Has Sustainability Sold Out?

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

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5 thoughts on “Has Sustainability Sold Out?

  1. trainmaster01 says:

    A “friend” of mine grew very angry with me in the late 70s when I informed him that his brand of environmentalism was nothing more than ego selfishness — “save the earth,” he kept saying. But what I saw in his eyes and heard in his explanations was “save the earth FOR us;” i.e. preserve the nice cushy warm-and-fuzzy planet so humans could have a comfortable place into eternity. I contended that the earth will be here until the sun goes nova, no need to save it; but what lives on it after we’re done may not be human. He hated that my idea of environmentalism was to make sure that not only my children’s-children’s-children had a home, but so did their trees, and bison, and gray whales, and spotted owls, and all of the rest. Can we do that and still see dollar signs? I don’t know; let’s ask whatever created this planet and see what answers we get.

  2. radicalearthling says:

    Saving the earth “for us” isn’t just ego selfishness, it’s the natural desire of any organism for survival of species. That’s what drives what you see when you disturb an anthill: ants running around in a panic carrying grubs (baby ants) in their mouths. Of course we are going to want the earth to continue to be habitable for us.

    The central problem here, as I see it, isn’t the desire for profit–although that’s implicated in this mess as well–but the assumption we First Worlders have had well-trained into us by those driven for profit: that even if we render the earth unfit for our habitation “naturally,” we are a smart enough animal to make it habitable for us “unnaturally.” We truly do not understand that trashing the biosphere means our death, and that technology can only prolong that death and make it more painful. Unfortunately, this assumption is filtering down to the Third World as well, and they don’t have the educational background that many First Worlders have to think for themselves and see around this mental roadblock. I don’t see how we’re going to enlighten enough people in a short enough time, either.

  3. Jeremy Friedman says:

    Another way to think about the problem is to question not the -desire- for profit, but the definition of profit itself. Adam highlighted the way in which our cultural and economic forces have a vested interest in maintaining the profit motive.

    There is a faction out there in this wacky world of sustainability that thinks profits and grass- (maybe even forest-green) goals may be compatible in some way. If profit is about “growing” good things, like human physical health, relationship depth, ecosystem resilience, or biodiversity (instead of growing bad things, like pollution, or intangible concepts like “dollars”), these folks argue that a capitalism-based economic system could endure, or even thrive. Plenty of others would dispute this, but it’s provocative.

    The “natural capitalism” (see Paul Hawken, William McDonough) perspective probably even leaves room for Ms. Sara Snow, however alarming her show sounds to me! In a sense, after all, one could argue that it’s not just 1000 dollar recycled dresses that are decadent – but that given the scope of the problem, so are the (relatively) green lifestyles of nearly all of us in this country.

    radicalearthling, I would strongly dispute your argument that Third Worlders lacking the ‘educational background’ of us brainiac Northerners will have an even harder time “thinking for themselves.” For one, we’ve set the bar in that department nice and low. Secondly, it may well be that traditional cultural and economic values of people in the global South are better suited to bringing about the dramatic lifestyle changes that are needed.

    Finally, if people in the so-called Third World exhibit any failure to act or understand the scope of our ecological crisis, I’d suggest that it’s because they have indisputably more limited economic and political resources with which to tackle it – not because they need “enlightening” by us!

  4. camille says:

    Well, I say hats off to Sara Snow. Regardless of whether or not the popularity of the green movement lasts, the most important thing is that it is happening now. Any amount of low impact living we do will help the earth and all her resources and creatures. Hopefully, some of the people who are turned on to eco-friendly ways of living (be it through shows like Ms. Snow’s or others) find it to be a rewarding and pleasurable way of life and they continue to do it long after it has gone out of style. Obviously, the role of corporations will never change, they are in it for money and anything that will deter business is detrimental, it is in their best interest to adhere to trends. But, if you know and I know these facts, then spread the word and try to live your life healthily and conscientiously and encourage others to live their lives with the same motives.

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