Is the Greening of America Sustainable?

2008 will mark another record year for green headlines, green products, and green speak in general.  The media is selling green, ironically much of it on virgin paper using nasty chemical inks; and corporate America has figured out that there is a green demographic that spans ages, genders and races and that may in fact not be reachable through traditional advertising channels.  But what does all the green speak mean?  What is it for, and what is it after?

It seems that much of the greening of America, at least to the average consumer, and as conveyed by mainstream media, is a movement orchestrated by an endless array of bamboo toothpicks, each one stabbing at a different issue and each issue with its own subjective level of importance.  Recycling, organics, fair-trade, efficiency, alternative energy, waste, pollution, each of these are important topics, but unfortunately few of players in the mass-media have taken any time to tie all of it together.

I wonder how many Americans really have taken some time to understand the concept of sustainability and have a broader view of the problems facing us as we awaken into the 21st century. I have never actually seen anyone stop for a clipboard-armed Green Peace volunteer running interference on the sidewalks of Manhattan. Climate change, global warming, air pollution, peak oil, clean water or water shortages, and war, when lumped together, all sound like biblical prophecies espoused by some dogmatic nut-of-the-month outside of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan.  I think it’s fair to say that many of us feel that our way of life is fine, as long as we make incrementally better choices.  Green is fashionable, and so is Project Runway.

Prior to the financial crisis the media would have had a visitor from Mars believe that every American was committed to building a greener and more sustainable country. Hundreds if not thousands of magazine and newspaper covers have had something green on them. Editors often try way too hard to coin the next cute headline like: A Brighter Future Begins by Turning Off the Lights. I wonder how far past the surface our collective green temperature permeates? Is it just a fad that people want to be connected to like Internet start-ups, bell-bottoms, big hair or smoking? Green is sexy. Green is cool. Green sells.

How many Americans really take the time to consider that the planet has another two billion people in China and India, not to mention the rest of the developing world, who are on the cusp of beginning to live the way we do? Globalization is raising living standards around the world. How many people realize that as of yesterday we needed three to five planets just to sustain our current lifestyle?  That is without the rest of the world jumping on the consumption bandwagon. Have we really considered how replicable American consumption is when it means that we will compete for natural resources with a population three to six times larger than our own? Capitalism is great, as is democracy.  But do we really need all this stuff?  I was at a party in the Hamptons last summer, and actually overheard a conversation between two people comparing how many homes each of them had, the winner had five.

I know that there are a host of brilliant and dedicated people committed to finding sustainable solutions for our future. As the internet changed our social, financial and political economics in the last decade, the ideology of sustainability can also rewrite the economics and business models of our future. The next revolution will be the greening of the first industrial revolution, and it will likely be of equal or greater impact on our social history.

However, I am forced to wonder how much faster we can transform an inevitable shift if we had a deeper and broader understanding of what it really means to build a sustainable future. I wonder if baby boomers today can even imagine the idea that most of their grandchildren will be forced to share the planet with two billion more people than they had to.

Green-washing in the media is not a bad start. As Hunter Lovins likes to say, hypocrisy is the first step. Organizations often get hooked on real sustainable endeavors that begin with hot air. The positive consumer response and cost savings resulting from intelligent green strategies becomes a positive feedback loop that forces more investment.  But such efforts only take care of the means of production.  To truly build a sustainable planet we are going to need to focus on sustainable consumption.

For most Americans, however, I’m willing to bet that the current green movement is not sustainable. It’s not sustainable because in practice our collective level of consumptions is not sustainable, but also because at some point, as we always do, we are going to get tired of hearing the message, particularly if we don’t notice a direct impact or see a discernible change.

So what if you fill your house with more environmentally friendly products?  Sure, maybe they’ll harm less people in their manufacturing or they’ll degrade faster in the landfill, but is that really going to solve the problem? A bigger problem is the McMansion that gets filled with all that stuff that no one needs or uses. Compounding that is the long commute to the job that is required to afford to pay off the mortgage on the McMansion. Or consider the eco-friendly yuppie who decides to throw away everything that isn’t green just so he can replace them with green equivalents.

In short, I’m afraid that in our current form all of the green-speak will eventually begin to sound like a bad commercial that has aired too many times.  I’m afraid we will grow numb to the messaging and in turn lose the message. That said, I think American’s need to begin to look a little deeper than the greener choices in their holiday catalogues. While I’m sure the recession will temporarily help us learn to live on less and with less, I hope that our collective mind graduates from green to sustainability in short order.


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