Some 35 million Americans regularly buy products that claim to be earth-friendly, according to one report, everything from organic beeswax lipstick from the west Zambian rain forest to Toyota Priuses. With baby steps, more and more shoppers browse among the 60,000 products available under Home Depot’s new Eco Options program…
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.”
“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 Worldchanging.com, a Web site devoted to sustainability issues.
Steffen and others cited in the article make strong arguments of the need for reduced consumption as the only path towards true sustainability and a future not rendered hellish or obsolete by global warming. And they’re right. But what we’re seeing, I believe, is the first step towards mainstream adoption of environmental awareness. And just like with a child, the first steps are usually not very pretty.
A new generation of environmentalists has come to realize that the cry towards consumer asceticism falls on deaf ears–ironically, much like the cry towards abstinence on the part of cultural conservatives, to whom many environmentalists would blanch at the thought of being compared. The entire fabric of American culture is built around consumerism. In many ways, it’s as difficult a reality to rail against as our physiological drive to have sex.
So how do you succeed in changing people’s lifestyles and choices? Well, the way I see it, you have three choices:
- Keep trying to get out your messages of dire urgency, calls for accountability, guilt trips, etc. and see where that gets you. Over the last 30 years, the environmental movement in the United States has largely weakened even as proof for its causes have grown. Why is that? Maybe because all of that shouting, judgment and calls for radical change serves only to push away so many of the people you hope to enlighten.
- Change the focus of the conversation. Instead of making people feel bad about their consumptive lives, appeal to their other values. A lot of groups are now trying to do precisely this, either by drawing a connection between faith in god and environmental stewardship like Interfaith Power and Light or by creating a vision for energy independence, national security and job creation like the Apollo Alliance.
- Accept and try to work within American consumer culture.
Now, I’m not saying that strategy #3 is the best way to go, but it makes sense why this is the area that’s generating the most traction thus far. The reasons are obvious:
- Changing your light bulbs, buying organic food, and even getting a hybrid are comparatively easy (for those of us with disposable income). Giving up your car, not buying goods from China, downsizing your house are not.
- There’s profit to be made. Businesses are falling all over themselves to roll out “green products,” both because there’s a growing market demand and because it’s the easiest path towards avoiding the wrath of the greenies. Corporations (and the mainstream media outlets who are often owned by them) have far more resources at their disposal to spread a message than a group like WorldChanging does.
- Flaunting your new “greenness” by driving a hybrid or wearing fashionable organic clothing is far more appealing than conserving energy at home.
Many environmental groups are now embracing this strategy.
Now that environmentalism is high profile, thanks in part to the success of “An Inconvenient Truth,” the 2006 documentary featuring Al Gore, mainstream greens, for the most part, say that buying products promoted as eco-friendly is a good first step.
“After you buy the compact fluorescent bulbs,” said Michael Brune, the executive director of the Rainforest Action Network, “you can move on to greater goals like banding together politically to shut down coal-fired power plants.”
John Passacantando, the executive director of Greenpeace USA, argued that green consumerism has been a way for Wal-Mart shoppers to get over the old stereotypes of environmentalists as “tree-hugging hippies” and contribute in their own way.
This is crucial, he said, given the widespread nature of the global warming challenge. “You need Wal-Mart and Joe Six-Pack and mayors and taxi drivers,” he said. “You need participation on a wide front.”
While many are legitimately enraged at the idea of “telling people to consume more in order to reduce impact,” and others place their energies and emphasis on the need for policy and large-scale, systemic changes, I personally believe that getting people to take first steps to reducing their environmental impact is a core part of the solution. By meeting people where they are and helping them to make changes that are easy and rewarding, you create conditions for them to go further.
And the conclusion of the article affirms my belief.
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.”
Ultimately, the climate crisis is so vast and urgent a problem that, frankly, it’ll take every effort and strategy conceivable to address. So I’m all for advocating sound policy solutions, investment in new technologies, public awareness campaigns, faith-based initiatives, etc. And I deeply admire those who–once enlightened about the issue–sell their cars, go off-grid or make other major lifestyle changes.
There’s opportunity for multiple approaches because different people respond to different motivators. And I believe that these various approaches can actually amplify one another. But I have little patience for those whose strategy is to judge, reprimand or call for life-altering . Not because we don’t ultimately need to get there (and yes, sooner rather than later). I’ll say this as clearly as I can: The only path towards averting the worst effects of climate change and a sustainable future leads us to reducing our consumption and vastly increasing our energy efficiency. But the only way you can get most people to walk the path with you is if they feel welcomed and are choosing it.