Sustainability is the possibility that humans
and other life will flourish on Earth forever.
Reducing unsustainability, although critical,
will not create sustainability.
I have been away for a few days visiting my daughter and family in Arlington, VA. I rarely read the Washington Post, but find it a good read whenever I am there. On last Sunday, I saw an article on the front page that jumped out at me. The headline read, “To really save the planet, stop going green.” Given all the ballyhoo about greening in the business news and environmental media, I thought for a moment that this was some ironic device to catch the readers’ attention.
No, the author, Mike Tidwell, was serious. The gist follows a line I have been writing about for just about ever. Greening as the manufacture and sales of incrementally better products is simply not enough to stem the tide of unsustainability in any form and specifically of climate change. Here’s his lede:
As President Obama heads to Copenhagen next week for global warming talks, there’s one simple step Americans back home can take to help out: Stop “going green.” Just stop it. No more compact fluorescent light bulbs. No more green wedding planning. No more organic toothpicks for holiday hors d’oeuvres.
December should be national Green-Free Month. Instead of continuing our faddish and counterproductive emphasis on small, voluntary actions, we should follow the example of Americans during past moral crises and work toward large-scale change. The country’s last real moral and social revolution was set in motion by the civil rights movement. And in the 1960s, civil rights activists didn’t ask bigoted Southern governors and sheriffs to consider “10 Ways to Go Integrated” at their convenience.
It’s worse than Tidwell thinks. Incrementalism towards sustainability is not just ineffective, it has perverse effects. (See an earlier post for details) People who engage in “green actions” promoted by advertisements and activist campaigns tend to believe that they are really contributing to the solutions of the problems they are concerned about. They then stop looking for the real reasons and for effective solutions. Part of the reason is that these solutions require changes in behavior and in values that they are reluctant to make. Green solutions follow the logic the Wizard of Oz used to satisfy the wishes of the three companions of Dorothy: a diploma for the Scarecrow, a medal for the Lion, and a faux heart medal for the Tin Man. It’s easy to fool one into believing his or her concerns are assuaged.
Tidwell’s argument continues by stating that climate change is not just a scientific problem; it is a moral issue and requires action beyond merely self-interested initiatives. He starts with the presumption (I agree with him.) that climate change is coming and threatens the lives and livelihoods of many people, and follows with a claim that to do nothing more than incremental, virtually meaningless, acts is to ignore the moral implications of inaction. His response is to call for widespread calls from the general public to political leaders demanding legislative actions to stop the increase of atmospheric levels of CO2 at 350 ppm.
I am a skeptic of this approach on the the basis of getting the public to act similarly to the case of civil rights (his example) or of seeing the political system respond to such calls from the public. That’s why I advocate a lower-key attack on the values and beliefs that have gotten us into the present mess. Action on all fronts is essential, in any case. I applaud Tidwell for bringing an important, but not widely held, argument to the front pages of an important newspaper.