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If You Really Want to Stop Global Warming...

Posted: 05/29/07 01:31 PM ET

Last week I got an e-mail from Laurie David, of StopGlobalWarming.org, that announced two new partnerships. The first came as an "action tip," which told me I could reduce my junk mail for five years by sending 41 bucks to a group called 41 Pounds, which would then funnel $15 back to Laurie's group. On its website, 41 Pounds has lots of damning facts about junk mail -- how many trees it trashes, how much water and energy it uses, how much space it takes up in landfills, etc. Junk mail is bad news, overall. But you don't need to spend $41 to curtail mail, you just need to send a couple postcards with your signature to the direct marketing companies. The Center for the New American Dream tells you exactly how.

The second partnership is with the company Simple Shoes. If you buy its flip-flops, called Toepeekas, $5 of the $65 purchase price will go to StopGlobalWarming (or another worthy cause: your choice). The shoes are supposed to make you feel good because they're made of recycled tires and packed in "a bio-degradable bag made from cornstarch." There's a small problem with those bags: it doesn't matter how biodegradable they are if they're not going to end up in a commercial composting operation (and then there's the environmental toll of planting, fertilizing and harvesting all that genetically modified corn). But the shoes themselves, and even 41 Pounds' service, are part of a far more worrisome larger trend: the constant marketing of green goods to folks who've shown some interest in treading lightly on the planet.

We are a formidable market segment, it turns out: we represent a $228.9 billion opportunity to retailers in the LOHAS (it stands for "Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability") category. You can't fault a company for offering greener versions of goods we actually need. But I lose patience with some LOHAS manufacturers' "save the earth" piety. They're still producing, marketing, and packaging a lot of overpriced, nonessential goods, then sending them around the country on trucks that burn fossil fuel. It's the treadmill logic of capitalism applied to a freshly identified market segment.

Green purchasing tells us to vote with our wallets, but it ignores a third choice: not buying at all. I try to resist these green come-ons because I hate to think our strength is based on consumption, instead of more substantive action. I'm appalled by the amount of junk mail I (used to) get from environmental groups, much of it offering to reward donors with cheaply made premiums (how many tote bags and baseball caps can one person use?). Some even have the nerve to offer "affinity" credit cards, which only make it easier to buy more stuff, to consume without a thought for the natural resources that went into making these goods, and for the toll they will take on human health and the environment once we've consigned them to the dump.

It's this culture of convenience -- how about a TerraPass, so you can keep driving your SUV? -- that makes it easy to feel better without actually changing how we live. Sure, buy some Toepeekas if you really need another pair of sandals -- anytime you buy something recycled you're preventing the extraction, transportation, and transformation of raw materials. But if you don't really need another pair of shoes, skip it.

And 41 Pounds? Give them your money if you're too time-stressed to write to the direct marketers on your own. Then e-mail your elected representatives. Tell them you want an opt-out list for junk mail, akin to the list for telemarketers. And while you're at it, tell them you want to make producers of this unwanted crap -- the junk mail as well as the circulars dumped on our stoops and driveways -- responsible for its reuse and recycling (the First Amendment protects their right to keep sending it). If we really want to StopGlobalWarming, we've got to curb our enthusiasm for whatever is new and easy.