Nothing Man-made Is Ever Eco-friendly

When stalwart cheerleading sources like WorldChanging publish articles skeptical of the effectiveness of small green steps is producing sustainability, people working to create sustainability should sit up and pay attention. Here’s the lede.

Do small steps actually lead anywhere? We all know the theory that small steps lead to bigger steps, which lead in turn to real change. And there are certainly a lot of small steps on offer these days, from the latest home energy tracker to the solar bikini. But it’s not at all clear that the ready abundance of small steps is actually making any difference. Indeed, between greenwashing and green fatigue, emphasizing little behavioral changes may actually be hurting.

Until recently, suggesting that “going green” in this fashion wasn’t a correct path was a quick route to condemnation. But now, some of the world’s most prestigious environmental advocates are beginning to call for a whole new approach.

The article is largely a review of a recent report from the WWF arguing that changes in values are the key to sustainability while questioning the impact of small changes in behavior towards buying and using “green” products. Green or eco-friendly are presumed to point to products and services that will 1) help move the world toward a more sustainable state, and 2) induce new, more responsible patterns of behavior in the users. Both claims, even when made in good faith, are misleading and, as the academic authors of the WWF report argue, can have perverse consequences.

Nothing man-made is ever eco-friendly, Some goods may create lower impacts than others, but the notion “friendly” as OK with Mother Nature is misleading and leads to a false sense of responsibility if any values change at all. Almost all green or eco-friendly products fit the strategy of eco-efficiency promoted by global business and many government policies. While it is critical to lessen the load on the environment, this strategy can at best reduce the unsustainable state of the world. Eco-efficiency, giving more value at less environment impact, may work for a while, but in the long run gains will be overwhelmed by economic growth.

Taking small green steps is what system dynamicists often call shifting-the-burden, focusing on short-term apparent solutions while neglecting to find and address root causes. If the process goes on too long, it can and does become an addiction. In this case damage to the addict spills over to the Planet. Sustainability is a positive flourishing state of the world including humans and the rest of the Planet. Consumption driven by today’s dominant cultural forces, now incorporating green behavior, is ultimately unsatisfying.

The aura of responsibility that comes from following the green line is most often only superficial as it is a response to an outside context, not a result of a change in beliefs and values deep inside. It is certainly possible that greening one’s purchasing habits will cause changes in values and induce responsibility towards the Earth and other people, but it is not likely in the absence of reflection and a critical examination of one’s internal state and of the deeper causes of unsustainability. Leaving this quest for understanding to others is quite the opposite of shouldering responsibility.

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