The Road to Hell . . .

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Maybe it’s the spectacular weather of the past few days. Days in early April that outdo the best of mid-summer weather. The ladybugs are coming out of winter hibernation and the green sprouts seem to have grown 4 inches overnight. I’m finishing a syllabus for a course I will lead next trimester at Marlboro College Graduate Center’s MBA in Managing for Sustainability on the general topic of the [new] economics of sustainability. That’s part of my recent focus on economics-related issues. Even without my current lens, I am running into an unusually large number of articles on this general subject.

Today, I got triggered by a review of a forthcoming book in the NYTimes. The book is Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy Is Undermining the Environmental Revolution, by Heather Rogers. I haven’t read an advance copy, so am going entirely on the review. The theme of the book is that green practices by companies are undercutting the efforts by environmentalist to preserve the world.

Ms. Rogers is a muckraking investigative reporter who is also the author of “Gone Tomorrow: the Hidden Life of Garbage.” She says corporate America has led us into thinking that we can save the earth mainly by buying things like compact fluorescent light bulbs, hybrid gas-electric cars and carbon offsets.
“The new green wave, typified by the phrase ‘lazy environmentalism,’ is geared toward the masses that aren’t willing to sacrifice,” Ms. Rogers complains. “This brand of armchair activism actualizes itself most fully in the realm of consumer goods; through buying the right products we can usher our economic system into the environmental age.”

The reviewer appreciates Rogers’s careful preparation for the book, but is not ready to buy all of her claims. He criticizes her for not offering up practical ways to reduce consumption, which I gather is her main argument. Companies, in advertising the environmental goodness of their offerings, neglect to point out that consumption, per se, is not good for Mother Nature’s health. I argue the same and add that our mindless, addictive form of hyper-consumption is not so good for human beings as well. Rogers rightly notes that nations with a strong capitalistic flavor (even China, I would add) cannot cope with reduced consumption levels.

At first, her muted call for a new frugality sounds almost as far-fetched as a carbon tax in the United States anytime soon. But it isn’t. This is something individuals could do on their own instead of waiting for reluctant politicians to act.

Frugality here and the use of sacrifice earlier imply a painful giving up. But that is not necessarily the case, as an rehabilitated addict might say. The process may be, but the results are not. The new found possibilities more than compensate for the absence of consuming substances (goods and services) that create harm. Given deeply embedded cultural beliefs and values about the need for material satisfaction, well meaning and concerned individuals have a hard time overcoming “peer” pressures, conforming to the norm. I do not think voluntary simplicity is a real option, except at the edges of a society.

The real flaw in all these kind of discussions is that they fail to see the deep-seated cultural roots of environmental and social impairment, and seek some sort of technical fix. Capitalism may still work after humans discover that relationships are what really matters. They will still need all sorts of goods and services, just not ever increasing quantities of them. Wall Streeters would have to struggle like ordinary people because the formation of capital for its own sake would not be be so critical. Just like consumers who will have to do with less stuff, so will the capitalists.

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David M Carter said:

Another book to look forward to reading. Thanks for sharing the reference.

My current thinking about capitalism and unsustainability is that capitalism, combined with basic human instincts, is the fundamental cause of the mass addiction of consumerism. Erich Fromm astutely identified the tipping point of this "to have" addiction many years ago. If that's the case, is it possible for capitalism to be used as an economic system to foster real sustainability once an authentic mindset of caring has been established? Or, is it even possible for such a mindset to evolve within the system of "Supercapitalism" (borrowed from Robert Reich) that exists today? It's like trying to overcome alcohol abuse when all types of alcoholic beverages are being delivered to your door every day by beautiful women (or men).

Terri McNichol said:

I enjoyed your book very much. In reading over your blogs I see that a common theme is that of the human side of sustainability-- without deep relationships there is no firm foundation on which to build a more sustainable world. Last night I attended a lecture on Confucianism and the way in which it is on the rise (Confucius Institutes worldwide) despite all-out efforts not that long ago to stamp out what was perceived as an antiquated philosophy that was holding China back from taking its rightful place in the modern world. One reason for its endurance is the concept of humanity on which it is based and the way in which family, community, city and world are all seen as intertwined as the basis of human action. As a Chinese historian, there is no doubt in my mind, that the West along with the East could create sustainable value following these age-old precepts.

Ralph Meima said:

John, whenever I contemplate frugality and voluntary simplicity - which are certainly being practiced more widely today in the US than prior to October 2008 - I cannot imagine them without a richness of community life and a healthy, health-giving local natural environment, too. I very much hope that shorter-term impacts of the economic crisis on attitudes can translate into the longer-term changes needed to inform the pursuit of sustainability. One of the worst things that could happen, in my opinion, is another ever giddier economic boom within the next decade.