Thursday, April 29, 2010

Jolly green corporate giants

First of all, apologies for the lack of posts this week. I've been rushing to try and get ten pieces published at Associated Content before the end of this month in order to earn a small bonus. At this point I'm up to nine, with the tenth waiting for approval. The new ones include an explanation of how to organize your computer cables with pipe insulation as I did back in January, a reprint of an article I wrote for the "Live Cheap" blog on how to do your holiday shopping at yard sales, a guide to what I call "the three habits of highly frugal people," and an editorial on why a frugal lifestyle shouldn't be seen as a sacrifice. (After this I'll probably ease off on new Associated Content articles for a while, so readers of this blog won't have to be pestered about them all the time.)

So, what with all that other writing I've been doing, it's taken me a whole week to get around to blogging about an article I read in the New York Times last Thursday about the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. The main thrust of it was that Earth Day started out as a fairly fringe-left, anti-establishment event, but now, 40 years later, it's a big, popular festival, and lots of corporations are taking advantage of it to market their green products and services. The article quoted one of the original founders of the Earth Day movement bemoaning the "tragic" way the event has been "perverted" by corporate marketing.

Now, I consider myself pretty close to the salad fork on the political place setting myself, but my honest reaction to this was, "Oh, stuff it." Because personally, I care a lot less about the purity of people's motives than I do about the actual results. Sure, it's likely that these corporations are only adopting green (or slightly greener) practices out of financial motives, rather than out of any real concern for the earth. So what? If the net outcome is less oil drilling, more recycling, and lower greenhouse gas emissions, then isn't that a good thing, regardless of the reasons?

In fact, I'll even go so far as to argue that having giant corporations hop on board the green bandwagon is the best possible outcome. Because think about it: a hundred pure-hearted environmentalists doing absolutely everything they can to be green—going off the grid, raising their own food, eschewing all fossil fuels, and living a 100 percent ideologically pure lifestyle—will still have far less actual impact on the environment than a huge, evil megacorporation like Wal-Mart becoming just a tiny bit less evil. Baby steps make a big difference when you have such a large footprint. It's like buying a fuel-efficient car: you'll have a lot more impact by trading in a huge, gas-guzzling SUV that gets 10 miles to the gallon for a hybrid SUV that gets 20 (thus going from 10 gallons of gas per hundred miles to 5) than you will by trading in a fairly efficient compact car that gets 33 miles to the gallon for a super-efficient hybrid that gets 50 (going from 3 gallons per hundred miles to 2).

It may indeed be true that "a small group of concerned citizens can change the world," but the easiest way for it to do that is by influencing big decision-makers. And I see no point in taking a morally pure stand if it has no chance of making an actual difference. Voting for a tiny splinter-party candidate who takes the right and just position on every issue may make sense if what you want to do with your vote is to "make a statement," but if you actually want to make the country a better place, you'd be much better off giving your vote to a seriously flawed major-party candidate who's far less seriously flawed than the other major-party candidate. The former choice expresses your dissatisfaction with the system; the latter actually does something to change it.

And let's not forget the image of the environmental movement itself. The green movement has made vast gains in popularity, and therefore in clout, with the spread of the idea that going green can be easy and fun. And most people would much rather go to the mall than to a lecture. So if a soy-fiber plush toy can get apathetic, consumerist, mainstream America thinking and talking about environmental issues, isn't that a good thing?
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