A new book suggests that “It’s the economy, stupid,” may be more than political strategy; it may also be the key to environmental sustainability. The book is Green Washed: Why We Can’t Buy Our Way to a Green Planet, by Kendra Pierre-Louis. The argument developed is not just that the consumer choices of an individual won’t save the planet without collective action, but also that the only collective action that will save us is abandoning the whole idea of consumer choices.
Pierre-Louis lays the groundwork for her argument by walking us through the hazards of supposedly environmental approaches to numerous fields. First is clothing, in which a big trend is toward organic cotton. While reducing pesticides is all to the good, Pierre-Louis writes, growing cotton — any cotton — is a rapid way to exhaust the earth’s stores of fresh water. Among the preferable proposals the author suggests is creating or altering your own clothing so that it means more to you and you throw it away less rapidly. The low-hanging fruit in improving our clothing practices is in quantity, not quality: buy less clothing!
Next comes diet. Our poisonous farming practices are killing the Mississippi River, exhausting our underground water supplies, drying up the Colorado (on this I recommend the 3-D movie “Grand Canyon Adventure”), eradicating biodiversity, eliminating soil, and consuming fossil fuels. Genetically modified crops are outrageous failures on their own terms, resulting in increased, rather than diminished, use of pesticides and herbicides. Last week, I would add, the Obama administration approved new Monsanto corn despite 45,000 negative public comments and 23 positive, corn that will mean the widespread use of a major ingredient in Agent Orange as herbicide. According to Pierre-Louis, we cannot ethically shop our way out of this, not even by buying local, and we couldn’t even if products were meaningfully labeled and the accuracy of the labeling was verified. Instead the easiest solution lies in the fact that, in the United States, we throw away 40 percent of the food we buy. Stop doing that! Start buying and using only what you need.
What about toiletries? Did you know there’s antifreeze in makeup and deodorant? Were you aware there are irritants, poisons, and carcinogens in lots of toothpastes, shampoos, and soaps. You’ll be proud to learn that hair-care products banned in many countries are quite popular and profitable in ours. Makeup tends to be such nasty stuff that it becomes hard not to find it unattractive. And shopping right won’t fix this. “Natural” on a label means absolutely nothing. “Organic” might mean something when there’s a USDA Certified logo and when there’s an indication of how much of the product is organic. But nobody’s actually checking to make sure labels are honest. It is helpful to buy products with the fewest and clearest ingredients, but — as in other areas — the obvious solution here is to stop slopping quite so much goop on ourselves.
Then there are cars. In an absolute sense, despite the small U.S. population, as well as on a per capita basis, the United States has more cars than anywhere else. Our 3 percent of the species produces 45 percent of automotive greenhouse gas emissions. I’m less scornful than Pierre-Louis of people who buy a Toyota Prius in order to appear environmentally correct. What in the world is wrong with that? It’s certainly better than waving a “Drill, Baby, Drill!” flag. The trouble is that, as Pierre-Louis points out, even if all of our cars ran on air, the manufacturing of the cars, and the construction of the roads and highways, would still destroy life as we have known it. We need to create ways to live without all the driving, ways to live without moving as much, or to live with walking, or with mass transit.
An electric car doesn’t make things worse; it just doesn’t solve the problem. A metal water bottle may make things worse. Plastic water bottles are a disaster, of course. The plastic ends up in the ocean, or in shower washes and toothpastes, or in the stomachs of fish eaten by larger fish eaten by us. But the manufacture of metal water bottles does all kinds of environmental and cultural damage. The solution — by this point you may see it coming — is to use public water fountains, drink at home out of a cup or a glass, and not settle on something else to buy to solve your hydration needs. Stop buying stuff!
Environmental labeling on house construction is as misleading as on food and shampoo, and Al Gore’s “green” 10,000-square-foot home is, even though a retrofit rather than new, just too darn big to be green. We need to build smaller houses, and longer-lasting houses. In fact, we need to build longer-lasting furniture and everything else that goes into the houses. Furniture is for life, or for several lives, not to keep just until a new catalog comes in the mail. We need to retrofit old buildings and build up density, not create starter castles with high-tech enviro-innovations. Rammed earth houses make sense, as do straw-bale houses, cob building, and underground or earth-sheltered homes. Small ones, meaning ones like our parents and grandparents found plenty big enough.
Pierre Louis turns next to energy and, somewhat discordantly points out the problems with coal. Are there people who really believe the “clean coal” nonsense? If so, there’s a chapter here just for them.
Ethanol comes in for as serious criticism as coal. It can be as bad for the air as gasoline, and it takes almost as much energy to produce it as is produced in it. The author might have made a similar but even stronger case against nuclear energy, but for some reason skipped it. Instead, she focuses on the limitations of solar and hydro power. Pierre Louis’s recommendation, as you may have guessed by now, is to seek the easy and massive gains to be had through increasing efficiency and reducing consumption. These are two separate approaches, and the second one may be the larger. We can use energy more efficiently, but — even more so — we can just use less of it.
In fact, we can use less of lots of things. We have more and more televisions in our homes, even as useful content available through those televisions shrivels away like a shallow lake. Why?
A quarter of U.S. leisure time is spent doing something I consider a chore and Pierre Louis comes close to considering ecocide, namely shopping. Why? Seriously: what in the world for?
Now, one way in which we could do less of everything and stop trying solutions that cause new problems of their own would, of course, be to slow, halt, or reverse the growth of the human population. For some reason this idea is not developed in the book. Perhaps the author thinks it’s unnecessary. More likely, she thinks there is something easier and more effective and, therefore, more urgent. Regardless of whether the population is growing, we need to break free from the idea that something else must be constantly growing: the economy.
What if shopping were not a patriotic duty? What if buying lots of cheap plastic disposable crap wasn’t the way to make sure our neighbors have careers or incomes? The most significant reductions in U.S. carbon emissions have come as a result of economic recession. We need a different economic system, one that does not depend on infinite economic growth in a finite world. But might there not then be great unemployment and suffering as a result of insufficient shopping?
I’d like to suggest part of the answer, as I think Pierre-Louis frames the problem a little more clearly than the solution, and I think there’s at least one piece of the puzzle that can easily be provided. Right now over half of our public treasury, our federal discretionary spending, goes into something not mentioned in “Green Washed” or just about any other environmentalist book, despite the fact that it is our greatest consumer of petroleum and most wide-ranging destroyer of our environment. I mean the war machine.
If instead of military spending, we invested our public riches in human needs, we might — through some trial and error — see our way clear to a world not based on growing our economies. We could invest in green energy jobs, in research, and in experiments in local sustainable lifestyles. We could invest in education, mass-transit, and healthcare. We could invest in retirement security and unemployment security, and reduce the number of hours people needed to work, commute, and shop. We could rally people around a national and global campaign of nothing less than saving the world by becoming citizens rather than consumers.
There’s not much that you couldn’t do with a trillion dollars a year and the will to put it to good use instead of continuing to pour it into waste and destruction.