New York Times
April 2, 2010
‘Green Gone Wrong’: Can Capitalism Save the Planet?
By Devin Leonard
IT may seem quaint to recall this now, but on the eve of the financial crisis, one of the biggest business stories was how large corporations were going to save the planet and make billions of dollars for their shareholders at the same time.
USA Today wrote glowingly about Wal-Mart’s push to sell environmentally friendly light bulbs. Fortune gushed that Goldman Sachs, Continental Airlines and DuPont had jumped on the ecological bandwagon.
The global economic collapse pushed the rise of green capitalism off business magazine covers, but it will surely resurface. After all, Wal-Mart and G.E. are still pushing it. In a recession, they need all the good publicity they can get.
Now, along comes Heather Rogers, who warns about the dangers of buying into this mind-set with “Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy Is Undermining the Environmental Revolution” (Scribner, 272 pages, $26). She says green capitalism is actually undermining ecological progress.
Ms. Rogers is a muckraking investigative reporter who is also the author of “Gone Tomorrow: the Hidden Life of Garbage.” She says corporate America has led us into thinking that we can save the earth mainly by buying things like compact fluorescent light bulbs, hybrid gas-electric cars and carbon offsets.
“The new green wave, typified by the phrase ‘lazy environmentalism,’ is geared toward the masses that aren’t willing to sacrifice,” Ms. Rogers complains. “This brand of armchair activism actualizes itself most fully in the realm of consumer goods; through buying the right products we can usher our economic system into the environmental age.”
Ms. Rogers offers plenty of evidence that consumers who load up their shopping carts with organic food, for instance, may be unwittingly subsidizing big farm companies that are eradicating forests and defiling the soil in some developing countries. She says their governments aren’t as concerned about the environment, and well-intentioned nongovernmental organizations don’t have much clout.
“Green Gone Wrong,” to be released later this month, doesn’t just go after easy targets like big corporations that she says are clearly more interested in making money than saving the earth.
She is also critical of fashionably green rock bands like Coldplay, whose members fly around the world and think they can erase their sizable carbon footprints by planting trees in developing countries. In Coldplay’s case, many of the trees died.
Indeed, Ms. Rogers is so scornful of the mainstream environmental movement that a lot of her points could be used by its enemies, like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, who are always looking for ammunition.
Even if you don’t agree with all of Ms. Rogers’ assertions — and I don’t — they are not so easily dismissed. “Green Gone Wrong” is well-written and exhaustively reported. The author went to places like Uruguay, Borneo and India to show problems she says the green movement has inadvertently created.
But some of the most poignant moments come when Ms. Rogers visits organic farmers in upstate New York. She laments that they can’t make a living because it is so expensive for them to comply with the federal certification requirements for organic foods. “What isn’t being talked about is that many of the small organic producers who are expected to lead the reinvention of the food system can barely make ends meet,” she says.
Like many books that depict a crisis, “Green Gone Wrong” falls short when it comes to offering solutions. All too predictably, Ms. Rogers calls for higher taxes and government spending. That sounds like wishful thinking after the Democratic majority on Capitol Hill struggled to pass health care reform.
It would have been better had Ms. Rogers delved more deeply into another of her suggestions: instead of buying green, we simply need to buy less stuff. She seems reluctant to push this too hard because it’s a truly radical idea that flies in the face of capitalism — green or not.
“Around the world, many politicians, the conventional energy sector and manufacturers of all kinds oppose any major reduction in consumption,” Ms. Rogers writes. “If people start using less, then economies based on consumption — such as that of the United States, where buying goods and services comprises 70 percent of all economic activity — will be forced to undergo a colossal transformation.”
At first, her muted call for a new frugality sounds almost as far-fetched as a carbon tax in the United States anytime soon. But it isn’t. This is something individuals could do on their own instead of waiting for reluctant politicians to act.
If there was ever a time to ponder the long-term consequences of our spending habits, it’s in the wake of the worst economic crisis in decades, which was fueled by rampant consumer borrowing. Is it possible that we could save the planet and restore the economy at the same time?
Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy Is Undermining the Environmental Revolution, Heather Rogers. Scribner, $25 (256p) ISBN 978-1-4165-7222-0
Rogers (Gone Tomorrow) leads readers into “forests, fields, factories, and showrooms around the world to draw out the unintended consequences, inherent obstacles, as well as successful methods that lie beneath the surface of environmentally friendly products”; her discoveries are disturbing. She finds organic farmers from the Hudson Valley to Paraguay frustrated by their difficulty in making a living; the dilution of USDA organic standards; and laxity, cheating, and conflict of interest among organic certification companies. American car manufacturers that “insist they need more time to get high-mpg cars on U.S. roads already sell them—profitably—in Europe,” and palm oil plantations grown for supposedly low-carbon biodiesel in Indonesia are destroying both carbon-sequestering rainforests and indigenous societies. Readers will be troubled by the laundry list of fallacies at the heart of “green” business, but the book’s final chapter, which discusses developing and very positive alternatives, will keep them from despairing. By going beyond exposé to analysis, Rogers gives a deeper assessment of environmental problems and solutions than the usual global-warming investigative book.(Apr.)
Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy Is Undermining the Environmental Revolution. Rogers, Heather (Author) Apr 2010. 256 p. Scribner, hardcover, $25.00. (9781416572220)
In Gone Tomorrow (2005), Rogers detailed everything that is wrong about wasteful packaging and choked landfills. Here she exposes how the “green” movement is failing to live up to the promise of sustainability and stewardship of the environment when the solutions are hijacked by economic and political interests. Industrial organic farms now resemble the conventional farms they were meant to replace; biofuels such as ethanol and palm oil raise food prices and replace precious rainforests, displacing indigenous peoples and creating more greenhouse gases than they save; carbon dioxide offsetting projects are mismanaged into failure. Yet despite the title Rogers found solutions that do work, such as truly organic farming methods, cutting-edge green architecture in Germany and the UK, and plug-in hybrid vehicles. Yet our corporate and political leaders continue to incentivize what poses the least challenge to established power structures, leaving out those such as the dedicated, truly organic farmers who can barely make ends meet. Once again Rogers’ clear-headed approach proves effective in uncovering the truths behind the mantle of greenwashing.