Green for Green’s Sake

March 11, 2008

I suppose everyone who’s interested has already taken a drag through Monica Hesse’s recent love-it-or-hate-it Washington Post article haranguing the green-goods market. It cut through the ecohip blogs like a rimshot, and everyone from Josh Dorfman, alias The Lazy Environmentalist, to TreeHugger, to ReNest had somethin’ to say.

For the record: I’m a fan of Hesse’s piece. It’s ballsy. Irreverent. Challenging. And, naturally, that’s why it has caused such a stir. In it, Hesse questions the unbridled consumption of eco-fabulous products for the sake of their eco-fabulousness. An excerpt:

Green is the new black, carbon is the new kryptonite, blah blah blah. The privileged eco-friendly American realized long ago that SUVs were Death Stars; now we see that our gas-only Lexus is one, too. Best replace it with a 2008 LS 600 hybrid for $104,000 (it actually gets fewer miles per gallon than some traditional makes, but, see, it is a hybrid). Accessorize the interior with an organic Sherpa car seat cover for only $119.99.

Sure, she exaggerates; and sure, she chooses easy targets (when was the last time people backed SUVs?). But she gets to the heart of it. She works the extremes, as a good satirist does, and she nails it: “And let us never consider the other organic option — not buying — because the new green consumer wants to consume.”

This is the nub of her argument, and it is this nub that may well be raising the hackles of those earth-conscious folks who still love a little retail therapy (provided they can bring their own bags, of course). Certainly, most responses have focused on the sensational tone and burlesque examples — really, Swiss-milled, 600-thread-count sheets for $570? Uh-huh. — but I’m guessing that said responses are veiled attempts to degrade Hesse’s conclusion: you know, the one that says we shouldn’t buy so much stuff.

It seems that challenging that consumer mindset is what sets people off; typically, what follows is a torrent of reproach that accuses the challenger of elitism, quite possibly one of the deadliest character traits in our “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” milieu. As No Impact Man observed after edging out into the no-fly zone, “people get pretty upset, in turns out, when you suggest that to live environmentally might mean fewer air trips to the Bahamas. ‘What’s the point of saving the world if I can’t see it?’ someone commented yesterday. Oh boy. That roused some other people.”

Hesse, in her green = not buying equation, essentially proposes a lifestyle that is likewise difficult to envision: a life without the New may rank in yuck-factor with life sans air travel. Why? Because these assertions, ascetic as they may seem, call into question thousands of lifestyles. It’s that old saw, friends: Judge not, lest ye be judged, or, more commonly, You’re not the boss of me. And your mother wears Army boots.

The aforementioned Lazy Environmentalist, who was quoted in the article thus:

“Buying stuff is intrinsically wrapped up in our identities,” Dorfman says. “You can’t change that behavior. It’s better to say, ‘You’re a crazy shopaholic. You’re not going to stop being a crazy shopaholic. But if you’re going to buy 50 pairs of jeans, buy them from this better place.’ “

contends that “green consumerism” isn’t implausible. In fact, in his response to the article, he asserts: “I do not believe that the only socioeconomic model that can bring our way of life back into balance with nature is one predicated on sacrifice.” Perhaps; but is it possible to live well by the planet, by our neighbors, and not sacrifice something? Is the Lazy Environmentalist living up to his name here, simply pushing the sacrifice out of sight?

A friend of mine once decided to forgo meat, not because he was opposed to the meat industry, and not because we went to a hippie college. He chose to veg because he was not convinced, one way or the other, that an ethical person would partake of the flesh. “I figure,” he said, “that until I can determine meat-eating as good, I shouldn’t do it.”

In this way, should not we all examine our behavior in an attempt to discern its ethical value? Aren’t we, as concerned citizens, stumbling toward the good life? The socially conscious life? In some ways, the Small life?

If so, please tell me: How does buying 50 pairs of jeans, regardless of manufacturer, help us achieve The Small? The good?

Okay. Yes. This is idealistic. And yes. The pragmatist in me concurs with Dorfman’s point: people aren’t going to change; the economy isn’t going to change, at least not overnight. I do need to purchase a watch and a bra and toilet paper from somewhere, right?

That said, without idealism, how can we move ahead? Moreover, how can we take on the third arm of that familiar green triangle — the one that encourages us to reduce, reuse, recycle? We seem to have our heads around the latter two. It’s that pesky first, the one that picks at our modus operandi, that we tend to overlook.

The way I see it, we’ve been foisting Dorfman’s sacrifice onto the planet — its oil, its land, its water, its inhabitants — for a long time running. Maybe now it’s time for us to take the hit. Sacrifice a little. Buy one pair of jeans (organic cotton, sweatshop-free hemp, etc.). Groove on that green triangle in toto.

Check out Hesse’s article in-full. Your thoughts?


2 Responses to “Green for Green’s Sake”

  1. demelza said

    LS – Thanks for a great, thoughtful piece. I thought Hesse’s article was timely and pretty much on the mark, especially since her mark was such an easy target. Nonetheless, she aimed her arrows (reclaimed bamboo though they may be) at the strata of society that she believes are the most egregious offenders.

    I agree that buying a $105,000 hybrid car is ludicrous, but my lifestyle would not support a single luxury car, much less a hundred grand replacement. And I agree that discarding perfectly good things (like one’s floors!) just to buy ones that come with a “green” label is proof of how indoctrinated our society of cultish consumerism has become.

    But frankly, I am less concerned that the wealthiest percentage of society might be ridiculously unaware or unwilling to change, than with those of us who do not inhabit that socio-economic strata. I say this: We are great in number. Are we not then, all the more culpable, and therefore, even better positioned to make a difference?

    Of course, it’s time that we relearn to sacrifice, if indeed, “sacrifice” is the proper term for rejecting an ever-increasing, over-consumptive way of life. I am fully aware that lifestyle change is difficult, but it is certainly not impossible.

    Five years ago, I moved from NYC to a semi-rural town in Upstate NY. (By semi-rural, I mean that I can actually see my neighbors.) From what I see here, today’s typical middle-class American family consists of two working adults, usually with two separate automobiles, at least one of which is an SUV. It does not matter if the family has children – all households have more than one vehicle for basic transportation. (I will not even begin to discuss the number of pickup trucks or riding mowers.)

    Just for the record: In NYC, environmental circumstances can be so severe and difficult that, out of respect to my home town, I will not bring them into this equation just for the sake of argument. I am speaking here from my current lifestyle and circumstance. Suffice it to say that, even the poor among us dump hundreds of tons of disposable diapers into landfills every day.

    Shall we take the first step together? Examine our own lives and be ruthless and truthful about them?

    Forget buying newfangled organic laundry detergent: dare we – or our kids – wear a pair of jeans or a t-shirt- more than once (it was de rigeur in the ’60s)? Hang our laundry (all of it, annoying washcloths and socks and all) out to dry in the fresh air? Carry leftovers to work for lunch? Forego paper plates, paper napkins, paper towels and plastic utensils? Drink tap water, even? Could we plan to grow a few vegetables in a scrap of garden this summer? Could we resurrect the clothing swap, the neighborhood pot luck dinner party? The baby-sitting exchange, the “can I run out for a few minutes” sanctity?

    Could we not ALL pledge to not purchase anything new for a month? For two? Could we not walk our kids’ outgrown clothes over to a neighbor with younger children? Or for that matter, save scraps of old clothes to recycle into something new? For inspiration, I recommend visiting this site: Sacrifice? Aren’t we so lucky?

    All this seems to be pointing me toward the idea of neighborhood and community. Is this where we have gone wrong? I don’t know.

    What I do know is that what’s coming down is not your grandfather’s Great Depression. This one comes with a pseudonym (recession), and it’s all dolled up to look like someone else’s doing (and problem) – think sub-prime mortgages. (Have you read the vitriol on the web directed at the borrowers?) Isn’t it just a matter of time that it all comes tumbling down?

  2. Demelza,

    Thank you for such a thoughtful response. I think that you’re right: the 10% who are purchasing $100K cars aren’t necessarily the ones capable of making widespread change. Though, I must say that, in our star-struck culture of “celebrity modeling,” I might argue that if the wealthiest people start preaching the green word, lots of not-so-wealthy folks might listen.

    I’m glad you mentioned the term “sacrifice.” For many, living without luxury items is, indeed, a sacrifice. You’re absolutely right, though: what kind of “sacrifice” is that, in comparison to those who go without shoes or water or shelter?

    I do wonder about your community question. Perhaps that is where we’ve gone astray. Doesn’t urban sprawl dilute community? Doesn’t personal transportation dilute community? Doesn’t our indoor, Archie-Bunker culture dilute community? And how about the culture of fear? What can we do to combat this growing apprehension of the people who live next door?

    Thanks again for your comments. Always thought-provoking.

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