Thursday, May 14, 2009

Green Gotchas

Beware some dangerous and neglected monsters that lurk in the underbrush of the new green revolution. They’re scary, well-disguised, and they do a good job of hiding on the moral high ground. They’re the Green Gotchas.

What's a "Green Gotcha?" An attempt to embarrass, expose, or disgrace someone or something with a green attack.

A green gotcha knows no ideological home, it can come from anywhere and be used against anyone, from George Bush to Al Gore or from Exxon to the Nature Conservancy.

A green gotcha is closely related to a real green critique. But a green gotcha is different in purpose, tone, and use. A critique is an honest attempt to uncover or understand a neglected or unsolved problem, and a productive critique can often help in finding a solution. A gotcha is an attack designed to use green issues as a weapon against an enemy, with solutions being at best a secondary purpose.

Why bring up this unseemly subject? Why say anything negative about the green movement that I hold dear? Because it seems to me that there is presently no way to rein in the purists among greens who would take the movement down in flames in pursuit of a staunch and often misanthropic ideology.

Naming and shaming green gotchas is a good start.

If you doubt the need, consider what builds standing in the green movement. Answer these questions for yourself, and if you agree with my answers you should help find a solution. Perhaps by working with me to refine this list of green gotchas.

1. Who wins the moral high ground in a typical green argument? Often it’s the person who holds out for the purest and most extreme position. Practical progress often gets derided as "selling out," "caving in," or otherwise failing to stand strong.

It shouldn’t be this way. A statement of green dreams is good, and green progress in the right direction is also a good thing that deserves admiration.

2. What passes for green cred? Self-denial and sacrifice, like attempting to live in New York City with zero impact, despite the incredible unreality of such self-indulgent and hair shirt-type pursuits. Green credibility seems to rise alongside guilt and pain.

This is backwards. Green cred should go more to the problem solvers of the world, and novelty pursuits like sacrifice and penance should be recognized as nothing more than cute stories.

3. What green messages stand out? The green screeds that talk about how foul, evil corporations are trashing the planet because of greed.

It would be nice if life were so simple that we could rely on such cartoonish us vs. them narratives, but few green problems are caused by bad people or truly rotten systems.

So what to do about these symptoms of a movement in decay?

I think we need a countervailing force, a simple way to name and shame green gotchas so they lose their status as the moral watchdogs of the green movement.

To that end, I hereby open the discussion on green gotchas. Here’s version 1.0 of my list of Green Gotchas.

1. Absolution—critiquing green efforts in order to force specific penance. In its most pernicious form, the penance involves paying a fee.

2. Imperfection—attacking green efforts if they fall short of some imposed high standard.

3. Original Sin—some green efforts will never be accepted, like improving fuel economy in SUVs, improving sustainability of fast food, or selling sustainable products in a big box store.

4. Profit—green efforts that make money are tainted, as though every good green effort must be expensive.

5. Pleasure—green gotchas claim that a good green effort should require personal sacrifice, so if there’s no suffering involved it can’t be real green. Even worse, if there's pleasure involved it must be really, really bad.


Mister Kurtz said...

I think a lot of what you are criticizing comes because many of the "tribal" environmentalists hail from a non-scientific background. After studying literature, history, or French, they (because they are so smart, which they will tell you before being asked) rapidly come to know "all about" some environmental issue, and blather their absolutist nonsense far and wide. They are often more articulate than scientists.
People who actually work in sciences understand how few absolutes there are, how complex the models of prediction are, how every biological process is itself a compromise. We are open to surprises, and can even find the joy in learning we are wrong. Hard to compress that into a 30 second yakfest.

Eric Heupel said...

I think you raise some excellent points about the current state of the green movement. And unfortunately I have been guilty at times of some of the sin of imperfection you raised at the end. Time to work harder at erasing that.

I am all for incremental change, 'cause in my view is any change is good. #5 in my opinion does more to harm widespread acceptance of green than anything else. Green should be painless or at least very nearly so if it is going to succeed on a wide scale. Our pointing to minor changes in the household and then our power bill does more to help us get our message across toour non-environmental friends than anything else. Painless steps (aside from initial setup) that cut energy usage by 1/3 to half and therefore save $$$, Simple message that everyone can appreciate. We need the same type of messaging elsewhere. Painless changes that make a difference.

Scott Schuldt said...

In my clean-up efforts on Union Bay, I have been netting plastic debris (currently at 160 gallons) from the edges of the marsh. There is something that has occurred to me about the little plastic stuff. Aside from the tennis ball/dog toy issue, which could be ended if people thought about it, most of the small plastic items seem to represent "us" - it's mostly just little stuff that comes with things that we buy; bits of packing foam, plastic labels, bags, caps and lids, drinking straws and mostly just plastic parts of something else that isn't in the lake. When I have my fingers in the stuff, I see a lot of other people, but I also see myself.

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yojimbo said...

I would agree that it is foolish to simply adopt an us vs. them, david and goliath stance by only pointing the finger at corporations. With that said, combating the largest, and most visible, wrongdoers can be one of the most productive ways to enact change. To that end, Corporate Accountability International has a new food campaign, "Value the Meal", which is attempting to influence industrial food production by targeting corporations like Mcdonalds and Monsanto.

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James Reddick