Saturday, June 30, 2007

Can We Shop Our Way To A Greener World?

Not really, is the consensus of a small but increasingly vocal number of environmentalists critical of "light greens," people who buy green but don't reduce their overall consumption. On the other hand, maybe being a "light green" is a good starting point for changes that need to happen. The following is excerpted from a longer New York Times article on the subject:
Consumers have embraced living green, and for the most part the mainstream green movement has embraced green consumerism. But even at this moment of high visibility and impact for environmental activists, a splinter wing of the movement has begun to critique what it sometimes calls “light greens.”
Critics question the notion that we can avert global warming by buying so-called earth-friendly products, from clothing and cars to homes and vacations, when the cumulative effect of our consumption remains enormous and hazardous.
“There is a very common mind-set right now which holds that all that we’re going to need to do to avert the large-scale planetary catastrophes upon us is make slightly different shopping decisions,” said Alex Steffen, the executive editor of, a Web site devoted to sustainability issues.
The genuine solution, he and other critics say, is to significantly reduce one’s consumption of goods and resources. It’s not enough to build a vacation home of recycled lumber; the real way to reduce one’s carbon footprint is to only own one home.

Environmentalists say some products marketed as green may pump more carbon into the atmosphere than choosing something more modest, or simply nothing at all. Along those lines, a company called PlayEngine sells a 19-inch widescreen L.C.D. set whose “sustainable bamboo” case is represented as an earth-friendly alternative to plastic.
Laptops and desktop computers said to be good for the earth.

But it may be better to keep your old cathode-tube set instead, according to “The Live Earth Global Warming Survival Handbook,” because older sets use less power than plasma or L.C.D. screens. (Televisions account for about 4 percent of energy consumption in the United States, the handbook says.)
“The assumption that by buying anything, whether green or not, we’re solving the problem is a misperception,” said Michael Ableman, an environmental author and long-time organic farmer. “Consuming is a significant part of the problem to begin with. Maybe the solution is instead of buying five pairs of
organic cotton jeans, buy one pair of regular jeans instead.”
Last year, a San Francisco group called the Compact made headlines with a vow to live the entire year without buying anything but bare essentials like medicine and food. A year in, the original 10 “mostly” made it, said Rachel Kesel, 26, a founder. The movement claims some 8,300 adherents throughout the country and in places as distant as Singapore and Iceland.
“The more that I’m engaged in this, the more annoyed I get with things like ‘shop against climate change’ and these kind of attitudes,” said Ms. Kesel, who continues her shopping strike and counts a new pair of running shoes — she’s a dog-walker by trade — as among her limited purchases in 18 months.
“It’s hysterical,” she said. “You’re telling people to consume more in order to reduce impact.”
For some, the very debate over how much difference they should try to make in their own lives is a distraction. They despair of individual consumers being responsible for saving the earth from climate change and want to see action from political leaders around the world.
INDIVIDUAL consumers may choose more fuel-efficient cars, but a far greater effect may be felt when fuel-efficiency standards are raised for all of the industry , as the Senate voted to do on June 21, the first significant rise in mileage standards in more than two decades.
“A legitimate beef that people have with green consumerism is, at end of the day, the things causing climate change are more caused by politics and the economy than individual behavior,” said Michel Gelobter, a former professor of environmental policy at Rutgers who is now president of Redefining Progress, a nonprofit policy group that promotes sustainable living.
“A lot of what we need to do doesn’t have to do with what you put in your shopping basket,” he said. “It has to do with mass transit, housing density. It has to do with the war and subsidies for the coal and fossil fuel industry.”
In fact, those light-green environmentalists who chose not to lecture about sacrifice and promote the trendiness of eco-sensitive products may be on to something.
Michael Shellenberger, a partner at American Environics, a market research firm in Oakland, Calif., said that his company ran a series of focus groups in April for the environmental group Earthjustice, and was surprised by the results.
People considered their trip down the Eco Options aisles at Home Depot a beginning, not an end point.
“We didn’t find that people felt that their consumption gave them a pass, so to speak,” Mr. Shellenberger said. “They knew what they were doing wasn’t going to deal with the problems, and these little consumer things won’t add up. But they do it as a practice of mindfulness. They didn’t see it as antithetical to political action. Folks who were engaged in these green practices were actually becoming more committed to more transformative political action on global warming.”

IREJN is Connecticut's Interfaith Power and Light. Visit us at

No comments: