Thursday, November 08, 2007

Discomfort With "Green" Consumption

Two days ago, the electrical devices in my home were powered by the standard electricity from Ontario's power grid. Yesterday, months after applying, we were switched to power from a particular company that guarantees that its sources for generation meet or exceed a particular federal government standard for renewable, carbon-free energy. It claims that 20% of its power is generated by wind, 80% by certified "low-impact" (whatever that means) hydro, and none from conventional hydro sources, oil, coal, gas, or nuclear.

Now. This is not normally something I would feel the need to share on this site, but I have been feeling a certain ambivalence about the change and it has made me think about how "green" consumption choices fit into the larger problems they are meant to address, so I thought I would try to write something.

So why am I having mixed feelings about buying "green" power? On the one hand, making this change, if you are in a position to do so without hardship -- the cost is 30% above the grid standard -- seems so obvious as not to be worth mentioning. Even if its positive impact is miniscule, it can't hurt, so why not if you are able?

On the other hand, though I don't think the doing of it is a bad thing if you are able, there are things about the discourse around "green" consumption that I find manipulative and repellant, and its relationship to the global climate crisis and other environmental issues is highly problematic.

The entire category of "green" is a manipulative one, at least as it is applied to products and services. It is constructed as absolute and binary, something a product either is or is not. Nuance is not encouraged. When a product falls into this category, it gives the buyer a sort of absolution -- it tells us that this product or service is wholesome, that whatever can be done, has been done, and we need not worry or feel bad. It is a form of branding, really, which calms our concern by imbuing a product or service with these connotations. It is easier for a company to do this if there is some basis for the claim, of course, but by definition the branding process is ideological, in that it is a deliberate effort to selectively draw from material reality to construct an abstraction that oversimplifies and misleads. A common element of many uses of "green" is that it is constructed in comparison with current practices rather than with reference to what might actually be required to deal with the problem. For the most part, companies trust in the busy-ness of our lives and in our painstakingly cultivated acceptance of reified commodities to make us accept that they provide only enough background information for a very shallow exploration of the processes that produce the good or service in question. This shallow information that we receive and the ideological grounding for the labelling of something as "green" comes, of course, from an entity with a vested interest in convincing us that there is a substantive basis for the claim of "greenness" because it wants us to buy what it is selling.

This particular company is quite clever in its marketing, which makes me resent it even more, and is why I haven't named it or linked to it (which, I admit, may be pure contrariness on my part). One element is endorsement by Canadian celebrities -- Margaret Atwood and Gord Downie buy it, you should too! The company has also assumed a sort of folksy performance of meaningful engagement with the customer base that is a calculated break with the coldly impersonal megautilities it hopes to usurp. The most stomach-turning aspect of its marketing, however, is the deliberately moralistic appeal to privileged people who have concern for the environment that relies on potential customers' urge to see themselves as "good" or "better than" (depending on the person). For this moral salve to be even remotely invokable, those who are its targets have to view themselves, the world, and their connection to the social in a particular way that either erases or completely absolves them of responsibility for the massive historical and contemporary violence to other humans and the earth that have made lives like theirs (like ours) even remotely possible. The usefulness of this sort of moralistic psychological boost for marketing purposes -- "Buy what we're selling because it makes you good!" -- depends on people seeing some need for change, but not too much need for change.

There is also a serious problem with any uncritical embrace of a situation in which "right behaviour" depends on privilege. If you accept a moral frame for a problem and then foreground an answer that is only accessible if you have enough money, you are implicitly condemning poor people to inescapable immorality (which perhaps is invisible to many of us in the middle class because of the tight oppressive connection that already exists in lots of stories and imagery in our culture between poverty and questionable moral worth).

Like I said, I don't think the answer is to refuse to make such a choice if you can with minimal effort, but rather to take apart and reject the moralizing frame, and to refuse the push to stop thinking critically in the face of the greenly branded.

All of that is enough to make me feel uncomfortable with the whole thing. But it leaves a much more important question: Setting aside the manipulations of ecocapitalist marketing, what can we reasonably expect from market-based responses to the global climate crisis? What is the actual material impact of buying "green"? If it isn't The AnswerTM -- and I'm convinced it is not -- then why not, and how should we think about dialoguing with people who are convinced that it is? I had hoped to start mapping out in this post some of my still very fuzzy and unsure responses to these sorts of questions, but I don't have time...but I suspect I will come back to them sooner or later.


Red Jenny said...

As someone once said "we can't shop our way to sustainability"

The elitist nature of "green" products really gets to me - even though I sometimes buy them when I can afford them.

Hybrid cars are better for the environment than an SUV, but even better is a bike, or a good pair of walking shoes. Course, there's no conspicuous consumption possibilities there... The person with the hybrid car looks more virtous than the one that eshews a car completely - simply because their consumption is on display.

But, at the same time, the "coolness" factor has turned environmentalism from some kind of weird fringe thing into THE major trend of the decade. It is really what environmentalists prayed for - that "green" would become hip.

Scott said...

Hey Jenny.

Very true...I had hoped to write a longer post that tried to think through some of the more general kinds of questions around "green" consumption and "green" capitalism more generally as things that a lot of well-meaning people see as solutions to what ails us...part of what held me up was lack of time, but part was also fairly large gaps in my knowledge. Anyway, in doing that thinking, this particular point -- the importance of the "coolness" factor in getting major mainstream attention for the environment in the last few years -- was one that hadn't occurred to me. And it would be easy to turn up my nose at that, to point at the many nasty ways that capitalism co-opts the good impulses thus generated, but I know it's important to avoid just doing that out of reflex. Provided it really does result in an enduring change in people's sensibilities (which I think is quite possible, though not guaranteed) then this "green cool" is putting in place an enormous resource that future organizing with more radical green intent can build on, and liberate from its current state of "capture" by market relations. It's hard to know what that could mean, practically speaking, and who knows if it will be enough. But it has the potential to be really big.

And on a more personal level, though it would have been present in any list of "important issues" I made, say, five years ago, I know that I have been paying more attention to integrating environmental considerations in more meaningful and substantive ways into my political doings of various sorts, including reading and writing, because of the upsurge in mainstream hype. So even just for giving me a bit of a kick in the pants around these issues, I need to be thankful for the often irritating, sometimes smug, hip, consumption-oriented, "green cool" that is in the air these days.

Red Jenny said...

The well-acculturatd consumer inside of me really likes some of the green crap. For instance I love Dr. Bronners Magical Soap.

Scott said...

Magical soap, eh? I haven't heard of that one...but I am, for example, a sucker for food produced in corporate ways, transported long distances by fossil fuels, and then magically purified by my local corporate mega grocery store slapping the word "organic" on it.