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Abrupt climate change and the dead end of eco-consumerism

crossposted at and at VOTS

Book review: Pierre-Louis, Kendra. Green Washed: Why We Can’t Buy Our Way to a Green Planet. Brooklyn: IG Publishing, 2012.

Green Washed cover

A recent book takes aim at the idea that we can buy our way to a clean environment.

A number of recent written pieces have reflected actual interest in doing something about abrupt climate change. Abrupt climate change is now stalling the gulf stream. Barack Obama mentioned climate change in his recent State of the Union speech. Canada dumps its Kyoto targets, but perhaps Barbara Boxer and Bernie Sanders are now interested in climate change legislation. “John Crapper” suggests we ought to declare war on fossil fuel. Agathena tells us more about Canadian tar sands.

Generally speaking, none of the suggested solutions to have reached mainstream respectability does what it takes. We are still debating the comparative merits of continuing along the current path, or ineffectively petitioning the government to do something ineffective. I know, this may appear to be cart-before-the-horse logic to those who simply wish to get the government to focus on abrupt climate change. However, we need to be careful to avoid imagining that our problems will be solved with anything less than a broad social transformation. You can make the “work within the system” argument all you want, but generally speaking both the Republican and the Democratic Parties are conservative parties, and we do ourselves no favors by repeating their conservatisms.

Even “John Crapper” does not go far enough:

What if we declared war on our fossil fuel dependency and waged a WWII type effort to wean ourselves off of its use and transform our economy to a non-polluting , renewable energy based one?

What we actually need is an economy that isn’t predatory, and that isn’t going to bring the natural world and the working-class society to ruin. The worst thing we could do, in light of all that, is to assuage the collective guilt about pollution and unsustainability while at the same time creating a “new economy” which is just as polluting and unsustainable as the old economy. Higher standards are not “purity” — they’re the price of sincerity.

We can already predict that, in the case of abrupt climate change, another consumer-oriented solution is going to be proposed. We are already told that, as consumers of fossil fuels, it is all our fault — never mind that the fossil fuels come gift-wrapped to us in a tremendous infrastructure of global oil, coal, tar sand, and natural gas production and distribution facilitated by an expanding global capitalist world-economy, none of which was our choice to begin with. Moreover, we will be told by the environmental advocates of business as usual that the solution to our evil consumerism is to buy carbon-credits, or to pay carbon taxes, or to buy carbon easements. Let’s assuage the collective guilt, they will tell us, and then get on with business as usual. Never mind that business as usual is a bad bargain, and getting worse.

In this regard, we ought to discuss the high standard of sincerity suggested in Kendra Pierre-Louis’ recently-published book Green Washed: Why We Can’t Buy Our Way to a Green Planet. Fundamentally, Pierre-Louis takes aim at the idea that proper consumerism can solve our ecological problems, and concludes that it can’t. This isn’t to say that there aren’t better and worse things to consume, but rather that the whole consumption edifice is unsustainable. “Eco-fashion is less about sustainability and more about mitigating guilt.” (24-25) Systems of commodity production invariably fall afoul of ecosystem integrity, and so our main option is to become post-commodity, and thus post-capitalist.

Pierre-Louis begins by discussing how this works out for industrial agriculture. “We are told that industrial agriculture is the best way, is in fact the only way, we will ever mitigate global hunger. And yet, at the same time, it is a food system that often times seems more efficient at harming the environment than it does at feeding people.” (35) Rather than explaining right away why environmental damage is a necessary characteristic of our industrial-consumer systems, Pierre-Louis launches immediately into assessments of environmental damage. The author begins, then, by showing how tiny the window for avoiding consumer guilt really is, when one takes the world of fact into account. Big Ag is dangerously dependent upon limited water supplies; genetic engineering has manifested “superweeds”; organic agriculture is often bought up by large corporate interests.

Later we are to discuss solutions, and here Pierre-Louis is not comprehensive, advocating change in the most general of terms. But this can be forgiven of her, because she is trying to reach a consumer audience with a message aimed at transforming current modes of thinking, and that she does spectacularly.

In discussing our food-industrial complex, Pierre-Louis’ attention migrates to the “slow food movement,” and the suggestion that we ought to buy food locally instead of from corporate magnates who may (at best) sometimes dress up their chow in quaint organic, cage-free, and other such labels. In the final analysis the author concludes that the main advantage of the slow food movement is economic, not ecological — that it offers a portion of the masses a sort of conditional freedom from the poverty of the economic system imposed upon people by big corporate capitalism. I personally would question whether, under the current system, local food can deliver what corporate food can — maybe corporate food achieves the feeding task at greater ecological cost, and with greater economic inequity, but the purpose of food is to keep people from starving. When we talk about local food feeding everybody, we’re really in a different realm.

Pierre-Louis devotes a chapter to personal care and cleaning products, and their toxic outcomes, and a chapter to the whole matter of driving cars and the resultant carbon dioxide emissions. Her thoughts about global warming were that car culture was out of control, and that driving more efficient vehicles was not going to solve that problem. If we are to define the problem as the carbon emissions of cars, the author of Green Washed argues, we need to be looking at “car based communities” (84) as the problem. Mitigating the pollution of individual cars will not transform these communities.

One chapter of Green Washed book begins with a discussion of how industrial civilization is polluting our world with plastic, and then proceeds to critique aluminum production. Pierre-Louis then proceeds to discuss “green buildings” — here the people wishing to employ “green production” run up against building codes and other such hindrances. The section on green building is also illustrative of another point the author wishes to make — green consumption means green production, and thus being a good consumer means having control over what is produced. I’ve long been an advocate of a producer-based strategy as regards abrupt climate change.

A whole section of this book discusses energy production, and this section will be of distinct interest to climate change activists. Here Pierre-Louis discusses the drawbacks not only of “clean coal,” but also of biomass, solar, wind, and geothermal. They’re more significant than the advertisers of said energy sources would have you believe. Ultimately the author argues:

The less energy that we consume the fewer windmills that we have to erect, the fewer solar arrays we have to introduce into a delicate ecosystem, the fewer ecological tradeoffs we have to make. Alternative energy sources, though often greener than the technologies they seek to replace, are not without a cost. The only way to mitigate that cost is to use less of them. (149)

Periodically the advocates of alternative energy, like the advocates of ecologically unsustainable energy, come out with fabulous claims as regards new energy sources. Thom Hartmann displays the most recent claim in a piece on Alternet; one of the most memorable claims was a 2006 MIT research study funded with DOE money that claimed enormous energy reserves from “deep hot rock” geothermal energy. (Has anything happened with this study since?) Pierre-Louis does not by any means settle the debate currently raging over at Grist.

I suppose there’s still an open window, then, for the possibility that alternative energy could allow capitalism to proceed on its merry way for awhile longer. But I have yet to see an assessment of the environmental costs of running the current global energy grid on 80% solar and wind power. As Pierre-Louis suggests:

Alternative energy can meet our needs, but not our greed. (146)

Every now and then in this era we read claims of fabulous new energy reserves. A typical problem with each claim is that our current, capitalist, global society consumes energy at fabulous rates, and so the claims look good as long as we don’t look at how much is being consumed. We can say, then, as the author of Green Washed points out, that the market-based society, based on mass consumption as it is, marginalizes green production:

Too many businesses and environmental groups have led us to believe that if we buy the correct collection of products, we can save the planet. While these assurances have done much to assuage our collective guilt, and even more to create a generation of smug eco-shoppers, it has done next to nothing to fundamentally change the environmental landscape, while in many cases actively contributing to environmental degradation and misinformation. (154)

The author of Green Washed, then, advocates that we buy less — but the economy won’t let us buy less, so we will need to create an economy for ourselves in which we can consume less, and in which we can “buy locally,” and produce for ourselves what we need. This will invariably be a political project, and it will have to be conceived as a project of liberation insofar as the active participation of the great masses of humanity is to be inspired. Green Washed does us the inestimable service of getting out the measuring tapes and telling us that the current system is too big and monstrous for the safety of our ecosystems (never mind its mismatch with our needs) and that we must, as one chapter is titled, “crash the system or trash the planet.”

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Ph.D., Communication, The Ohio State University, 1998
M.A., English, Sonoma State University, 1992
B.A., Literature, University of California, Santa Cruz, 1984