Green Gone Wrong: Or, Why We Can’t Buy Our Way Out of Global Warming

Green Gone Wrong, written by journalist Heather Rogers, is an expose of the green industry–organic food, carbon offsets, electric cars and their ilk–from the left. The author’s argument can be shaped like this:

Global warming is a real threat. Something needs to be done. But most of what’s being done under the guise of green isn’t solving the problem. In fact, it’s actually obscuring real solutions.

Take the hybrid car. CO2-spewing internal combustion engines  in cars have been replaced by hybrid electric engines, which at face value is a good thing. Score one point for the greens. But research has shown that Prius drivers actually drive farther, up to 25% more, once they own a hybrid. When people feel like they’re using less gas per mile, they often compensate by driving more miles. Net-net: They often end up using a similar amount of petroleum as they did when driving a car with an internal combustion engine.

And that leads to the book’s main point: The green industry as we know it is based on consumerism–switching from dirty products to green products–when in fact what we should be doing from an ecological standpoint is using less. That’s not a laine that goes over well in board rooms, and understandably so. The incentives of green capitalism, a term that Rogers uses throughout the book, are misaligned with what actually needs to be done to reduce atmospheric carbon in hopes of reversing–or at least stabilizing–climate change.

She is critical throughout the book of the “armchair activism” that the Whole Foods variety of environmentalism has spawned. While there’s been significant movement in increasing awareness of ecological issues, and I would add that should certainly be taken as a victory in its own right, we’ve been handed false solutions that in many cases have kept lasting progress at arm’s length. Hybrid cars still keep people driving comfortably and buying gasoline rather than addressing some of the root causes that cause us to use so much energy for transportation, namely that North American cities have been built around the car, which forces us to expend far more energy than necessary to get from Point A to Point B. The real solution would be shrinking the footprint of our cities so they resemble Boston or San Francisco, while simultaneously creating transportation systems that rely on renewables. That’s a pretty radical step, which Rogers doesn’t quite get into in the book, and makes Jimmy Carter wearing a sweater in the Oval Office seem like an armchair activist himself.

In other cases, she shows some green industries to be a few steps above being frauds. The chapter on carbon offsets is enough to give credence to charges that offsets are nothing more than buying indulgences. It turns out that if you buy offsets to balance out a Seattle-London flight, the projects that will offset the carbon from that flight will only do so over the life of the project. That could be one hundred years in the case of a tree farm, so that we’re literally equating the carbon shot into the atmosphere during a ten-hour flight with the carbon taken out of the atmosphere over a century. She also investigates some of the offset projects in India, which has developed a cottage industry around offset projects, and finds that in many cases these are falling far short of their intended outcomes. Take, for instance, a biomass plan, designed to generate energy from agricultural waste, which has increased the market value of this waste and, in turn, caused locals to deforest their land. And by cutting down those trees that would otherwise be left standing, we lose a source for offsetting carbon.

The book leaves far more questions than answers, in large part because Rogers seems reluctant to follow her investigations to their natural conclusion. Climate change won’t be solved with green capitalism alone. The key will be aligning incentives between what’s beneficial for the environment with the profit incentives of business. As long as there’s more profit in polluting rather than conserving, we’ll be unable to change our trajectory. Even Toyota, which has built its brand around hybrids, has fought against improving U.S. fuel efficiency standards because it wasn’t in their financial interest to do so, green marketing notwithstanding.

There’s an inherent challenge in getting to the right solution. We can’t buy our way out of global warming. No company makes money when consumers drive less, spend less and consume less. Technology will likely be the answer to many of these problems, but many companies face built-in disincentives from changing how they do business. This is one reason why a strong regulatory environment can be a helpful step forward. Companies follow their prerogative when they pollute to achieve profit, but governments can follow theirs by taking into account the best interests of society–namely, that it would be bad if Seattle, San Francisco, New York and Miami were under seawater one day–and changing the incentives accordingly. Tax carbon, and suddenly polluting no longer helps the bottom line. Auto companies will produce big-profit, low-mileage trucks until the mileage requirements change, at which point they can turn to the high-mileage cars they already sell in Europe.

The only thing left do, then, is to innovate. We’ve come a long way, technologically speaking, with only limited incentives at work. If $4 gas can kill the SUV, then a carbon tax–or whatever means necessary–will help spur us toward creating solutions to confront our environmental challenges head on. And if we can do that while consuming less personally, then that’s a win for the environment too. In the end, the answer will probably be part innovation, part Jimmy Carter’s sweater in the Oval Office. And that’s OK.

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2 Comments

Filed under Book Review, Economics, Green, Science

2 responses to “Green Gone Wrong: Or, Why We Can’t Buy Our Way Out of Global Warming

  1. Ryan

    The first point you mention from Rogers’ book was predicted several years ago in Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat. In it he said that a truly green revolution would only come at a cost, and that cost is going to pinch, especially on the bottom line (at least at first). Major companies like Ford, Toyota — even GE — will not be on the true path toward green-ity until their green goals actually affect their profits for the negative, and investors don’t tend to like that. I wonder how much time we have before SF, Seattle, and NYC are covered with water, because the infrastructure changes we need to make are so long term and affect the comfort of so many people that it will probably take at least the next hundred years before people are accept them — and that’s just here in the US. What about China and India, countries with burgeoning middle classes that are learning to consume to the same level we do?

    • Funny you mention Thomas Friedman, because as I was reading Green Gone Wrong I was reminded of one of his more recent books–Hot, Flat and Crowded. He seemed to make a somewhat different argument there (if I recall properly), which was that major advances in technology would allow us to keep a fairly similar lifestyle of commuting by car, surviving the Washington, D.C. summer humidity with air conditioning and so on. I’m not convinced that business will be able to get there on its own without society resetting the incentives.

      As for infrastructure changes, I’m of two minds. When I drive through suburban wastelands of expressways lined with strip malls, neon signs and sidewalks that have never been walked on, I’m pretty negative on ever reshaping society to be less energy intensive. But at the same time, the transition to an automobile-based society happened pretty quickly, in the course of a decade or so, largely because the government made massive investments in automobile-based infrastructure like freeways, which as their name suggests were free to their users but not to society. Talk about a cost incentive. Part of me thinks that a similar approach–massive investment in infrastructure for the twenty-first century while making visible the hidden costs of car-based infrastructure–could turn the ship surprisingly quickly. And of course, similar arguments could be made for consumer goods, how buildings use energy, etc.

      The Chinas and the Indias of the world is a tough one. Also of two minds there. For one, because they’re modernizing now, they’re able to do so with the latest technology–bullet trains and the like. But at the same time, their middle classes fully expect to live like the middle classes of the West, and they have no intention of being told otherwise by snobby Americans like me. And I can’t quite blame them for that. I think part of the answer, and perhaps this contradicts the whole blog post, is recognizing that anti-consumerism isn’t necessarily the goal. The greatest sources of CO2 emissions are base-level things like buildings and transportation. Focusing on consumerism alone is like trying to get out of debt by getting fewer lattes: It helps, but you need to rent a smaller apartment and sell your car if you expect to make any traction. We can make much of the headway by ratcheting down the big things and seeing where we are. It’s a start at least!

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