New Eco-Friendly Packaging Triggers Boom In Guilt-Free Littering

ROCKFORD, IL – Nick Sundin used to be neurotic about littering. The 37-year-old pediatrician admits he kept trash bags in his car, and would even pick up and throw away garbage he found on the street. Since boyhood, Sundin said, he was keenly attuned to the environmental degradation littering caused, an attitude triggered by the famous Keep America Beautiful “Crying Indian” public service announcement he saw on television as a young man.

Not anymore.

“These ‘eco’ products are amazing—they’ve totally changed my life,” Sundin said. “Now, I just toss my used Seventh Generation–brand paper plates out the car window, knowing they’ll soon be absorbed into the earth.”

This is of course not true (“of course” assumes you clicked the link to the Onion, hovered above the link and saw that the quote was from the Onion, or already read the latest copy of the Onion and recognised the story). Personally I’m not that big a fan, although my wife is (and gets easy triumphalism from watching me read it) – I do like, though, the stories that, like this one, mimic reality so well.

Yesterday’s reference to the Big Picture’s reference to the Princess Bride returns!

[Vizzini has just cut the rope The Dread Pirate Roberts is climbing up]
Vizzini: HE DIDN’T FALL? INCONCEIVABLE.
Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

I do not think “recycled” means what some people think it means. It does not mean bio-degradable (which itself does not mean “throw me away in a plastic bag and I’ll turn into a tree by next week”), it does not even mean “recyclable”. That to which the Onion points-and-laughs however is proper conventional wisdom amongst too many people today. “Green” does not mean what you think it means.

This all came to mind while reading the latest article by George Monbiot:

Green consumerism will not save the biosphere

Uncomfortable as this is for both the media and its advertisers, giving things up is an essential component of going green. A section on ethical shopping in Goldsmith’s book advises us to buy organic, buy seasonal, buy local, buy sustainable, buy recycled. But it says nothing about buying less.

Green consumerism is becoming a pox on the planet. If it merely swapped the damaging goods we buy for less damaging ones, I would champion it. But two parallel markets are developing: one for unethical products and one for ethical products, and the expansion of the second does little to hinder the growth of the first.

Ethical shopping is in danger of becoming another signifier of social status. I have met people who have bought solar panels and mini-wind turbines before they have insulated their lofts: partly because they love gadgets, but partly, I suspect, because everyone can then see how conscientious (and how rich) they are. We are often told that buying such products encourages us to think more widely about environmental challenges, but it is just as likely to be depoliticising. Green consumerism is another form of atomisation – a substitute for collective action. No political challenge can be met by shopping.

The middle classes rebrand their lives, congratulate themselves on going green, and carry on buying and flying as much as ever before. It is easy to picture a situation in which the whole world religiously buys green products, and its carbon emissions continue to soar.

It is true, as the green consumerists argue, that most people find aspirational green living more attractive than dour puritanism. But it can also be alienating. I have met plenty of farm labourers and tenants who are desperate to start a small farm of their own, but have been excluded by what they call “horsiculture”: small parcels of agricultural land being bought up for pony paddocks and hobby farms. In places like Surrey and the New Forest, farmland is now fetching up to £30,000 an acre as city bonuses are used to buy organic lifestyles. When the new owners dress up as milkmaids then tell the excluded how to make butter, they run the risk of turning environmentalism into the whim of the elite.

With the caveat not to confuse anecdotal evidence for actual evidence, this is likely to become a common problem with eco-living, eco-tourism – eco-commerce in general, I guess, is my point. Here’s how I see eco-“living” (since, as Monbiot says, this is not a challenge that be met by shopping): Divvy up the arable world by the population (sorry. Non-Australians: “to divvy up” is to divide) and each person inherits something like 1.7 hectares apiece, upon which to live and/or be supported. I’ve commented previously that Australia, with an ecological footprint of 3ha per person, is third-worst (to our great discredit. We are hopelessly-inefficient carbon-users, as well), after the US and Canada. The United States’ ecological footprint, the highest, is 24ha per person. If we all did that, we’d need 5 planets to sustain us, not just this one.

Ergo, one’s goal (if one believes this is a problem, and I’m surrounded by 300m Americans, the majority of whom probably don’t) is not to ‘buy green’, whatever that does or will come to mean, but to live, act, work, holiday, etc. in a manner that brings one’s personal ecological footprint near to that 1.7ha. Having a second home in a village somewhere does not do that (and congratulations: that’s one less working family in that community, which hastens to its own end because nobody lives or works there, most of the year).

Hell, going out and buying a new car thinking that, because it’s a Prius, you’re saving the world, probably doesn’t reduce your ecological footprint. You should keep the car you have, and all the precious resources used to manufacture the bloody thing, and have its engine converted or something. Not put the poisonous monster into the hands of someone else, showing off instead your more obvious, but far less effective, green living.

This, for example, is where my friend’s crack about oil companies building turbine energy infrastructure where they can makes a lot of sense (assuming, for the moment, that they do it well). Simply starting over is not always going to be the best option. Maximising the ecological (and, in the case of such turbine fields, heating one’s house, converting one’s engine, etc., economical) efficiency of infrastructure, current homes, past purchases, and so forth will probably be the best option in many cases.

I’m sure an industry can develop, catering to people who’d rather lead effectively, than merely by example. The fact that we are awash in houses improperly-sealed and poorly-insulated, or workplaces that ignore that natural heat and light even exist, is just ridiculous. Such easily-overcome problems ignored, while we fret about problems whose solutions make no sense without correcting the small things anyway…

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