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.