FDL Book Salon Welcomes Kendra Pierre-Louis, Green Washed: Why We Can’t Buy Our Way to a Green Planet
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. – bev]
Kendra Pierre-Louis has crafted a powerful little manifesto for social change agents who seek to challenge and change the status quo. Her book, Green Washed, largely assumes that readers know the grim state of affairs – basically, Peak Everything and Ecosystem Collapse, and have chosen to “do something” about it by buying into the myth that we can comfortably shop our way to a greener, more sustainable planet.
Green Washed offers a timely course correction. Like skeet shooting, Pierre-Louis takes aim at one green alternative after another – I’ll give examples in a minute – and explains why, in clear, concise terms and a welter of facts mixed with biting wit and humor, each is a wrong-headed choice that merely further entrenches the status quo.
But what really makes this book useful for social change agents is not the facts. Let’s face it: politicians don’t listen to facts. If politicians had listened to some 2,000 climate scientists with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change twenty years ago, we would have more than a snowball’s chance in hell at sidestepping the climate crisis.
Most ordinary folks don’t listen to facts either, and instead frame their world-view or social construct on a story narrative. For example, several million dollars’ worth of feel-good but misleading ads funded by the major climate deniers – the oil and coal industry – completely stalled the momentum towards clean, green energy sources initiated by Al Gore’s grassroots campaign based on hard-core facts of climate science.
The point here is that when enough people believe in a different story and act on their beliefs, the world changes and so do the power holders. As New York University media scholar Stephen Duncombe put it, “Truth and power belong to those who tell a better story.”
Pierre-Louis gives us the tools we need to deconstruct one of the dominant myths propping up the status quo, namely that we can shop our way out of this mess. Basically, a lot of alternative choices are, as she says, “less about environmental sustainability and more about mitigating guilt.”
For example, sustainably harvested, organic cotton designer jeans or t-shirts are still cotton, and a single cotton t-shirt requires about 400 gallons of water to produce. Worse, the water used to produce some 73 percent of the global cotton production does not come from easy-to-replenish rainwater, but from scarce groundwater reserves that, once used up, are gone for many human lifetimes.
How about food? Increasingly, people are becoming aware that industrialized agriculture depletes and pollutes water and soil with massive inputs of fossil fuel-derived fertilizers and biocides – and that this system consumes three calories of energy for every one calorie of edible food produced. It’s not sustainable. Pierre-Louis makes a case that the “buy local, buy organic” food counter-movement is important more for upending a food system that “creates artificial cycles of boom and bust, of feast and famine,” than for its smaller ecological footprint. She points out that simply consuming less will reduce waste: about 40 percent of food that is produced in the U.S. is discarded and, of that, nearly half – 42 percent – is thrown out by the consumer. That translates to 300 million barrels of oil per year, millions of gallons of water, tons of greenhouse gases produced from rotting food in landfills.
See what I mean about heavy on the facts? It borders on mesmerizing.
In a series of dedicated chapters, Pierre-Louis shoots down “green” cosmetics and cleaning products (a lot of ugly, harmful chemicals are hidden as “fragrance” or “proprietary” trade secrets); “green” cars (the manufacturing process emits tons of greenhouse gases, roads chop up habitat and erode social life); “green” buildings (see cars for manufacturing issues, just build smaller and from repurposed material); “clean” coal (one of my personal favorite passages in this illuminating book); and the insanity of growing food crops for “biofuel” or plastering deserts with solar panels or wind turbines that all leave a dirty carbon footprint during the manufacturing process and other parts of the use cycle. Blam! Blam! Blam!
Upon demonstrating that consuming less – a lot less – is critical for living within the limits of our renewable resources, Pierre-Louis then takes aim at what is preventing us from consuming less: the structure of our economy. Simply put, consuming less will collapse our economy since our economy is based on endless growth. But endless “more” is inherently impossible on a planet with finite resources.
Forced to choose between collapsing the planet and crashing the economy – and having made a case that technological cleverness will not save us, Pierre-Louis observes, “We can’t change the planet’s ecological limits, but we can change the economy.”
Then Pierre-Louis gives us the beginning of a new story. She decouples the myth that economic growth leads to human well-being and draws a connection instead between the planet’s environmental well-being and our well-being. The new economy rests on four pillars: “economic self-reliance, a pristine environment, the preservation and promotion of culture, and good governance.”
As Pierre-Louis points out, many communities and some countries are already starting to weave these core human values into the fabric of their societal laws and institutions. The nature-based, locally-based, and rights-based movement will take all of us working together for change. Rights-based community organizing is pushing the transition to the more sustainable and genuinely democratic new world order.
Social change is intervention: it is action meant to change course of events. Green Washed contributes to movement-building by helping readers change their own story, and by providing readers with information to recruit others to the movement. By gaining more insight into how to challenge underlying assumptions and deconstruct the old story, readers will help create a cultural shift to open the collective mind-space for political change to occur.