Why the Green Revolution Cannot Solve Our Environmental Crisis
Every day proponents of green living are working hard to educate the public about the environmental impact of traditional products, to raise awareness about polluting production practices, to demand more eco-friendly alternatives to consumer goods, etc. And guess what?
The collective need for greener products and practices has sparked a marvelous transformation: today it is possible to purchase an eco-friendly alternative to an ever expanding variety of products across all industries: energy efficient cars, organic food, eco-friendly fashion, solar energy, green beauty products, eco-friendly toys and diapers, green construction and building materials, etc. We even have eco-friendly sex toys! This list is almost endless and new products come on the market every day.
What is truly remarkable and admirable about this Green Revolution, is that in the true spirit of revolution it became possible and continues to make an impact because “we the people” collectively became outraged, demanded change and we got it! Many brands and companies that we love revised their production standards, created new “green” products, and a multitude of new environmentally responsible companies were born, winning our hearts, minds and access to our wallets.
According to Newsweek’s Green Companies of 2012 Report, some of these companies are: the Home Depot, Sony, Samsung, Volkswagen, Walt Disney, Costco, Whole Foods, and many more.
I too am an avid supporter of everything “green”, and until recently thought that we as a society were making great strides in combating many serious environmental issues. However, I recently got jolted into realizing that perhaps this Green Revolution, while undoubtedly a step in the right direction, is not the REAL solution. A few weeks ago I came across an article that was extolling the fact that consumer spending this holiday season hit an all time high of 3 years, equivalent to the spending levels we had back in 2009. So what is the problem with this great news that our economy is finally recovering, and how is it related to the environmental crisis? It dawned on me that collectively we got so caught up in searching for green alternatives that we lost sight of the real problem, which created the mess in the first place: consumerism.
Rather, I would say we did’t loose sight of the problem of consumerism, the real danger is that we as a society DO NOT SEE consumerism as a problem, and therefore all our solutions do not even make an attempt to tackle it.
In fact, I would argue that the Green Revolution is a brilliant attempt at maintaining the status quo from the consumer perspective – here in America, we are used to having countless products available for purchase, therefore we absolutely must continue to have all these options, except now they will be “eco-friendly”. The problem is that its our gluttonous need for stuff, ingeniously fueled by marketing campaigns that penetrate all corners of our lives that is directly responsible for the environmental crisis. We want bigger cars, bigger houses, bigger TVs, faster phones and computers, bigger kitchen appliances, more clothes, more toys, more food, and more of everything else under the sun. Last year, Americans spent 10.7 trillion dollars on shopping, talk about a struggling economy!!!
The only difference is that now those of us who care for the environment want to see labels like “sustainable” “organic” “all natural” “eco-friendly” “energy efficient” “recyclable” etc., and we are willing to pay more for these green products. What remains a constant is that we still want the SAME amount of stuff, we want it today, get bored of it tomorrow, and are out searching for and buying something better, cooler, more advanced, more “green” etc. Rarely do we stop to think that to produce all of this stuff that we so easily dispose off takes exorbitant amounts of energy and natural resources and that production of stuff at this rate is simply not sustainable. Surely, producing goods in a more environmentally responsible way will mitigate the daunting environmental issues with our water, land and atmosphere, but it will ultimately not solve them.
While this seems like a no-brainer, few authoritative leaders in the Green movement raise their voices on this issue. When they do, they are usually drowned in the avalanche of blogs about new green technologies, products, companies, etc., that we should know about and BUY BUY BUY. And yet the solution is so simple, it requires that we redirect our collective efforts, turn our very critical eyes inward and ask – do we really need all the stuff that we constantly buy? We pat ourselves on the back for being so responsible and ignore major environmental problems we continue to create. This is just the tip of the iceberg:
1. Food Waste
One one hand, we make an effort to buy organic food. On the other hand we are the most food wasting nation on earth. Here are some sobering statistics: According to the report compiled by the Natural Resources Defense Council, 40% of all food in the US gets wasted. An Average American wastes 10 times more food than an average person in Southeast Asia – a 50% increase from what Americans wasted in 1970s. This food waste costs the US about $165 billion a year and sucks up 25% of our nation’s freshwater supply.
Today, we demand eco-friendly clothing made out of natural fabrics, sustainably manufactured, etc. However, we choose to ignore the fact the clothing production, whether eco-friendly or not, is one of the most polluting and waste-generating industries. Ignoring this reality, we view clothing as completely disposable, throwing away clothes on a whim and going out to buy some more. According to the U.S. EPA Office of Solid Waste, an average American throws away more than 68 pounds of clothing and textiles per year. We have been convinced by the fashion industry that we need more clothing, and we do as we are told: in 2010, an average American household spent $1,700 on clothing, footwear and related products.
Every year, Americans use 1 billion shopping bags, generating 300,000 tons of landfill waste. Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, Americans generate an extra million tons of waste each week. Every year, 38,000 miles of ribbon are thrown away – enough to tie a bow around the Earth.
Recycling has been hailed as the SOLUTION. Many of us try to recycle, as well as drill the practice into our children’s heads. It is a great practice that helps divert waste from our overflowing landfills and often uses less energy than manufacturing brand new products. However, its not a solution, because by focusing on recycling, we are basically says its ok to go out and buy all this crap, because we can recycle it, so no harm done. Right? Wrong!
Recycling still takes up significant energy, material resources and costs a lot of money. Recycling one ton of plastic bags costs $4,000. California spends $25 million annually on landfilling plastic bags, and another $8.5 million to remove littered bags from streets. New York City spends $240,000 to recycle one ton of glass, metal and plastic, which is almost double what it costs to throw it away.
So the question is: can we collectively turn back the clock and agree to go back to a time that existed in our own uber-consumerist society, where even 40-50 years ago people lived and were satisfied with a lot less stuff? Can we substitute shopping and hoarding for less wasteful ways to spend our time and money? Can we reuse rather than recycle? I am convinced that we can.
Levchik (Leo) is a renewable energy activist from Boston, MA, and has been involved with alternative energy and green construction since 2004.
In 2009, Leo and his green roofing company (CoolFlatRoof.com) sponsored Boston's Solar Decathlon Team, providing materials and installation labor to install a cool white roof on the top of Curio home (Joint effort by Tufts University and Boston Architecture College) - more info about the project here.
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