THE BLOG
05/02/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Buying Our Way to a Better Planet?

There is a debate, subdued at times, between various approaches toward changing the planet to the better. In many ways, my viewpoint (on the optimist side) tends toward the 'enviro-capitalist', thinking that we can work to structure the economy to make the right choice, the easy (and preferred) choice. There is a challenge between using financial mechanisms as a tool to move toward a A Prosperous, Climate-Friendly Society and going overboard.

The line can be thin ... or thick.

GreenSumption or Greening our Choices?

GreenSumption comes from the International Forum on Globalization (IFG):

an alliance of sixty leading activists, scholars, economists, researchers and writers formed to stimulate new thinking, joint activity, and public education in response to economic globalization ...

While not necessarily in full agreement with these 60, they make me think (and think hard).

Amid all the Earth Day/Week greenwashing, with all the green packaging in the stores, it is worth thinking about the difference between greening our choices (and fostering a more sustainable lifestyle/economy) and using Green as an excuse for ever more consumption.

Late last year, the video's coauthor gave an interview:

We got the idea together just by talking and laughing about the absurdity of the notion that the way out of this planetary crisis -- which is deeply rooted in overuse of scarce resources -- is to go out and "shop to save the planet." Among many false solutions now coming at us, it is surely the most peculiar, but so American: every crisis viewed as a new business growth opportunity.

This is an important point with a lot of truth to it.

When we talk about dealing with Global Warming as "good for the economy", we risk falling into this trap. There are many economic values for ways to deal with Global Warming (such as increasing energy efficiency reducing waste) that will improve economic performance. The traditional economic measures (metrics) all emphasize increased consumption. If we were, suddenly, to have exactly the same life-style (albeit with far less pollution) using half the energy, formal economic measures would show a worsened economy (since there would be fewer dollars going into Exxon's bank accounts). Dollars spent wastefully "count" just the same as those spent effectively. The real way that dealing with Global Warming will be "good" for the economy is when we are able to be more holistic in our understanding of "economy", to understand that people's health and well-being "count" as well, that having a sustainable environment for future generations counts as well, that there is no legitimacy for "external" costs in our accounting any longer.

Obviously the better answer is less use of energy, materials, consumption, not more, as we said in the video. And to separate fake solutions (like "clean coal" and "clean nuclear" and industrialized large-scale biofuels) from real ones.

Reduce end-use consumption (efficiency, conservation, changing our choices) and efficiency throughou the system and clean energy, those are real solutions. Not "less-deadly coal' ...

What is IFG's take on globalization?

The modern economic globalization model (since the 1946 Bretton Woods meetings) depends upon four impossible conditions:

1. Continuous rates of high economic growth for global corporations, and for the overall system itself. That idea is itself preposterous on a finite planet. The growth itself depends on:

2. Ever-increasing access to supplies of (inexpensive) natural resources, especially cheap energy and inexpensive global transport, arable soils, and water.

3. Third, always increasing new markets.

4. Fourth, always expanding supplies of cheap labor.

Do we live in a world without limits? IFG would say no.

Global corporations had a field day over the past five decades, while all of those things were in abundant supply. But we live on a finite planet: limited resources, limited sinks, limited rates of recovery, limited carrying capacity.

"limited ..."

The ecological limits of the planet are now in clear view, as expressed by the combination of climate change, peak oil (the end of the era of cheap energy), and overall global resource depletion and extinctions. We call this "The Triple Crisis."

"Peak" atmospheric / ocean ability to safely absorb our pollution; peak of inexpensive and easy to access oil and other resources, and the extinction threat. Yup, this is a triple crisis worth at least some attention, even among primary wars.

But, International Forum on Globalization (IFG) is worth more time than this little post can give it.

An Earth Day initiative: Buy Green to Save Green

Okay, there is GreenSumption and there is sensible action. Sierra Club and Representative Brian Baird (D-WA) are calling

on taxpayers to spend their economic stimulus checks on energy efficient products and services

Now, perhaps it would have been better if the stimulus package had measures for energy efficiency and renewable energy in it, no? Instead, people will use it to try to buy non-available rice at Costco and buy (soon-to-be) $4 gasoline. (How many miles will your rebate check take you?)

something that will stimulate the economy, save consumers money on their energy bills, help fight global warming, and could double the financial benefit of their stimulus checks if spent on products such as home insulation that are already eligible for additional tax credits.

These are great measures. Really like the idea of multiplying tax free (at least tax free on the recipient as these stimulus checks actually represent tax increases on the unborn, who will burdened with paying for them) stimulus check benefits with buying things to get even more tax benefits.

They are also calling on businesses to give "promotions and other incentive to encourage consumers to participate in the campaign".

"Consumers ..." Are we risking crossing a line into GreenSumption?

From Carl Pope, Sierra Club's Executive Director:

"This Earth Day the Sierra Club is telling people 'We can do it!' The Buy Green to Save Green campaign shows that when it comes to the economy and the environment, we can have our cake and eat it too.

Carl, did you really have to say it that way?

While we need people to recognize and speak of the environment and the economy (rather than "versus", that these are somehow (falsely) in opposition), "have our cake and eat it too ..." Nails on a blackboard.

To be fair, Carl continued:

The burgeoning clean energy economy can help put our country back on the path to prosperity, help protect consumers from skyrocketing energy costs, and fight global warming.

There is win-win-win space here. Moving toward a clean-energy (renewable energy and energy efficient) future will strengthen the economy, creating good jobs while improving the balance of payments, improve American security, improve Americans' health, etc ... all while having the corollary benefit of fighting Global Warming.

By spending their stimulus checks on energy efficient products, consumers can help put our economy back on track, help the environment, help save themselves money on their energy bills, and help bring the clean energy future to life.

Carl is right. People can spend this money wisely ... or not. Sadly, the stimulus package was not structured in a way to boost near-term economic performance while strengthening the economy and society for the future. "The people know best how to spend their money" is a refrain that we will hear. Well, this isn't always the case. And, The Wisdom of Crowds isn't always wise for the greater good. "Crowds" sometimes perform better with a little guidance

But Carl's words about the win-win-win space that Going Green will put some green (money) into the economy and into our pockets is an important message. We can provide a more prosperous path as working to Energize America can foster a sustainable and prosperous climate friendly society. And, spending one's stimulus check to insulate one's home, buy compact fluorescent lightbulbs, plant a vegetable garden for 100-foot (rather than 1000 mile) food, etc are ways to invest this money toward a lower polluting and lower cost future life style and society.

Treading a fine line ...

As noted, a fine line exists between Greening our Spending and GreenSumption. A sensible, sustainable society might be better fostered through using stimulus checks to pay down credit card loans and investing in the future (through, as Carl suggests, energy efficiency and other climate-friendly actions) rather than running to the store to make a purchase. While this quarter's economic figures might be sparked through GreenSumption, this is not a path toward tomorrow's stronger and more prosperous America.

NOTE to readers: I have tremendous respect for Carl, who is thoughtful, eloquent, and powerful re environmental issues ... but, come on, "cake and eat it too ..." Doesn't that sound like GreenSumption to you?