, we have to look beyond the glittery green label.
To find the motivation to do so, consider what Bruno Fischer, the director of international procurement for a large organic conglomerate, Hain Celestial, once told an audience at an organic trade show that Rogers attended.
“Most consumers are simple minds,” he said. “Simple minds will look at the label and nothing else.”
I say, prove ’em wrong.
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