Oxymoron of the Day: Green Consumer

Consume = use up = unsustainable. Nuff said?

Yes, yes, yes, I know, I know, of course it’s a good thing that people are becoming more conscious of the impacts of their purchases. But, call me a curmudgeon (or worse), I just can’t stand marketing verbage like this:

Green Festival, the largest and most authentic green consumer event in the world.”

How sad that even the folks who are out there working so hard to promote green lifestyles are still propagating our culture’s perverse view that a person is nothing more than a consumer. Because that’s precisely the attitude we have to lose if we ever hope to create a truly sustainable society. Calling someone a consumer should be an insult.

I don’t mean to bash Green Festival — they’re doing great work. But what keeps niggling away at me is this impression that the popular green movement is creating a false sense of complacency, that if we could all just become green consumers everything will be OK and we won’t have to make any major changes or serious sacrifices. To put that in perspective, witness the mass howling that ensues when, for example, it is proposed that car capacity be reduced in order to encourage more sustainable modes of transportation.

And then at times I think to myself, “just relax, people are changing, it’s all good.” But even Alan Durning of Sightline, known for his restrained wisdom and positive attitude, apparently isn’t letting people off the hook that easily, to judge by this quote in a recent Seattle PI article about green building:

“People are capable of holding wildly contradictory beliefs. There is this sort of pastoral ideal that you will live in a place set in parkland like French royalty, and you are a good responsible REI member, and green Northwesterner. So your Land Rover has mute Earth tones, and you probably buy organic pet food for your Labrador retriever.”

8 Responses to “Oxymoron of the Day: Green Consumer”

  1. Renee

    Thank you, Dan!

    I found a Green Festival “2 for 1 coupon” at the bottom of my PCC receipt this week. And, I have seen information on many good organizations that will be at the Green Festival. But, when I went to the full list of event participants, it felt like a different name for the Home Show.

    Sustainable Ballard did a great job last September of bringing together a number or sustainability focused organizations for their event. And, it was nice that the event was held outside in a park rather than in the Convention Center.

    I think I will hold out for Sustainable Ballard again and will pass on the Green Festival this round.

  2. michael

    Yes! Exactly the thoughts I have when inside a Whole Foods. Hard to imagine a place more formulaically (is this a word?) set up to encourage people to consume. The fact that much of the food in a WF is still coming from thousands of miles away is glossed over by the organic and “green” messages so effectively conveyed in everything from the decor to the displays and products. Michael Pollan calls it “supermarket pastoral” in his book Omnivore’s Dilemma (a must read) – it’s not necessarily sustainable at all.

  3. Sean

    You make a great point. I read a while ago about a school which spent millions to build a platinum certified building for their environmental business program. Seemed then like they could have spent the money in another way besides a brand new bulding. I guess the problem is that our economy must go on and people have to spend money on things to keep businesses alive. kind of a dilemma

  4. Brian

    I guess it’s all about your philisophical position. Do you want revolution or evolution? I guess there’s only one true answer here at HugeAss…

    I agree the whole “green consumer” thing is an oxymoron. But speaking of morons, that’s what we’ve all been for so long with such ingrained habits and an entire economy built upon consumption. We’re not going to rip it all up tomorrow. Really, we’re not, so stop dreaming. Therefore, if more people can at least learn to begin with “less bad”, it is a start. Yes, the risk is no change in consumption habits overall, but that’s why you keep it up. Keep pushing the bar farther, keep educating and pulling people along towards genuine sustainability.

    I think it’s not unlike the LEED rating system. Over time it will become more and more difficult to acheive the rating that used to be “easy”. Or at least that’s how it should be. Keep raising the bar.

  5. Dan Staley

    if we could all just become green consumers everything will be OK and we won’t have to make any major changes or serious sacrifices.

    Reg’lur folk – the masses – generally don’t want to hear that talk about sacrifice, Danny. I’m reminded of Vonnegut:

    “The good Earth – we could have saved it, but we were too damn cheap and lazy.”

    So how do we price things out of reach without breaking people? Soft landings?

    Next, I’m reminded of this cartoon explaining human nature.

    So do I agree with Michael about Whole Paycheck? Sure. And I think people need a palliative. Will that move us forward? A tiny bit. We have to talk about soft landings vs hard landings, and how do we carbon down, downsize energy use, etc.

  6. danb

    The thing is that if we try to be nice and try to give people the softest landing possible and try to not expect too much too fast, the end result may well be that everyone gets a much much harder landing. The latest I’ve heard is that we need to reduce CO2 emissions by 90% by 2050 just to stabilize at 450ppm. We’re at 375ppm now, and pre-industrial was 280ppm (I hope my memory isn’t failing me on these numbers…). In other words, we have to make unthinkably massive changes very rapidly just to stabilize at a CO2 level that’s two-thirds higher than normal. It’s numbers like these that leave me with very little patience for hearing about the virtues of green consuming.

  7. Dan Staley

    Danny, doing nothing results in a hard landing. Doing something useful makes a cushy for the tushy on the way down. The question is: ‘does green consuming achieve a useful end?’ I say you have to start somewhere. Three generations of happy consuming isn’t hard wiring, but the conduit’s full and nailed down in many places.

    What you are talking about – capping atm CO2 ppmv at 450 – means massive societal change, starting 25 years ago. We didn’t do that, as my Vonnegut quote explained why. Now, 25 years later, you want even sterner action at large scales in a short time period. When has human society in the last 9000 years ever done this?

    So you are now thinking that we’re going to go over 450 ppmv. Yes we are. Not likely, are. Societies don’t change like that. So what’s next? Surely we will lose ecosystem services, which means fewer resources to exploit. Exploiting resources maintains human population and its growth rate.

    The Les Browns, the Avery Lovins and the Geoffery Sachs of the world see this and ask ‘how do we direction society?’**. Baby steps. We are hard wired to avoid jumping off the abyss. Is green consuming a valuable baby step in the right direction? Not for those – like you Mr B – who are already walking that path. But only ~5-20% of folk are down that path. Of the rest, maybe 2/3 know the path exists and the other 1/3 won’t walk it for whatever reason (I like to call it envirohate).

    So the 2/3 need help in finding ways to walk the path, and Hertsgaard explored this issue long ago in his book Earth Odyssey, which I heartily recommend to get a decent idea of the impediments in the way.

    In the old incarnation of the book club, one of my choices was Schellenberger and Nordhaus’ The Death of Environmentalism, which explored the reasons why conservation and respect for the environment isn’t in our typical daily conversations. I recommend it for the other dimension of our problem.

    So we have two main issues in Murrica: we move from climate-controlled box to climate-controlled box and have largely lost the connection to the environment (& thus don’t talk about it, think about it, act to preserve it), and many of us are so busy in the day-to-day rat race that taking action is an energy expenditure we can’t afford.

    You have to start somewhere. Is it right for you? No. But the choir already knows this. The task is to sing a catchy tune that has everyone else humming along.

    ** Note I didn’t mention certain other popular figures, as they are political and IMHO aren’t offering solutions, only increasing awareness, which has value.

  8. Dan Staley

    BTW, you may want to go into control panel and change the color for hyperlinks or make them underlined. They don’t show well at all in Firefox or IE.


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