Going Green: Is it for Real, or is it a Scam?
Are We Really Going Green?
Is the Green Movement authentic? Even if it is, how do we separate the truly good Green from scams, bad science, and cheap technology? Read on to find out more.
Going Green: Real Problems, Uncertain Solutions
Let me begin by saying that I am certain that the problems that the Green Movement hopes to address are real. Humanity faces a whole series of crises in issues of toxic waste; environmental destruction; habitat and ecosystem destruction; extinction of many species; and chaotic global climate change. Hundreds of thousands of people are dying each year from these problems, and the annual death toll will probably increase into the millions and go on for a century or more.
The problem is big - too big for anyone to really grasp.The problem will outlive everyone alive today. (If a solution comes sooner, it will be the result of unprecedented global cooperation and unforeseen technologies.) But are we ready to be part of the solution? And are we doing it well?
What Albert Einstein said about the atomic bomb applies to human actions changing the environment as well: "Science has brought forth this danger, but the real problem is in the minds and hearts of men. We will not change the hearts or other men by mechanism, but by changing our hearts and speaking bravely. "
So, our first question is: Is the Green Movement a change of heart? If not, what is it? Is it perhaps just an advertising slogan?
Power From the Tides
Changes of Heart: Perspective and Philosophy
Before 1850, few people ever thought that humanity was already changing the world we live in. And no one imagined we could make such large changes that the poisons and chaos would threaten civilization worldwide.
As the wonders of North America were revealed to explorers, the possibility of their destruction became clear, as well. This gave rise to two movements: Conservation and Preservation. Both had the same fundamental philosophy: Stewardship.
Stewardship means that we commit to taking good care of this world. We do not own it, but we manage it, and we will manage it well.
Beginning in 1905, but making very slow progress until around 1950, we began to get a picture of just how complicated and interdependent all the species in any environment were. This gave birth to the science of ecology. In ecology, each species is a participant in a larger living system. When any one species goes extinct, the whole ecosystem changes.
Humanity, too, is part of each ecosystem we live in or visit, and part of the whole living world, the ecosphere. Being self-aware, we can choose how we will live and act in each ecosystem.
This creates a different perspective and philosophy. Ecology is an ethos of participation, and an ethic of conscious participation. All of our actions matter. Which actions make the world as a whole - for plants, animals, and people, a better place?
To learn more about the of conservation, preservation, and ecology in the United States, please read: Conservation, Preservation, Ecology & Go Green: History & Lessons. To learn about the importance of living in awareness and having a conscious philosophy, read about paradigms in The Seven Habits: An Overview.
Today, we have a choice of perspectives. Will we seek to be good stewards, but see ourselves as fundamentally separate from nature? Or will we see ourselves as participants in life on planet Earth?
Which of these approaches guides the Go Green movement? Or does it have any guiding philosophy at all?
The Dangers of Having No Guiding Philosophy
If European history of the 20th century taught us anything, it should have taught us to be careful to develop good guiding philosophies, and to be wary of changing guiding philosophies and the shifting and corruption of purpose and principles. How did the the left wing socialism of Germany get hijacked by right-wing nationalism to create the extreme right-wing Nazi Party? How did Marx's communism, with the working class being the rulers, become the totalitarian regimes of so-called Communists like Lenin and Stalin?
Also, how did World War I, the War to End All Wars, lay the groundwork for World War II and an endless series of wars with modern weapons still going on today?
We see that if an original philosophy is corrupted or lost, or a genuine motive becomes a mere slogan, terrible things result.
Does the Green Movement have a genuine philosophy? If so, what is it? And will it remain true to its purpose?
To answer this question, we have to look at all eight different parts of Go Green.
For some, going Green is political. If that is your first focus, please read Green Government and Green Politics in the US: Is Go Green a Go? for more about the current state of:
- Green Politics
- Green Government
- Green Advocacy
For most of us, going Green is first about our way of life. It's about looking at our lifestyle and purchasing choices with regard to their effect on the planet as the home for humanity for generations to come. This comes together in five topics, all addressed in this article.
- Green Energy
- Green Economics
- Green Marketing
- Green Construction
- Green Engineering
Green Energy has two sides: energy conservation, or reducing energy consumption; and producing clean energy with minimal pollution and carbon dioxide emissions.
For the best tips in reducing personal energy consumption, see Can Go Green Solve Global Warming & Toxic Pollution? For long-term energy conservation through new construction, see the Green Construction in this article, which discusses the LEEDS standards.
Here, let's talk about clean Green energy.
The goal is to generate electrical power without adding either heat or carbon dioxide to the environment. There are basically four ways to do that:
- Hydroelectric power adds no carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, but does increase heat pollution. Hydroelectric power creates other environmental problems, though because the dams create artificial lakes, flooding usable land and producing serious environmental problems. Mini-hydro using local rivers for small towns, and micro-hydro using streams on private property are good options.
- Solar power is our best option, and coming more and more into play. We're just using the heat that the sun is already providing.
- Wind power is also a very good source, and growing in usage. The biggest problem is the NIMBY (not in my back yard) complaint. I've seen the windmills lining the sky in West Texas, and I see them as a beautiful sign of hope and commitment to our future. But that's not the way the rich folks in New York State feel - at least not the loud ones.
- Waves and tides: This is a vast resource, and under-utilized. An experimental station that turns ocean waves into electrical energy was build in England in the 1970s, and it is still very successful. But no one wants to spend the money to build more of these incredible, simple power stations that could work on many coastlines.
Other power sources, such as burning garbage to generate electricity, are touted as Green. And, to some extent, they are good things to do. Often, they are better than burning coal or oil. But burning is burning, and it dumps carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. At this point, we should stop burning and start finding ways to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
Glowing Green - Radioactive!
The most absurd claim for Green anything is an effort by the nuclear power industry to claim that it is a Green technology. Nuclear power leaves behind radioactive waste that remains dangerous for 50,000 years!
Natural gas and coal are not Green just because they burn cleaner than oil does.
Hydrogen fuel cells are often touted as a source of alternative energy, but they do not generate energy, they transport it, just like power lines or batteries. They're a great solution for reducing smog in city transportation. But if the electricity comes from power plants, they are not a complete Green solution.
Making gasoline out of corn or burning wood for electricity is not Green. We're still filling the air with carbon dioxide, and denuding the planet with monoculture plantings supported by toxic chemicals.
Above all, if you hear that nuclear power plants are green, please laugh out loud. The claim is that they don't put carbon dioxide into the air. Even that isn't true - the oil burned in the construction and dis-assembly of a nuclear power plant is enormous. We've had significant nuclear power plant disasters in the US, the former Soviet Union, and Japan. And, on top of it, we have no way of getting rid of spent nuclear fuel. Creating materials for nuclear weapons that can be used by terrorists and rogue governments is not Green. Leaving radioactive poisons that we have to store for 50,000 years is not Green, either.
The bottom line on Green Economics is that it is primarily economics, and primarily used to justify making money. It may be influenced by ecological concerns, but it is not promoting a central focus on sustainable living.
Gold or Green?
Green economics is economics influenced by Green thinking. Classical economics had two parts: Microeconomics and Macroeconomics. Microeconomics thought only of markets where products were sold by companies and bought by citizens in households. Macroeconomics focused on monetary policy and inflation, the issue of "too much money chasing too little goods." Classical economics was a theoretical discipline trying to explain supply, demand, and pricing, It took no concern for government policy, psychology, marketing, or the environment.
In fact, classical economics was so theoretical that it was thoroughly unrealistic. It assumed that information about products was always true, and was available at no cost. As a result, it could not address issues such as contamination of the food supply with invisible toxins, which led to the recall of half a billion eggs a couple of years ago, and problems with spinach, pet food, and many other products. It assumed everyone made rational decisions when purchasing, which flies against the obvious fact that advertising, using the psychology of influence to stimulate non-rational purchases, works, and another obvious fact, that people's view of the economy changes their purchasing choices.
These limitations of economics have been addressed over the years by academic efforts to modify or extend economic theory to include non-economic factors. As a result, we have: economics of the public sector; the Consumer Confidence Index, which tries to predict spending and saving based on psychosocial factors; and, most recently, Green Economics, which tries to take issues of the environment and sustainability into account.
All of these efforts are suspect on three points:
- The theory is uncertain. For example, all of the mathematics of economics takes as a fundamental assumption that a dollar is a fundamental, unchanging unit. But the economics of public policy assigns variable social value to dollars, throwing all of the math of the theory into question.
- All of these extensions of economics have been used as political footballs. Numbers are manipulated to produce desired results. For example, in the economics of public policy, there are times when an organization's payroll was listed as a social benefit completely covering its cost, because the money was going into the local economy. This made initiatives that would cost the taxpayers millions of dollars look "free."
- Someone is paying for the use of all this research. The original research is often pure of financial motive, and purely academic. But its application is usually paid for by a big company with lots of money that wants to make more money.
The bottom line is: Be suspicious of green economics. The theory is uncertain, and the use of it is usually biased to support someone's political agenda, or, more likely, to support corporate greed. One thing you can guarantee: The birds and the bees who might be killed off by the plans being studied didn't pay for the study.
Move towards Green buying this way: Picture buying the latest iPad because everyone has to have one, and then learning that the rare metals in its magnets are strip-mined creating tons of toxic waste and it was built in a factory in China where working conditions are so bad that workers are committing suicide under the pressure of meeting American holiday shopping deadlines.
Then go in the opposite direction in every way:
- Buy only what you need to genuinely improve your life
- Buy long-lasting items and take good care of them
- Buy things made from eco-friendly materials
- Buy things made by workers in healthy environments getting a reasonable salary
- When you can, make it yourself
- When you can, buy fair trade hand-crafted items
Marketing is the art of using the psychology of influence to get people to buy products. Also, there is no regulation that requires marketing claims about "green" to meet any standard at all. Marketers are free to call anything they sell "green," and they will. Why? To sell more of them.
Is Consumption Green?
I would suggest that anyone who sees himself or herself as a consumer is not yet into green thinking. Consumption is destructive, not sustainable. When we see ourselves as people and as citizens, we are taking the first step towards Green thinking and Green living. And that first step may be to buy a lot less altogether.
After all, everything made by people is a drain on the environment. And losing the art of making things for ourselves reduces our creativity. Going Green is about creating, not consuming.
What happens when we restrict purchasing to:
- Essential and enjoyable healthy foods, especially raw ingredients for our own cooking
- Essential health, especially prevention (which can mostly be achieved through diet and exercise), and alternative health services, which are more effective and less costly.
- Support for creative projects that are sustainable in nature
- Water and sanitation
- Shelter with a minimal carbon footprint, reducing greenhouse gas emissions
Living a truly creative life is the essence of Going Green.
The Green Movement: Change of Heart, or Advertising Slogan?
When we do need to buy something, it makes sense to buy green. The ideal Green food is vegetarian, organic, and local, but that is not always possible. We must do our best and make trade-offs.
When we need new computers, cell phones, or personal electronics, both self-evaluation and research are called for. Do we really need the item? Will it improve our quality of life and help us be more creative and more fully participatory in life? Are we buying for the long haul? (My car was built in 2001, and I got my computer around 2003. Both are going great.)
Is the item built using Green manufacturing and sustainable labor practices? This requires a fair lot of research to cut through the hype and hiding of destructive corporate practices.
Get Comfortable and Save the Planet
Heating and cooling of living spaces is a huge part of US energy consumption. Learn to live with a temperature close to what is going on outside and you will save hundreds of dollars a year, and save the planet, too.
My wife and I live in Florida and are very happy with our house in the low 80s in the summer and at 68 in the winter. In Spring and Fall, we go without heating or air conditioning for several months.
You can adjust to a wide range of temperatures by adjusting slowly, choosing proper clothing, and getting healthy exercise. And this idea did come from an architect: Frank Lloyd Wright believed that air conditioning is unhealthy because of the shock to the body when we go from inside to outside. My wife and I are much more comfortable than other Floridians, indoors and out. And if everyone did what we did, US energy consumption would drop by several percent, reducing greenhouse gas emissions significantly.
Green construction has taken a great leap forward, in a way.
The new LEED (Leadership in Environmental and Engineering Design) is a set of rating systems from the U.S. Green Building Council. Individuals can pass exams to become LEED certified. Also, building owners can pay a fee for an evaluation and get a LEED rating indicating how eco-friendly the building is. One excellent thing about the LEED standard is that it incorporates elements of healthy environments for people along with eco-friendly materials and energy efficiency.
LEED is excellent for what it does. But it actually ignores the really big problems.
LEED is almost all about new construction and commercial construction. And it focuses on the most expensive buildings. So it is high-profile, expensive work.
What we really need is ways of retrofitting existing homes to create comfortable human environments with much less heating and air conditioning.
Jimmy Carter had it right back in 1973. For folks living in cold climates, the most eco-friendly thing to do is wear a sweater and set the winter thermostat to 68° or lower. In the summer, I set the air conditioning to 84° or 86° and turn on a fan.
Ideally, Green Engineering is the design and manufacture of safe, healthy, useful products through methods that are sustainable for the local environment, for the global greenhouse gasses, and for the people providing raw materials and manufacturing the products.
This includes everything from organic farming to the development of bleach-free non-toxic cleansers made with little waste water and no hazardous chemicals.
Unfortunately, putting the idea of Green Engineering into practice is hard for several reasons:
- Green costs. If the Green product is more expensive to produce than its competitors, it will not gain market share, and may fail. As a result, most Green engineering focuses on reducing waste and cost-cutting.
- Green Unknowns. When we move away from known toxic chemicals, we may be moving towards new, unidentified toxins.
- Fake Green. Very little reliable information is available: some Green claims can be pure hype. For example, BP (British Petroleum) launched a major campaign touting how Green it was. The author of the campaign quit in disgust when he saw that corporate policy was not in line with the campaign. And, not long afterward, BP was responsible for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the largest accidental marine oil spill in history. And the US government official report found that the causes of the spill were systemic, and that such spills are likely to happen again.
Water Bottles Aren't Green Enough
There is an excellent example of the complicated factors related to Green manufacturing, and it shows just how hard it is to make a safe, healthy, Green purchasing decision.
Many people carry their own water bottles. Why? First of all, most tap water is chlorinated and fluoridated, and is not very healthy. Buying bottled water means wasting a lot of one-use disposable or recyclable bottles - not a very Green thing to do. Re-using recyclable bottles turns out to have health risks, as the plastic contains unsafe chemicals that can get into the drinking watervif the bottle is cleaned. The solution - buy washable, re-usable water bottles, and fill them with water purified at home.
But what kind of water bottle is best? Cheap ones leak. Fancy ones with spring-loaded sippers leak, too! Aluminum is toxic, even when coated. Stainless steel is best for cleaning, but expensive, and has a high carbon footprint, too. It's useful to be able to see if the bottle is getting empty. So translucent plastic seems like the best way to go. But those transparent plastic water bottles are often made with Bisphenol A, or BPA. BPA has been declared a toxic substance in Canada, and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has called for a ban on using it in all food packaging. BPA was actually used in hormone therapy in the 1930s, then found to be too dangerous. And now it is in our food. The Food and Drug Administration is very slow and reluctant to ban dangerous substances, and recent news stories show conclusively that its approval of drugs is guided by the drug industry, and is no longer independent. And the standards for food containers are much lower than the standards for foods, which are lower than the standards for drugs.
But it gets worse. Concerns about BPA led to it being banned in baby bottles and sippy cups, and Green consumers decided they didn't want it in their water bottles. Very quickly, many water bottles showed up on the shelves at Whole Foods and elsewhere claiming to be "BPA-Free."
Let's assume that that claim is true, for the moment. Prior to these bottles coming out, the claim was that BPA was necessary for transparent, reusable bottles, that there was no other affordable way to make them. Yet these new bottles came out as soon as there was consumer demand. What are they made of?
No one knows. Companies are not required to announce what plastics they use in food containers, they are only required not to use banned substances.
It takes ten to thirty years to discover that a substance is toxic to human beings. So whatever those plastic bottles are made of now, there's a fair chance that our grandchildren will be fighting the FDA to have the substance banned when we come down with toxic poisoning or cancer in our later years.
A Smattering of Scattered Scams
The title of this article asks if Go Green is a scam. But Go Green is not just one thing. It is a whole bunch of things, all influenced by an awareness that is quite old and wise. But few people can keep the big picture in mind. So people insert their biases and companies assert their agendas. The result is that Go Green is not a movement at all, but a smattering of scattered scams and wonderful ideas.
Very Pale Green
We began this article by seeing that any movement, no matter how well intended, can be diluted and co-opted. As we've seen in the case of the Green movement, it started from very good ecological science and profound philosophical values. And it is good that those values have influenced politics, economics, government, energy, marketing, construction, and engineering.
But the effect is just influence. It is not a change of heart: Politics is still about getting elected: Economic studies are still used to figure out ways for businesses to make more money; U.S. Government is still co-opted or stonewalled by major corporations; The energy industry is still slow to change and full of vested interests; Marketing is all about profit and often full of lies; Construction still focuses on the big and new, and not the real problems of retrofitting our homes; Engineering is full of unknowns and often at the service of profit-making companies.
If we do what the green marketers do, we will be very pale green, indeed. We are likely to poison ourselves and hasten our own demise, and to do very little for our children unto the seventh generation.
Is there an alternative? Yes. We can change our own hearts. Read on.
The lack of a coherent Green movement means that Green choices are up to us. Ultimately, they are about respectful and loving relationship to this world, and they come from our own hearts, day by day.
How Do You Want to Go Green?
Green choices are ultimately about respect, compassion, and love. When we care as much about the lives of our children as our own lives, we will go deep Green. When we care deeply about the lives of animals and plants, and the harmony of life on Earth, we will respect all life and live in harmony. The feeling of living in harmony brings deep peace and love.
Then actions based in love and respect protect and preserve our environment, our own lives, and the world for our children.
After we have a change of heart, we need to open our minds.
The first step of opening our minds is painful. We need to cut through the illusions, the false claims of the goodness of society and even of much of the Green movement. And, like all disillusionment, it is disheartening at first.
But not for long. It is good to be free of illusions. There is real power in knowing the truth: We have the power to discover that we are not consumers, not couch potatoes. We have the power to change how we live.
Steps of Going Green
Live simply that others may live. Let's buy what we need, and not more.
Become independent. Let's cook our food from raw ingredients.
Become Creative. Let's enjoy dancing and making art from found objects and singing so that we can turn off the TV.
Be Careful. When we do need to buy, let's buy after careful research.
Be Reverent. Revere life, practice non-violence, and enjoy a lot of time in nature. Let the life of the world speak to your heart.
We can't make a huge difference by following the Go Green movement. It's too disorganized. But we can make a big difference by living true to ourselves and going Green using tools and products the movement offers. How? That question is answered in Can Go Green Solve Global Warming and Toxic Pollution?
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