Green Gone Wrong is the story of how our global economy — even some aspects of it that were ostensibly designed with sustainability as a priority — is undermining the ongoing environmental revolution. From the ‘beyond organic’ farms of New York’s Hudson Valley to the eco-villages of Western Europe, author Heather Rogers provides a first-hand account of the places and processes at the intersection of sustainable living and modern capitalism.
Rogers brings considerable reportorial skills to bear on this complex subject. Combining her passion for the livability of planet Earth with a healthy dose of journalistic skepticism, Rogers offers a balanced and nuanced take that moves the ball forward in our collective efforts to reconcile capitalism’s insatiable need for growth with the planet’s inherent limitations.
Heather Rogers wrote this book to explore the increasingly common perception that so-called ‘green’ consumer products can solve major environmental problems. As she writes in the introduction to Green Gone Wrong, “I started thinking about this book as I was doing talks for my last book, which was about garbage. Almost everywhere I spoke in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, at least one person in the audience would say he or she thought we could cure our environmental ills by consuming the right products. I began this project because I wasn’t sure the answer was so straightforward. Ultimately, I was concerned that the remedies being promoted in the marketplace may not have the power to keep biodiversity intact and the planet cool.”
In part one, Rogers digs into the organic food movement in the United States, highlighting some of the obstacles holding this burgeoning movement back. Among these obstacles are agricultural policies designed to favor corporate factory farm operations and misguided local tax codes, both of which leave many family-owned farms economically unsustainable. She also explores the limitations of the USDA’s official definition of organic, which amounts to a checklist of what you can and can’t add to crops, rather than a more holistic and sustainable approach advocated by many of the practitioners themselves. As Rogers notes, “Since the USDA fully implemented organic standards in 2002 — a process that began a dozen years earlier and went through several contentious rounds — many farmers, precisely the type that consumers imagine when they see the organic label, reject certification outright.” The implicit lesson is that the premium paid for ‘organic’ goods at the supermarket would be better spent on local produce at a farmers market. Rogers goes on to explore the impact of the global organic market on South America’s vast forests, which are rapidly being cleared in order to satisfy the demand for commodity organic crops. By flattening extremely biodiverse habitats in our quest for ‘organic’ agriculture, we run the risk of unwittingly doing irreparable environmental damage to critical habitats. This is just one of many examples Rogers explores in which the same dynamic appears to be at play.
In part two of Green Gone Wrong, Rogers looks at shelter and housing, visiting cutting-edge communities where people are making efforts to reduce the environmental impact of their dwellings. She looks beyond how these communities manage to live more sustainably by examining some of the factors preventing more individuals from adopting the same tactics.
In part three of the book, Rogers explores the ways in which people transport themselves from one location to another. From the palm oil plantations of Indonesia to the assembly lines of Detroit, Rogers provides a well-rounded look at the challenges associated with implementing a more sustainable transportation system.
In each of these three realms — food, shelter and transportation, Rogers digs beneath the obvious to reveal the structural forces at play. While many of the efforts Rogers highlights in the book do in fact lessen our negative impact on the environmental world, some of them may do more harm than good. Further, Green Gone Wrong makes it clear that a green version of capitalism, as currently practiced in much of the developed world, is an insufficient solution to the environmental challenges we face as a global society. In order to avoid pushing the planet past some of its inherent tipping points, we’ll need to go beyond simply consuming differently. Ultimately, in fact, we’ll need to consume less.
On a personal note, to me this book underscores the need for domestic legislation and international agreements sharply curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Some of the problems we face are so vast that consumer behavior alone isn’t a viable solution, regardless of how many ‘green’ attributes marketers use to convince us otherwise.
Anyone interested in looking under the hood of the green revolution would benefit from Ms. Rogers’ thoughtful and compelling take on the subject as laid out in Green Gone Wrong.