Column: Our ‘green’ ideals fizzle out in the face of everyday life

As published on TheJournal.ie in December 2012

EVERYONE SAYS THAT protecting the environment must be foremost in all future decisions. But it isn’t. It’s not even close to being the foremost priority. When it comes to the sacrifice of short term fulfilment in the name of the planet, the eco-warrior in all of us often seems to fizzle out.

Many of the major ‘eco’ decisions consumers take are influenced by a financial motivator, be it a carrot or a stick. For example, increasing domestic insulation to reduce long term heating costs; recycling waste to reduce domestic collection charges; choosing a more environmentally sound car (with less tax and higher fuel efficiency); using reusable shopping bags once the plastic bag tax came into being. We’re pro-green when we are forced to be, or when it saves us cash. Otherwise green thinking rarely enters our decision-making.

For example have you reconsidered booking a holiday to Australia or Spain because of your guilt over the immense level of emissions the flights will generate? Do we consider the packaging on our shiny electrical goods or the inability to recycle much of what is purchased? Eco-activists say we must consider these decisions because although the use of resources is inevitable – unsustainable use of these resources is not.

Play dumb

Nor can we play dumb and say we didn’t know. Many products carry labels and certificates to enhance their green credentials and transparency (FSC, Rainforest Alliance, 100% recycled etc) and help us to ‘choose green’. But to call a spade a spade, the uncertified option often costs less – in essence, workers get lower pay and/or the environment gets polluted more.

The ‘upside’ is that there are lots of cheap goods for mise agus tusa. Hurrah…! Who was it that famously said, “Free trade is both fair and green”? Who was it? Nope. Nobody said it. Because they’d be lying if they said it.

Capitalism basically asserts that the ingenuity and innovation of the free market global economy (which is driven by the greed for profit…) will eventually find a way to fix all our environmental problems while simultaneously making someone or some corporation(s) very rich. I’d interpret this as (1) Hopefully there’ll be a miracle gizmo to fix the planet but in the meantime let’s make money and (2) Don’t introduce any restrictions to reduce pollution immediately as that would reduce the money we can make now.

With respect to progressive companies, they are often slow to take the lead in environmental protection for a valid reason – if they incur heavy costs relative to their less ethical competitors they become uncompetitive. Therefore you will never read the epitaph:

He was CEO for thirty years of BigCo Inc and we never once distributed profit to shareholders – but by God, we were by far the cleanest company in our sector.

The exception to this is in products where the customers have the disposable income to pay the additional price – or because a minority of consumers want to buy ethically, despite the higher price, and will make do with less elsewhere.

Similarly, our own Government’s hands are somewhat tied – if they try to do anything far-reaching it could well put Ireland at a competitive disadvantage relative to all other nations (and incidentally it could put them out of office. Note the elected opposition aren’t screaming for environmental action at present). So with international emissions targets falling by the wayside and influential policy makers like those in the World Trade Organisation unbending in their strident belief in that the capitalist philosophy solves all, there is little immediate likelihood of leadership from above.

But awareness is at an all time high. For those interested in doing more, the first step isn’t painful– there are hundreds of enjoyable YouTube films (such as The Story of Stuff) and websites documenting the environmental problems we face. It’s easier to think clearly when you fully understand what’s going on.

Throwaway

Buying local goods and edibles is almost always the best environmental option because local produce offers a low carbon footprint and ethical working standards. Try and distance yourself from the contemporary throwaway mentality; when it comes to household goods, investing in durable long lasting products is better in the long run for your pocket and the environment.

And for fear of sounding like my father, live within your means – the excessive consumerism that wanton borrowing produces stretches you financially (forcing you deeper into the rat race) and hurts the environment as new cars, bigger houses, more holidays are the typical outcomes.

None of this is easy – I can’t even convince my wife to stop buying multiple cute woolly hats for our infant girl (how many cute hats can a wee girl wear at once?). But in the interest of domestic bliss I resolve myself to pass the goods onto the next parents or to charity shops.

If you are a closet activist, it’s time to get out there. Eco-warriors are starting to unite both locally and on the internet to pursue their passion. Similarly organisations like Fair Trade and the World Development Movement are growing in strength. But a word of warning: if you plan to join them, you will need your heaviest coat. The days of the fair weather eco-warrior are coming to an end.

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