Beyond ‘Green Shopping’

Beyond ‘Green Shopping’

Don’t believe the hype that “clean coal,” “clean nuclear power” and biofuels will solve the environmental crisis.


Scientific studies abound on the devastating realities of climate chaos, an imminent “peak” of world oil supplies and a grim future for clean water, forests, fisheries and soil. The response of most politicians and corporations is that new technologies and “green consumerism” will solve the problems: Innovate and shop to save the planet. The Bush Administration is showering the technologies with money: subsidies to develop “clean coal” via carbon sequestration, proposed subsidies for “clean” nuclear energy and–the big one–massive subsidies to global agribusiness to promote biofuels. Each is deeply flawed.

“Clean coal” depends on technologies that optimists say are two decades away, if ever. But it’s not only emissions from coal that are problematic. There’s also the mining. In Appalachia, more than 500 mountaintops have been blown off to uncover the coal inside, with the toxic waste dumped into local rivers. In what used to be glorious, forest-covered West Virginia, you have a poverty-stricken population suffering from toxic poisoning. The Bush Administration issued a regulation in late August that allows mountaintop removal to expand. As for “clean” nuclear power, probably the plan is to sequester the radioactive waste, together with sequestered carbon, in the poorest regions.

And regarding the mega-panacea, biofuels, Bush says he wants to see 35 billion gallons of auto fuel from bio-agriculture within ten years. He’s pushing subsidies nearly equal to those funding the Iraq War. As for the opposition, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and most other presidential candidates are falling right in line. And Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is supporting Bush’s plan to subsidize the likes of Archer Daniels Midland, Monsanto and Cargill. These companies no longer advertise how they’re “feeding a hungry world”; now they’re addressing climate change: converting US farms to corn for ethanol, not food. They’re also building agrofuel plantations in poor and indigenous areas of South America, Asia and Africa, displacing thousands of farmers.

The global land grab is necessary because it takes 450 pounds of corn to make enough ethanol to fill one tank of gas in an SUV. To try to use corn ethanol to replace even 10 percent of the fossil fuels used globally would require finding new or converting agricultural lands equal to about half the area of the United States. So the land rush is on, prices are up and small growers are priced out. Feed cars, not people–that’s the twenty-first-century ad slogan.

Other corporations are getting on the consumerism bandwagon, with power, auto and chemical companies promoting “green” ideas. The website Climate Cooler has the slogan “the smarter you shop the cooler it gets.” The idea is, You buy jeans or dozens of other things, and some of your money goes to Environmental Defense and other do-gooders, who plant enough trees to offset the greenhouse gases created in making the products. It’s carbon trading through shopping. Eco-conscious families are turning up with two, three, many Priuses, so every member of the family can help save the planet. Hybrids do use less fuel, but that’s not the best way to assess hybrids ecologically. Where did all the materials come from? The nickel used in Prius batteries, for example, comes from mines that are responsible for the devastation of a huge swath of Ontario. Other key scarce materials come from Africa, South America and Asia. How much energy is used to mine, process, ship across oceans and build all the parts for the car and then assemble it–and under what labor conditions?

In fact, a new scientific discipline is gaining speed, particularly in Europe. Called “life-cycle assessment,” it examines all the processes and materials that go into a product, “from dust to dust,” to gain a true picture of its environmental footprint. In environmental terms, the best choice is not the new hybrid or any new car, but a good used car. Or no car at all.

Sorry, but shopping, even “smart” shopping, is not our way out of the crisis. All that stuff is made of something scarce that came from the Earth, and it took scarce energy to put it together. Overconsumption, corporatism, advertising, the drive for growth and profit–those are the roots of this crisis. Real solutions begin with recognition that the Earth has limits that are now in plain sight. Ultimately all solutions will involve “powering down,” using less energy, fewer materials–less consumerism. “Less and local” should be the standard, as well as deeply rethinking whether we can afford a system based on growth and wealth accumulation rather than sustainability, sufficiency and equity.

On the point of equity, the key question is, How can we make the shift to less resource consumption while recognizing that many places do not now have enough, because of centuries of theft by industrial nations? There will never be a permanent solution to these mega-problems without a good plan for wealth transfers to correct imbalances and achieve equity both within nations and among them. Far-reaching debt cancellation would be a start. And global agreements on water rights and reduced oil consumption can help jump-start the shift from global to local.

Great crises also bring great opportunity. That’s the impetus for a Washington teach-in, September 14-16, sponsored by the International Forum on Globalization, the Institute for Policy Studies and The Nation Institute. The focus will be on separating real from false solutions and raising basic questions: Can we assume a future that is like the present? Are export-oriented growth economies doomed, given the unsustainable costs of transport? Can renewable technologies keep our industrial system functioning at its current level? Can technology fix these problems? Is equity achievable? Can our industrial system survive in a resource-depleted world? If not, is that bad? And what’s Plan B? Sixty speakers from all continents will offer their thoughts. Check it out at

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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