Desire and the Green Cure

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by
The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)

Desire and the Green Cure

by
Richard Glover

I used to feel bad about mindless consumerism but not any more. The green movement has come to my rescue. With every purchase, I can now enjoy the warm glow of helping develop environmentally sound practices.

There's my new briefcase, for example. It is shiny and luxurious and its purchase has allowed me to throw my old one into the bin. But there's no eco-guilt for me.

According to the manufacturer, the leather in my briefcase was stained using "extracts of bark and seeds collected from renewable sources in the forests of Africa and India". The work was all done by "traditional artisans", all of them using "sustainable practices" in the "old saddler tradition". There's not a lot of detail on the leather but, based on the tone of the pamphlet, I'm pretty sure the cows would have been volunteers.

I feel I now deserve some sort of medal just for handing over my credit card.

I'm not alone in falling for this sort of sales pitch. People are always looking for an excuse to consume more and the latest excuse - bizarrely - is environmentalism.

Let's call it "greensumerism". Forget the simple mantra of "less is more"; with the help of the green movement you can now indulge in a frenzy of consumerism, with each luxury purchase excused by the idea that you are helping the development of the "green" sector.

People will ditch a perfectly good car in order to import the latest hybrid eco-model and expect to be praised for their sensitivity. Magazines like Vogue Living are now full of these luxurious holiday houses - temples to excess and over-consumption - which the owners claim as their personal contribution to sustainability.

There's even a new category of glossy magazine - selling the green lifestyle. Rarely do these magazines suggest we should simply consume less; the advertisers wouldn't care for that idea. Instead, each month brings us thousands of new ways for us all to consume our way to a better planet.

The latest convert to this idea is the NSW Water Minister, Nathan Rees, who now claims his dreaded desalination plant is actually terrific news for the environment. The ebullient new minister ran through the logic this week: since the power used by the plant will come from wind farms, the plant will give much-needed certainty to the industry, and thus assist in the development of the whole sustainability sector. Thus the planet is better off with the Sydney desalination plant than it would have been without it.

It's a classic example of the "greensumerist" logic: the more we consume, the better the outcome. Presumably if we doubled the size of the desal plant, the environment would be even better off. I'd suggest the idea to Rees but he might just do it.

With this much wind emanating from the young minister, you wonder why they don't connect him directly to the turbines. That, at least, would reduce the carbon costs of building his 25 new wind farms.

Of course, wind power is better than coal-fired power; but the real achievement comes when you use new wind power to replace existing coal power. To have newly created power and then splurge it on newly created demand is just another way of marching on the spot. We're like a fat man who has decided to double his eating and so ups his exercise level to match. He may not get any fatter. But he's certainly not going to get thin.

The truth is that we can't consume our way out of trouble. If we are going to buy something anyway, then we should try to buy a product that's been made sustainably. But let's have the honesty to admit the truth: every product adds to our carbon footprint, even products that label themselves part of the "sustainability industry".

The greenest decision of all usually involves buying nothing at all. It involves hanging onto an old car for a few more years; making do with an old briefcase; eschewing that second or third luxurious holiday house.

The really radical response to global warming - the one you won't find in any of the glossy green magazines - would be to rehabilitate the concept of thrift. The advertisers would hate it, but we could once more celebrate it as a virtue - in just the way it used to be celebrated by generations of Australians.

"Greensumerism" is trying to fool us into believing we can save the planet by upping our consumption, rather than trying to reduce it. It also tries to salve our conscience - inviting us to buy carbon credits, instead of changing our behaviour; or, like Rees, telling us we can feel OK about being profligate with power, as long as it's green.

At best, "greensumerism" leaves us like that fat man, running ever faster on the spot as we continue to stuff our faces. The ultimate outcome, as with the fat man's, won't be pretty.

All the green advertising and political speeches may give us a warm inner glow.

But the real achievement will come when we reduce that other warm glow: the one experienced by the planet.

Copyright © 2007 The Sydney Morning Herald

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