Can 'green chic' save the planet?
Ecofriendly buying choices alone can't sustain America's lifestyle, experts warn – unless 'looking green' becomes 'voting green.'
Green, it seems, has gone mainstream. Magazines like Elle, Fortune, and Vanity Fair have published "green issues" in the past year, and the Academy Awards were carbon neutral. The Vatican recently announced plans to offset its 2007 emissions, while Costa Rica pledged to arrive at "net zero" by 2021.
Green has also gone trendy. Last week, Whole Foods Market released a limited edition, $15 cotton bag with "I'm not a plastic bag" emblazoned on its side. When the bag went on sale at outlets in Taiwan, a stampede followed. In Hong Kong, throngs shut down a shopping mall. In New York City last week, lines formed at dawn. Later that day, bags were offered on Craigslist for between $200 and $500. "These bags are walking billboards," says Isabel Spearman, a spokeswoman for the bag's designer, Anya Hindmarch. "You do have to make something trendy, and it becomes a habit. That's the whole point."
Savvy marketers have clearly tapped into something. But the green craze has many asking how, if at all, it addresses what many characterize as an impending climate catastrophe.
In what it implies about changing consumer awareness, some see "green-lightenment" as heartening. And since it creates demand for more environmentally friendly products, many think it's moving in the right direction. Yet, as one professor put it, "We're basically rushing toward a cliff, full speed ahead." Can a fad save us? Experts' replies run the gamut from "it's a mockery," to it's the beginning of – and maybe a catalyst for – greater changes to come. But no one thinks that green consumption alone can get humanity out of its climate predicament. As Alex Steffen, cofounder of worldchanging.com, an environmental- commentary website, writes: "There is no combination of purchasing decisions which will make the current affluent American lifestyle sustainable. You can't shop your way to sustainability."
The problem, say experts, is the magnitude of the problem. According to the World Wildlife Foundation's Living Planet report, as of 2003, the demands of humanity as a whole exceeded Earth's capacity by 25 percent. Americans, the biggest consumers, consume at a rate that's twice what the planet can sustain.
Saving the planet requires nothing short of overhauling civilization's energy infrastructure, say many. This would include a multipronged effort to increase energy efficiency and advance renewable technologies, while also rethinking cities, agriculture, and public transportation, among other things.
Some compare the effort needed to achieve this to that of World War II, when, in the face of a clear and substantial threat, American society mobilized – and sacrificed – toward a common goal. (The analogy breaks down when you recall that Americans intended to return to "normalcy" after the war. But as Dale Jamieson, director of Environmental Studies at New York University points out, getting off carbon implies a permanent shift.) Others compare it to Teddy Roosevelt's Progressive Era, a time when corporations and other private interests had accumulated much power at the expense of public institutions and society at large.
But the most apt comparison may be to the founding of the United States, when, with history as their guide, the framers of the Constitution attempted to establish a socially and politically "sustainable society."
"These were people who were looking very far into the future and saying, 'Let's design a government that will last,' " says Dr. Jamieson. "This is a little bit like that."
Michael Dorsey, a professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., calls it "the practice of citizenry." He points to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposed $8 congestion tax on vehicles. However unpopular it may be with cabbies, it's an idea designed to benefit the greater good, he says.
"We need people not to be thinking like consumers, but like citizens in a society," he says. "Bold decisions from a collective of bold leaders working with bold citizens that aren't afraid to take bold steps is the only thing that will avoid a climate catastrophe. That's it. There's nothing else."
Many say it's more complex. "You're talking about the greatest consumptive society in the history of the world trying to change its footprint," says Jamieson, comparing it to changing the Roman Empire into a Vermont village. Green consumerism driven by green faddism "is necessary, but not sufficient," he says. "If you're going to get change, you need this kind of energy and enthusiasm. But that just gets you in the door."
The green consumption movement has some built-in limits. By definition, consumers willing to pay more for environmentally friendly products are a small bunch, says Michael Shellenberger, a managing partner at American Environics in Oakland, Calif. They tend to be an educated and affluent "elite," but because they are so few, their ability to effect change through purchasing power is limited. In polls, Mr. Shellenberger has found that most green consumers harbor no illusions that environmentally friendly consumer choices alone are sufficient. They see green consumption as an ethical choice – "a kind of mindfulness," he says. But "almost everyone acknowledges that there needs to be political action."
Or, as Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club's Global Warming Program, says: "Government has to act; so consumers, to close the loop, need to understand that they need to vote."
And it may be at the polls where the reasons for "going green" matter most. People consume products for both their "manifest" and "latent" functions, says Christopher Henke, an assistant professor of sociology at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y.
The manifest value of a canvas bag, for example, is to carry things without using plastic. The latent value of a Whole Foods-issued, $15 Anya Hindmarch-designed bag emblazoned with "I'm not a plastic bag" – echoing surrealist artist René Magritte's famous "this is not a pipe" painting – is almost entirely unrelated to this manifest utility.
"You're trying to present a certain image of yourself where you're someone who cares about the earth, shops at a [certain] store, and someone who's up on a particular trend," Professor Henke says. "But in the end, if it's just another thing people will grab and use for a month, then it is kind of a waste."
So while faddism may influence people's marketplace choices, many still ask the million-dollar question: What will happen when the canvas bag-toting, hybrid car-driving, "green" credit-card-wielding (GE just announced a card with carbon footprint-reducing rewards) consumer goes to the polls?
"That's the key," says Jon Isham, a professor of international environmental economics at Middlebury College in Vermont. "That's where we need to go above and beyond the idea of a fad."
If the defeat last November of a state initiative to tax oil extracted in California is any indication, what's chic in handbags is still far from what's cool at the polls. But there is one certainty, says Dr. Isham, paraphrasing the economist Herbert Stein's famous dictum: "If something can't continue, it won't."