I saw a commercial today that epitomizes everything that’s wrong with the so-called environmentalism that’s become the norm in American society. It was a commercial for Scott Naturals, a brand of toilet paper that apparently contains 40% (non-post-consumer) recycled content (“just the right amount,” the commercial claims, as if there might be something wrong with 80 or 100%). As the folks at Scott tell it, buying this product is not only the environmentally responsible thing to do but a way for consumers to “take a greener step without sacrificing quality.” So instead of being pitched as a concession to certain insistent environmental realities, Scott Naturals are marketed via the traditional "win-win” rhetoric of consumer fantasy: by purchasing this ostensibly environmentally friendly alternative, we’re told, we can get everything we want plus the value (and virtue) of environmentally conscious behavior.
Now, it doesn’t take a genius to see that this sales pitch is antithetical to any real vision of environmental sustainability. Indeed, by furthering the ideology that got us into our current mess in the first place (“you can have it all!”), such a commercial more than cancels whatever miniscule environmental gain the product it sells might actually generate. For if consumers believe that all they need to do is make simple, insignificant changes in their daily routine to save the world, it is quite possible they will commit, in the long run, even greater excesses than they might otherwise. Many individuals, that is--individuals who don’t identify themselves as environmentalists but who still feel uneasy about their impact on the planet--might have been tempted to modify their behavior in fundamental ways: most obviously, by buying less. But that would be bad, very bad, for business as usual. The solution: take away their guilt, and keep these folks buying ever more and more. After all, they can believe they’re saving the planet while they drive their hybrid minivans to Wal-Mart for a shitload of Scott Naturals.
Such “green consumerism,” in short, represents no alternative to our current habits of environmental recklessness; quite the contrary, it’s a marketing coup that enables industry to maintain, indeed extend, its earth-killing practices and consumers to ignore how their own behavior upholds those practices. As Timothy Luke writes in his essay “Green Consumerism: Ecology and the Ruse of Recycling” (from his 1997 book Ecocritique), such faux-environmentalism actually forestalls the work it professes to achieve: “Instead of thinking about how to reconstitute the entire mode of modern production politically in one systematic transformation to meet ecological constraints,” green consumerism “bases its call for action on nonpolitical, nonsocial, noninstitutional solutions to environmental problems. . . . The absurd claim that average consumers only need to shop, bicycle, or garden their way to an ecological future merely moves most of the responsibility and much of the blame away from the institutional centers of power whose decisions actually maintain the wasteful, careless ways of material exchange” that are devastating our world. Luke likens such consumer behavior to the purchasing of “green indulgences”--a reference to the practice whereby the early Catholic Church sold “indulgences” or pardons from sin. In the case of that shameful strategy, what you were buying was a ticket to heaven; in the case of green consumerism, what you’re buying is escape from the reality of living on earth.
Yet green consumerism, for all its patent falsehood, is growing; in fact, it has become the dominant mass-cultural form of environmental “activism,” and it shows up not only in the obvious places (industry and marketing) but in supposedly more responsible venues, such as the community campaigns sponsored by mainstream environmental organizations and the list of “easy ways to reduce your CO2 footprint” that ends Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. (What’s the difference, after all, between Gore’s claim that you can green the planet by screwing in compact fluorescents and the tagline for another supposedly “green” product line, this one from Procter & Gamble: “When green is user-friendly, we can all be future-friendly”?) The popularity of this fraudulent message is unsurprising: it’s easy, painless, consistent with the ideology it falsely claims to replace, and utterly congenial to the status quo.
With the growing trend in green consumerism, it’s no wonder that few young people these days appreciate the fundamental contradiction between true environmentalism and consumer ideology. Though the youth I’ve observed, from my children’s grade-school peers to my own college students, talk a lot about recycling (almost never about reducing or reusing), the idea that conservation might be irreconcilable with “having it all” has never entered their minds. That they might need to do without their electronic gadgets, sweatshopped garments, and gas-guzzling cars is anathema to them; that the entire global society might need to be restructured in such a way that its highest priority was no longer the rape of the earth to produce such disposable junk would strike them as nonsense and sacrilege. So they choose instead to buy Scott Naturals, and in so doing to countenance and advance the destruction of the earth they claim to cherish.
True environmentalism isn’t “user-friendly.” It’s not comfortable. It requires sacrifice. In fact, it can be a real pain in the ass. But in the end, isn’t it better to have a sore ass than no ass at all?