“Green” as Aesthetic, Ethic, or a Program

In California, Climate Change, Culture, Democratic Governance, Economic Planning, Economics, Environment, Globalization, Industrial Policy, Inequality, Liberalism, Political Ideology, Politics, Politics of Policy, Progressivism, Public Policy, Public Sector, Regulation, Taxes, Trade on March 14, 2012 at 7:37 pm


The internal tension within politics is the fact that politics is carried out in a language of ideological values, and values don’t really lend themselves to empirical analysis, while policy is carried out largely in a language of social science which must be. Difficulty and deception comes where the two languages either overlap or fail to find common ground. Hence the bizarre situation in which values of “fairness” and “progressiveness” were used to both attack and defend the same policies in the U.K.

However, there’s no reason why we can’t interrogate our values as closely we do our policies – to prevent values labels from turning into veils used to mislead and obfuscate. This is especially true for the label “green” where “green”-ness is used as a signifier of goodness and a way to shut down consideration of other values.

Different Shades of Green:

I’ve written already about the need for the green movement to wrestle with questions about class, which has its own set of moral questions that don’t necessarily align with environmental concerns, but today I want to drill down into some close examples in which “greenness” hides a larger ideological complexity. Note that I’m not talking about “green-washing,” the practice by which corporations present an image that’s more environmentally-friendly than really is the case, but rather cases in which “greenness” is used by different groups to present a more progressive image overall when the “greenness” is sincerely felt.

Whole Foods is a great example of why the label “green” can’t be the end of a discussion about how progressive something is. From all accounts, the Whole Foods corporation is genuinely committed to organic, non-GMI, locally-sourced and sustainable produce and products. However, Whole Foods’ environmental brand isn’t just a matter of conscience – it’s used alongside Whole Good’s expertly designed interior visuals to signal a kind of sleek, modern, and progressive values-based middle class consumerism.

This signalling is vital for Whole Foods’ brand identification in the coastal regions it clusters in, because without them, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s politics on health care and unions would pose the risk of tarnishing the company’s image in the same way that Walmart’s politics have made it verboten among these same affluent, progressive-identified consumers. Being green gives Whole Foods a way to spin their image and progressive-identified consumers a way to justify their patronage of a store that attracts them aesthetically despite their political commitments (although had Mackey’s politics been reactionary on race, gender, or sexuality, it’s questionable whether it would have worked).

The point here isn’t to argue that Whole Foods is duping its customers, or that Whole Foods customers are essentially throwing labor under the bus in the name of enviromentalism, but rather to argue that when the aesthetics of “greenness” are used to short-circuit a comprehensive analysis of how ethical it really is to consume there, empirical thinking falls by the wayside. However, I would argue that if progressive-identified consumers want to hang onto their chosen labels, and if organized Greens want to make and keep strong connections with other factions within the progressive movement, they need to get better (we all need to get better) at being more comprehensive. A green sweatshop in China pumping out cheap solar panels and paying its workers $141 a month can’t be seen as acceptable.

No-Impact Man, the effort to reduce one’s individual carbon footprint to “zero carbon . . . also zero waste in the ground, zero pollution in the air, zero resources sucked from the earth, zero toxins in the water,” by eliminating consumption of electricity and consumer goods like disposable diapers, coffee, toilet paper, etc. – stands at the extreme end of a broad range of activities that include using re-usable bags, urban farming, and buying carbon offsets.  The extreme nature of Colin Beavan’s quest for a zero carbon impact lifestyle nonetheless highlights a rather pernicious undercurrent within ethical consumption circles.

As critics have pointed out, no-impact lifestyles are rather easier to pull off when you live in a “ninth-floor apartment in Greenwich Village,” with two middle-class incomes, in a major city that’s highly walkable, and it helps when you can “cheat” when it comes to wireless access and home heating in the winter. Reusable, recycled, organic, and locally-sourced goods are highly expensive compared to their mass-produced equivalents, and not really practical for working-class families without much in the way of disposable income. No impact is a stunt, and a stunt reserved for the affluent at that.

And yet, all other things being equal, it’s better that middle-class and affluent folks purchase sustainably-produced goods than otherwise. What I do take exception to is the often unspoken assumption that individual behavioral choices, especially choices about consumption, are a viable model for activism, or that the kind of choices made by the middle-class protagonists of this genre of nonfiction can make that much of a difference. At the end of the day, there just aren’t enough people with the money to live this way to make much of a dent in the market. Nor does withdrawing from a commune alter practices on the factory floor; choosing cloth over plastic isn’t, on a voluntary basis, enough to impact a system shaped by the choices of hundreds of millions of developed-world and billions of developing world consumers.

In the end, what we need to avoid is the class middle class temptation to default to moral suasion and voluntary conversion as a central strategy for reform. Especially when dealing with a global structure of production and consumption that operates very differently for Global North and Global South, individual behavior is simply insufficient as a model of change. For one thing, it ignores how much structural forces and institutional actors shape individual behavior; our capacity to choose a more sustainable life is ultimately constrained by the choices that are open to us. For another, it fails to recognize the barriers to individual outreach that still exists even in the age of the internet, and how viable Western lifestyle choices are in very different socio-economic environments. Finally, it lets middle class folks off the hook for their material privilege without them having to give up that privilege, and it offers the prospect of social change without any mess or instability.
AB 32, along with the Apollo Alliance and the EPA’s CO2 rule, represent a stark contrast with individual, behavioral approaches to climate change, air pollution, and alternative energy. These legislative approaches recognize the reality of a world of powerful institutions and structural forces on individual choices that shape basic decisions about the price of carbon, the relative cost of different forms of electricity and fuel, patterns of urban development, and the use and misuse of materials.
By passing and enforcing laws that set down systemic mandates – capping carbon emissions to 25% below 2006 levels (AB 32) or 17% below 2005 levels (EPA rule) or by investing heavily in renewable energy, mass transit, energy efficiency in power generation, appliances, housing, and manufacturing (Apollo Alliance), an environmental program can have both sharp and swift changes across an entire economy without the one-on-one conversion of major corporations or millions or consumers – avoiding collective action problems.
However, I think it’s important to note how the two strategies go hand-in-hand. Combining regulatory intervention with massive investment helps to ensure that the economic transformations and dislocations resulting from de-carbonization won’t fall solely on the backs of the American worker. At the same time, emphasizing investments and new technology help to prevent a backlash against climate change legislation. While this is all fairly well known in the environmental community, I think it also points to importance of holistic approaches to reform. A green economy that isn’t a socially just economy is a failure, in practical, moral, and political terms.
Practically, the more unequal a society is, the less sustainable it tends to be, and vice versa. When working people and their families cannot afford to live close to where they work, they increasingly get pushed out into the suburbs – which increases our consumption of open land and fossil fuels. When working families income can’t keep up with the cost of living, ethical consumption becomes an unaffordable luxury and these families have to rely on the cheapest goods, which are often those with the greatest externalized environmental costs (think McDonald’s and industrial farming). At the same time, inequality at the top spurs society towards a competition for conspicuous consumption and waste, with bigger and bigger McMansions contributing ever more to unsustainable patterns of development and consumption. By contrast, when we reduce inequality and promote, institutions like unions that work to build worker power, we can directly shape how our society produces, consumes, commutes, and habitates.
Morally speaking, one of the shortcomings of the environmental focus has been a tendency to think and care primarily about systems (the biosphere, the ecosystem, habitat preservation, etc.) while thinking about people in abstract, universal terms – which leads to accusations that the green movement cares more about endangered species than their own. Placing immediate human concerns about unemployment and poverty within one’s agenda short-circuits that.

Politically, as I’ve argued, good public policy includes a mechanism by which a majority constituency in favor of that policy is assembled and maintained. The green movement has unfortunately tended to neglect this by emphasizing abstract intellectual or sentimental-altruistic reasons for why people should support them, and it tends to approach self-interest from the relatively narrow perspective that climate change will be incredibly harmful – in the future. There’s nothing wrong with approaching recruitment by creating a collective ethic of reciprocal solidarity, in which majorities are assembled not because everyone cares equally about every issue, but because each group within the majority trusts that the other will have its back. Issue education is a lot easier when you start from the position of an ally than a stranger.


At the end of the day, no label or claimed allegiance is so holy that we can afford to take it on faith; no goal is so good that we can shut our minds to the question of means.

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