Making green a commodity

July 21, 2010

Amy Muldoon reviews a new book by Heather Rogers that argues that capitalism cannot offer real solutions to environmental degradation.

THE BEAUTY of capitalism lies in its seductive ability to manufacture needs and fulfill them just long enough until a new need comes along to replace it.

It also creates true needs by the very fact of its instability and destruction. Incredibly, it has managed at particular times in history to attempt to fulfill the need to rebel against and reject capitalism itself with clever product placement. Oldsmobile's famous "Not your father's Oldsmobile" slogan embodied the strategy of advertisers to commodify the rebelliousness of the '60s generation and sell it back to them on the open market.

Today, the looming destruction of the environment is creating a pressing need for solutions, but again, capitalism approaches the problem as one of how to sell the most products to the most people. Behind the façade of protecting the environment, the same rapacious logic that has brought the biosphere to the brink continues to operate--but is now being brought home in reusable bags.

Heather Rogers, who has truly earned the title "muckraker" after her exhaustive examination of garbage in her first book Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, returns to test the green credentials of the would-be saviors claiming that the solution to ecological meltdown can be found on the shelf of your local free market showroom.

BP launched its eco-friendly image in 2000 with a green sunflower logo and the slogan "Beyond Petroleum"
BP launched its eco-friendly image in 2000 with a green sunflower logo and the slogan "Beyond Petroleum"

Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy Is Undermining the Environmental Revolution is a powerful rebuttal to this assertion.

Excellently researched through firsthand reporting, by turns infuriating and heartbreaking, and refreshingly respectful of the millions of working-class people who are seen by many environmentalists as the problem, Green Gone Wrong points to the large-scale nature of the problem and the need for systematic solutions.

Like in Gone Tomorrow, Rogers depicts consumers as being in the passenger seat of the market; it is industrial producers who are doing the driving.

Even when there is proven demand--as for the Volt electric car--manufacturers will pull the plug if projected profit margins are not high enough. In fact, it was competition from Toyota, whose hybrid Prius shocked the industry by generating waiting lists in its first years, that drove U.S. auto producers into the field of hybrids, not any moral commitment to green values.

And when the market does move to meet the "ethical" consumer choices of shoppers, its methods of meeting demand often violate the goals those shoppers profess. In perhaps the most horrifying section of the book, Rogers' investigation of Wholesome Sweeteners' organic sugar plantations in Paraguay shows how industrial logic has transformed "organic" into a meaningless brand.

The production of sugar, a tropical cash crop with a bloody history tied to colonization, slavery and genocide, continues this tradition under the organic banner by driving massive deforestation of the Amazonian rainforest.

The Upper Paraná Atlantic Forest "once carpeted about 100 million acres, an area comprising eastern Paraguay and crossing into Brazil and Argentina," Rogers writes. "Today just 8 percent of the primary Upper Paraná ecosystem remains." While cattle, wheat and soy have contributed to the deforestation, the fastest growing-sector today is organic sugar--the same brand marketed by Whole Foods and used by Silk soymilk.

WHILE ROGERS' exposure of the cynical and often outright dishonest green capitalists is vindicating, she asserts that these issues are ultimately not about individual choices. They reflect the balance of power between a demobilized population and an aggressive industrial class, which frames how change can really come about.

Her study of eco-architecture not only illustrates how practical a transformation of housing--including existing housing--using energy-saving materials and systems could be, but why it has been happening in Germany.

Rogers places the movement to make shelter more energy efficient in the context of the successful fights against nuclear power that began in the 1980's and accelerated after the Chernobyl nuclear plant meltdown. This popular movement and the development of the Green Party as a national force have effectively contributed to a more vigorous (albeit still insufficient) national commitment to reducing energy use.

Participation and struggle might seem like the harder road, but Rogers hammers the hypocrisy of elites preaching that we could shop our way free of ecocide:

We live in a time of curtailed democracy in which average citizens are implored to "Vote with our wallet," rather than truly participate in the process of being citizens...In the United States, the top 20 percent of Americans own 85 percent of the wealth, and globally, the scales are tipped even further. So we can vote with our wallets all we want, but the people with the most money--precisely those who lavishly benefit from a system built on ransacking nature--will inevitably control the most votes.

Only through challenging the social structures that create and maintain inequality can the devastation of the environment be stopped and reversed.

Looking at the situation through the lens of Rogers' writing, the sorry state of both our environment and our environmentalism (which is so saturated with consumerism that Wal-Mart claims to be one of America's greenest companies) is neither surprising nor paralyzing. Instead of a continuous movement and an independent party committed to ecological preservation, we have unprincipled lobbyists and the Democratic Party.

Capitalism has been on a tear worldwide for 40 years, and the cost is more evident than ever. That capitalists and the government are forced to acknowledge, if not meaningfully address, the crisis shows that pro-environment sentiment is growing.

Green Gone Wrong is a timely contribution to advancing this sentiment into political action far from the cash register. It is required reading for anyone seduced by the siren song of socially responsible capitalism--and a potent weapon against the notion that somewhere an environmentally friendly ethical position exists in the free market.

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