By Adam Brock
On the airplane flight back from India, I happened to catch an episode of Get Fresh With Sara Snow, the Discovery Health channel’s foray into the hot new category of green living shows. The episode I saw had the somewhat perplexing theme of living a “decadent green” life in the city; in it, Ms. Snow ran around New York interviewing eco-conscious gourmet chefs, retailers and fashionistas about guilt-free ways to live it up.
Staring groggily at the 7-inch screen on the back of 32B, I was a little unsure what to make of Sara Snow and her lime green escapades. On one hand, I was elated – if this is what they’re showing on airplanes, the purgatory of mainstream entertainment, ethical and sustainable living must really be hitting the big time. Millions of travelers will henceforth leave their cramped, stale flights with the invaluable knowledge that local food tastes delicious and that bamboo is a rapidly renewable and infinitely useful material.
But still. Fig truffles dipped in organic dark chocolate? Thousand-dollar recycled paper dresses? Sara certainly got one thing right: this stuff is decadent, in the original sense of the word. Get Fresh, my first exposure to American media in two months, confirmed what my friends and family had been telling me for months – green is everywhere. Not only that, it’s cool. As ecofuturist Bruce Sterling put it in one of his more exuberant viridian notes, “You’re going to get Corporate Green whether you like it or not. Green is as sexy as it’s ever going to get, right now, 02007.”
And therein lies the problem. Because, as anybody who’s made it past high school knows, most cool things don’t stay cool for long. And with the way the media has been drooling over anything with a verdant hue lately, we’re on the verge of experiencing green burnout on a massive scale… especially once Americans realize that they’ll have to change a lot more than their lightbulbs to make any sort of meaningful reduction in their impact.
So is the greening of the mainstream, then, the best thing to happen for the survival of the planet, or the worst? It depends on where it goes from here. To be sure, corporate green certainly has the potential to catalyze change on a truly massive scale. Like it or not, we live in a world where our values are defined by what we consume, and the fact that people are choosing to consume in a more responsible way says a lot about the rapidly changing times.
We won’t be making real progress as a society, though, until we realize that the consumerist lifestyle is itself is something we can choose – or reject. Because no matter how green corporate America gets, there’s still a contradiction inherent in its intentions. GE might be putting out an admirable effort to fight climate change, but they’re still, at the end of the day, in the business of selling more washing machines. To that end, they’ll spend millions of dollars to convince us that we need new, more efficient ones, when in fact we never truly needed any washing machines in the first place. What would it look like to create a society centered not on disposable excess, but on healthy sufficiency and well-thought-out austerity? What would it take to end our fifty year flirtation with the ostentatious and the ephemeral, in search of something more meaningful, durable and fair? We won’t know until we try.
Lime green outlets like Get Fresh With Sara Snow can be an essential gateway into deeper green ways of thinking, but they’re just that: gateways. If the American public doesn’t move beyond the culture of More – and a lot of powerful interests depend on that not happening – then runaway climate change, and a million other symptoms of ecological collapse, are practically unavoidable. It’s the spend-away-our-problems mentality that got us here in the first place, and no amount of FSC-certified oak coffee tables will bring us any closer to environmental, social or personal salvation. The always-astute George Monbiot summed it up best in an editorial on Celsias last week: “There is an inherent conflict between the aspirational lifestyle journalism which makes readers feel better about themselves and sells country kitchens and the central demand of environmentalism: that we should consume less.”
Now that’s a message you wouldn’t expect to see on the back of an airplane seat anytime soon. But these are strange times. The roaring pace of honest action in the last year has surprised even the optimist in me, and news sources like BBC and Newsweek are starting to take stabs at the very system they’re a part of. So what’ll it be? Green backlash or full-on green revolution? Get ready for an intense 2008.
Photo credit: flickr