Can Switching to Hybrid Cars and Organics Really Save the World, or Is It Just Lazy Environmentalism?

Heather Rogers' new book, 'Green Gone Wrong,' explores whether we can save the world simply by swapping our polluting products for greener ones.

Over the past few years, more and more so-called green solutions have emerged to address environmental crises within the context of the current economic structure. But author Heather Rogers suggests that some of these solutions amount to lazy environmentalism and may actually camouflage a larger problem. In fact, Rogers argues that our current socio-economic system depends on pollution to maintain its own well-being. If that's the case, what are the real solutions? Rogers' latest book, Green Gone Wrong: How our Economy Is Undermining the Environmental Revolution explores this idea and digs a little deeper to see the effects of the green industry.

Maria Armoudian: You are very critical of 'lazy environmentalism' or 'armchair activism.' What do you consider lazy and what is the harm done by it?

Heather Rogers: It's a term that has some currency in the newer generation of environmentalism which eschews the guilt and the sacrifice of the environmentalism that came up in the 1970s. This next wave was saying, "Okay, we don't have to suffer. We don't have to go live in Earthship houses and run our bath water through homemade wetland systems into our toilets and be totally off the grid. We can live in nice houses, live well, drive where we want to drive in hybrid cars and enjoy ourselves. We can enjoy the market mechanisms in order to have a good life and save the planet." And what I'm doing is investigating that a little bit more and saying I don't know if that really works.

MA: It seems you are arguing that it even might make it worse in some ways.

HR: Right. Well, the way that the market works is that it has to grow. In order to do that, it has to utilize materials in nature. So [the market] can't stop extracting and affecting the natural environment -- ecosystems that we need in order to hold back climate change, keep our water clean and keep diverse species on the planet. But there's this idea that we can somehow make capitalism behave itself. What I'm saying is that we can't undo this fundamental logic by replacing green products for dirty ones. That fundamental logic is still there. And where wealth comes from is still there.

MA: I wonder if it's just part of being human that we are exploiting nature. And if so, how do you counteract that?

HR: Right, we have to use resources, and I'm not saying we don't take anything from nature, because we do. But we have an inter-relationship with nature and there's a term for it: socio-ecology. This is a very useful concept, taught by Miguel Altieri at UC Berkeley. It's the idea that social networks and environmental networks do co-exist. We've always used nature to support life. So how can we do that without wrecking the place? We know that it can be done because societies have done it in the past and are doing it in varying degrees now. It's just a matter of looking beyond the role of ourselves as individual consumers and looking at the larger picture. What are the options? We don't just have capitalism. There are other ways that we can get the things that we need and use in daily life.

MA: Do you think that a tamed version of capitalism that doesn't need constant growth would still be as destructive?

HR: I don't know that you can have a capitalism that doesn't rely on growth. I don't know what the political system is that we need, but I do know that we need one that's more balanced, and that integrates the social and environmental costs of how we live, and that means, simply put, consuming less. But it doesn't mean we have to sacrifice and suffer. Americans throw away 25 percent of all our food--just throw it away. There's a tremendous amount of waste.

MA: So, what you're not arguing is that people should stop doing the green things, like the reusable bags and the reusable cups and any of that. You're saying, it just may not be enough.

HR: Well, I'm definitely saying it just may not be enough in many instances, but there are some "green" products that are really bad.

MA: Your book mentions some deceptive practices like the labeling of organic food. Is this one of the 'green' products you think are bad?

HR: Well, first, let me say that locally grown organic food, environmentally, is very sound. The distribution system needs to be reconstructed because one did exist from the '70s -- the natural food movement in the 1970s. But it has since been consolidated by the market, and so we need to rebuild that. But what I found was that with globally grown organic food, increasingly as big corporations are taking over organic food and are sourcing organic inputs from all over the world, developing countries primarily.

One example is an organic sugar plantation in Paraguay that supplies a third of all the organic sugar consumed in the United States. General Mills, Silk Soymilk all buy sugar from this plantation, and it's sold all over -- a lot in Whole Foods grocery stores. But this plantation is clearing trees and native ecosystem to expand its crop land, which doesn't make environmental sense. It makes economic sense. These are the deeper issues. And while it's better that they're not spraying crops with chemicals, they're still pulling apart vital ecosystems that can't be replaced, at least not any time soon.

MA: You've also documented the struggle of the small, truly organic farmers. What are the broad implications here?

HR: This is the other side of the economics of organic. The small, local farmer is held as the hero of this wave of environmentalism and the transformation of the food system. But these farmers have a really hard time making ends meet, even though they charge more money for their produce. Their costs are very high, and they have to deal with so much by themselves -- property taxes, distribution and marketing. There's such a dearth of infrastructure for them because of the USDA.

In the most recent farm bill, the vast majority of $300 billion goes to conventional, polluting, scorched-earth agriculture. It doesn't support local, holistic, community-based systems. If we could re-orient those priorities, it would make a tremendous difference environmentally, and it would make that food more accessible and affordable for regular people, rather than just for the wealthy.

MA: What are other examples?

HR: Biofuels. The government mandates consumption of biofuels in this country, in Europe, and parts of China, and in many other countries around the globe because it's seen as a green renewable energy. But in places like Indonesia and Borneo, they are clear-cutting one of the last largest remaining rainforests on the planet to grow crops for biofuels. And where I went was the last remaining viable habitat for the orangutan. So again, it doesn't make environmental sense, just economic sense.

MA: You have also written about these independent, quasi-independent, certification agencies and suggest that they are not really working.

HR: Right. One of the biggest organic certification companies in the United States is Quality Assurance International. A third of all the food on U.S. grocery store shelves is certified by it. They were the certifier of the Paraguay plantation where I went. But they perpetuate this idea that if you just check up on these businesses and make it less destructive, but it will find ways around it because it's abiding by these [economic] rules.

MA: Another example of a certifying agency in your book is RSPO, which is part of the World Wildlife Fund, but with corporations like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland on its board. How compromised are their standards?

HR: In the case of RSPO, the corporations were founding members. It was a partnership that they entered into with the World Wildlife Fund and other environmental groups. The RSPO stands for the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil. It focuses on palm oil producing countries, and palm oil is the crop grown in Indonesia and Borneo where I went. One of the plantations I visited refines palm oil and sells to a company that is partially owned by Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). The company is illegally deforesting and dispossessing native, indigenous communities. So they are wiping out all of this rainforest and burning the trees, which has made Indonesia the third largest CO2 emitter globally.

Indonesia is a country without developed industries and yet it trails only the U.S. and China in its CO2 emissions because of all the deforestation. So companies like ADM are linked up very closely with precisely what they're saying as members of the RSPO that they're protecting against. So these [certifying] organizations, which are voluntary, are good public relations: attempts to assuage our concerns and make us feel like they are doing the right thing. There are still some useful aspects to it. For example, some environmental groups participate and see it as an avenue to try to get these companies to behave better.

MA: Is it working?

HR: No, it's not working.

MA: So overall, would you disagree with liberals and environmentalists who argue for more regulation?

HR: I'm not totally opposed to regulation. Everything plays a role. But there has to be ways that we use all the different mechanisms that we have, in the ways that make the most sense.

MA: You don't seem to have much faith in the efforts toward creating socially responsible businesses with the 'triple bottom line.'

HR: I don't [have faith in them] because I think there's a fundamental misunderstanding of the economic system. But this idea of "natural capitalism" suggests that you can clean up the environment, green your business, save you money, make your enterprise more efficient and win over customers. It's considered a win-win scenario: As you go green, you expand your consumer base, create social benefits and your profits go up.

"Natural capitalism" does have great ideas, like the concept of bio-mimicry, which redesigns the manufacturing process to imitate nature as much as possible. That means reducing waste and toxicity, increasing reuse and sending products that we use in daily life right back through the manufacturing process. It's brilliant and makes a whole lot of sense, but markets can't adequately value nature. Because the economic system has to grow, the energy goes back into expanding the business, making new markets, and further intensifying consumption. So we're not retiring those energy savings. For example, when Wal-Mart replaces its truck fleet with more fuel-efficient vehicles, the greenhouse gases that aren't being made are not put away. [Instead], Wal-Mart opens another store and another store, and another store.

MA: That's a perfect lead-in to buildings and housing.

HR: In the U.S. overall, housing and buildings [account for] 40 percent of our carbon emissions. So, it's considerable. With buildings we're talking offices and factories.

MA: You were inspired by ecological housing units that you saw in Europe.

HR: Yeah, I went to Germany to the town of Freiberg, and spent time in one of the neighborhoods that is referred to often by people as an eco-village. There are two of these neighborhoods in Freiberg, housing a total of 15,000 people. They've been around for over a dozen years and they have a track record. So I went to see what it is like. Is it comfortable? Is it weird? Is it culturally alienating? Is this where normal people can live? Is it expensive? How exclusive is it? I found that it was very accessible. I met the people who first started this neighborhood in the mid-'90s, and I met a retired grandmother who loved it.

MA: What is it about it that works?

HR: For one, their buildings use a super-insulated building material with well-made components that hold a lot of energy. In Germany, about three quarters of all CO2 emissions come from heating. So it's really important to have well-insulated structures. There are also buildings that produce more energy than they use because they also have solar panels as their roofs. The German government created a feed-in tariff, which allows people with solar panels to put energy back into the grid. The utility is obliged to buy power from them for 20, at double the going rate. That means that individuals can pay off their solar panels in seven to eight years and then get a dozen years of pure profit. It becomes financially do-able because with renewable energy, the costs are all up front whereas with coal, the costs are spread out over time. Also, in Germany, all the ratepayers chip in, so everyone is participating.

MA: And transportation -- you have been very critical of the carbon offset. Why?

HR: Carbon offsetting is a voluntary product we can buy when we get an airplane ticket. There's often now an option on the Web site to say, "Offset my carbon from this flight." If you pay 10 or 15 extra dollars, that money goes to a company that partners with nonprofits mostly in developing countries like China and India. Your [offset] money gets pooled with all these other people who bought offsets and is used for renewable energy and tree-planting projects.

But I went to India where a quarter of the world's offsetting projects are being carried out. I found that while it sounds great, it doesn't quite work like it's supposed to work. Carbon can only be neutralized over time, so if you plant a tree, it's not until the full lifespan of that tree is over, that the carbon has been absorbed. That may take 100 years.

The other issue is whether the projects actually get carried out at all or if they are implemented successfully. There are also often unintended consequences. I went to a renewable energy plant that was supposed to run on crop wastes, but it's in a very poor farming region, and people are cutting down trees to sell and earn extra money. There are all kinds of possible snags that are really hard to anticipate when you're sitting at your computer. Ultimately, I don't think carbon offsetting can take carbon out of the atmosphere.

MA: Even in the long term?

HR: Right. This idea of a one-for-one doesn't really exist. Climate scientists will tell you that it's very difficult this way. Say this tree was planted, but five others were cut down. It's the type of calculation that we really can't make. I mean, what we need to do is emit less carbon in the first place.

MA: And we do want to emit less carbon. How do you suggest we approach it?

HR: Well this is what it comes down to. It can feel really overwhelming. The choices we make do matter -- your tote bag for your groceries, organic food, your Prius hybrid -- but I really want to stress that we need to practice our environmentalism in a range of ways -- not just through what we buy. Part of that environmentalism, the way that we can practice it, is by educating ourselves, by talking to people in our community. I think we can expand environmentalism to include the social [realm]. Here, in the U.S., we see environmental crises in such a compartmentalized way, but if we can open that up and understand the connections between the social, the economic and the environmental, we can make some progress that is not based on false hope.

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Maria Armoudian is the host and producer of the Insighters, which is heard on KPFK in L.A. and Santa Barbara and WPRR in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Associate producer Erin Wafer is finishing her masters in cultural studies at Claremont Graduate University.