We're all destroying the earth, and buying an organic handbag ain't gonna help

Last year, trees died so I could learn how to live "green."

Doesn't seem quite right, does it? But anybody with a magazine jones like mine undoubtedly triggered a similar herbicide. That's because Vanity Fair and Dwell and Elle and Shape and Wired have each produced a "green issue" (or three), and now even the local guys, like Java and Phoenix and Desert Living, are joining in. Even though glossy magazines kill an estimated 15 trees per ton of paper, each one is intent on spreading the gospel of just how easy it is to Save the Earth.

Usually, in fact, it boils down to supporting the issue's advertisers: Buy a Prius! Buy an organic cotton T-shirt! Buy vegan nail polish remover!

And then there's Big Green Purse. Perhaps I was subconsciously influenced by all those green issues, or maybe I'm just a sucker for trendy books. For whatever reason, I recently spent $17.95 on a 411-page book telling me I could save the world through shopping. Yes, the paper was recycled, but that's still a lot of freakin' pulp to provide such helpful suggestions as "buy a vest or sweatshirt made from recycled soda bottles." (I can't say I was particularly tempted.)

These days, helping the environment is Big Business. It's not just media hype, and not just sweatshirts made from post-consumer Diet Coke packaging. The Phoenix Zoo is going green with a contest for kids to design new recycling bins. High-end restaurants, like Scottsdale's Mosaic, are selling organic wine right next to pricey Italian reds. It's hard to find a new development in the Valley that isn't being marketed as "sustainable," no matter how iffy the design.

The hype has gotten so bad that David Leibowitz, vice president at the Phoenix advertising firm Moses Anshell, tells me that he actually considered buying a Hummer just to cancel out what he calls the "greener than thou" cabal buying Priuses. (He ultimately settled for a midsize SUV.)

"Right now," Leibowitz says, "Green is unavoidable in a really aggravating way."

But the current ubiquity of eco-trendiness isn't just annoying. It's also dangerous.

Everybody wants to believe there's a quick and painless way to make a difference. "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world," etc., etc.

No offense to Margaret Mead, but in this case, it's simply not true.

I read Big Green Purse. (I had to justify killing those trees, after all.) As I read, I actually made a list of all the suggestions included therein that I'd be willing to try. Pick one day a week, author Diane MacEachern urged, to wear no makeup. That's not so hard, right? She also urged women not to douche (something about the chemicals involved) and to buy fewer cleaning products (again, chemicals). I was starting to feel pretty good about myself. After all, I hadn't bought a new cleaning product in six months, much less shot it into my nether region.

But the more I kept reading, the queasier I became. I began to realize I could do every single thing Diane MacEachern wanted me to do, and it wouldn't make one iota of difference.

That's because our big environmental problems don't come from mascara, or even Clorox. The real problem is our reliance on old coal-burning power plants, big gas-guzzling cars, and suburban McMansions.

You can have as many makeup-free days as you want; if you're living in a five-bedroom house in Buckeye and working in Queen Creek, you're not doing a lick of good. The little stuff simply doesn't matter if the big picture is a wasteful mess.

Here's an example: Diane MacEachern herself casually mentions flying to Tanzania for vacation. Twice. According to the various "carbon footprint" calculators I consulted, those two trips alone created more harmful carbon dioxide emissions than I generated in an entire year — and I'm a dry-clean-only, V-6 engine-driving carnivore!

The more I noodled around with the science behind every green issue's oh-so-easy suggestion, the more I realized this effort can't be about the small stuff.

We can each do our part. We can stop wearing makeup, we can forage for our own locally grown sustainable foods, and we can even limit our wardrobes to undyed wool from free-range alpacas, much as I'd advise against it for aesthetic reasons. But as long as you, or even your neighbor, is regularly flying to Tanzania, or even just driving an Escalade to work, it's not going to have much of an impact.

Sorry.


There really are things we can do to save the Earth, if that's our cup of tea.

The problem is, we're not doing them. And why should we? We think we're making a difference by buying organic cotton instead of polyester. (Never mind that we could actually do the most good, ecologically speaking, by staying away from the mall, period. Of course that idea doesn't sell advertising, and could well destroy the economy if practiced en masse, so don't expect to see it in a green issue near you any time soon.)

That's why I think all this stuff is ultimately so dangerous: There's a real risk that the quick-and-easy ideas pushed by "green" marketers everywhere are only going to numb us to the real solutions — solutions that might, in fact, prove painful.

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11 comments
handbag replica
handbag replica

Good article. It's refreshing to see an article where a girl admits that a) girls control the dating scene and b) girls often pick guys who "know how they love bags" rather than choose quality bags. I can't tell you how many of my girl-friends say something to the effect of "I don't know what I saw in that jerk!" Stuff like "The Pickup Artist" works...but its because it relies on psychology and manipulation. Not something to emulate, in my opinion.Girls, give that cute, if not shy and awkward, guy a chance! He might be the one you're looking for!purses

handbag replica
handbag replica

Good article. It's refreshing to see an article where a girl admits that a) girls control the dating scene and b) girls often pick guys who "know how they love bags" rather than choose quality bags. I can't tell you how many of my girl-friends say something to the effect of "I don't know what I saw in that jerk!" Stuff like "The Pickup Artist" works...but its because it relies on psychology and manipulation. Not something to emulate, in my opinion.Girls, give that cute, if not shy and awkward, guy a chance! He might be the one you're looking for!

Janelle
Janelle

I appreciate the pith of your article in that major changes are needed to deal with our need for clean, abundant energy, and I completely agree. I find the title of your article and some of your references in the first portion of your article to be off point, and therefore, they take away from the most meaningful part of what you have written. Being green is an umbrella issue that doesn't just involve clean, abundant energy. It involves treating the planet better in different ways. Pulling organic into the article feels disconnected to me. Going organic is about sustainable agriculture, as well as reducing toxicity. Sustainable agriculture helps with using our natural resources better, but not necessarily energy resources. Going organic keeps harmful chemicals out of your food, out of your drinking water, and off your skin. Your dry cleaning habit could cause breast cancer, but organic, free-range Alpaca wool never will, regardless of how unattractive it might be. Nor would organic agriculture ever make little boys grow breasts from hormones in their dairy or increase the prevalence of cancer among industrialized countries. {If this were Wikipedia, I would say a citation was needed, but my laziness gets the better of me.} Reducing toxicity by using organic products is a method of preventative medicine, which is more related to the nature and spirit of our health care system rather than the energy issue. It has done tremendous things for my health, so I am not just regurgitating this like a self-righteous third party. As far as shameless advertising and the hype, eh, by any means necessary when it comes to organic, as far as I'm concerned.

Emil Pulsifer
Emil Pulsifer

"Costs for solar thermal may fall as low as 3.5 cents a kilowatt-hour by 2020, according to a report commissioned by the U.S. Energy Department."

http://www.azcentral.com/arizo...

"It's crucial that companies like SRP invest in research and development so they find ways for customers to save money down the road," she said. "The fact we have solar getting down to an affordable price has a lot to do with research utilities conducted."

http://www.azcentral.com/arizo...

Mike
Mike

Perhaps we could harness some of Emil Pulsifer's hot air?

Geoff Thomas
Geoff Thomas

Nice article-to the good comment re mandating PV panels on every new house - it might might be politically perilous but what fool could argue against requiring new developments to have roof orientation and angles optimized for future PV panel installation?

bob
bob

It's all green to me

Emil Pulsifer
Emil Pulsifer

Tankilo, the entire semiconductor/computer industry has been massively underwritten by the government (military and intelligence agencies and university facilities supported by government funds) from Day One. The Internet itself arose as a result of the needs, research & development funding, and purchasing support of such institutions. So have much of the basic infrastructures of the telecommunications, energy, and transportation industries: basic and broad ranging projects from telecommunications networks and satellites, to the electrical generation and distribution grid, to the Interstate Highway system.

Nor is it always appreciated at first by private industry. Jack Kilby, the inventor of the integrated circuit, was working for Texas Instruments (which in turn was under contract to the U.S. Army Signal Corps developing technology with cryptological applications):

"Kilby had made a big breakthrough. But while the U.S. Air Force showed some interest in TI's integrated circuit, industry reacted skeptically. Indeed the IC and its relative merits 'provided much of the entertainment at major technical meetings over the next few years,' Kilby wrote. The integrated circuit first won a place in the military market through programs such as the first computer using silicon chips for the Air Force in 1961 and the Minuteman Missile in 1962."

http://www.ti.com/corp/docs/ki...

It isn't a question of the eventual commercial applications and spin-offs: it's a question of providing industries with a credible motivation for the initial creation and early, intensive development of emerging technologies.

The point is that government is in a position to provide goals and funding for cutting-edge research & development, as well as a ready-market for the finished product, in order to serve national needs and under circumstances in which ordinary market mechanisms (the need for near-term profits and market viability) are weak, slow, or insufficient on their own.

This is especially important in time-sensitive projects requiring national coordination, like the conversion from an economy dependent for its productivity on petroleum-based energy sources, to one capable of functioning at least as well using solar as its primary energy source.

This is a critical issue that transcends broad political rhetoric about government vs. private industry. The question is what both government AND private industry can do, and how they should go about it. If there is a broad public concensus on the need for timely and decisive action, it should motivate both sectors as well as a national debate on the best way of accomplishing the goal.

Tankilo
Tankilo

"""The histories of now familiar products like television and personal computers demonstrate that what was once an expensive luxury product and a novelty, marketed to a tiny group of dedicated hobbyists, and whose poor early quality made many doubt their commercial viability, can through mass production and far-sighted investment in research & development result in inexpensive, efficient products of excellent quality and reliability."""

The personal computer got to where it is today by no government mandate, by no tax incentives, "every new home must have a personal computer" did not happen either.

Sometimes the solution is not the government.

Tony Mallory
Tony Mallory

Here's a thought. Why not mandate that all new home construction have solar panels included? Eating up the amount of acreage stated in the article seems wasteful to me, when you could potentially have that much square footage just sitting idly by on people's rooftops.

Emil Pulsifer
Emil Pulsifer

Nice article.

Solar power is certainly the way to go, considering the fact that the sun provides a natural, pollution-free, massive, and for all practical purposes inexhaustible energy source. The sun is always shining over vast swaths of the planet, 24 hours a day. All we need to do is find practical ways to harvest that energy.

Regarding the figure that Solana's energy will be 20 percent higher than traditional sources, there are several factors that can substantially lower that cost. The histories of now familiar products like television and personal computers demonstrate that what was once an expensive luxury product and a novelty, marketed to a tiny group of dedicated hobbyists, and whose poor early quality made many doubt their commercial viability, can through mass production and far-sighted investment in research & development result in inexpensive, efficient products of excellent quality and reliability.

A three square mile solar plant that can service 70,000 homes illustrates the potential but falls far short of realizing it. There is in theory no reason why solar plants the size of metropolitan Phoenix (or considerably larger) cannot occupy land now consisting of unpeopled and undeveloped desert, not only in Arizona but in many other states of the southwest and elsewhere. These plants could provide energy not only locally but regionally and nationally.

Administrative costs and profit taking are another factor to consider. A private company that must pay large executive salaries, even larger incomes to owners taking their cuts, and generate profits large enough to please general stockholders, must pass those increased overhead costs to the consumer. The most expensive element of a can of soda pop is the can, and the profit margin on flavored suger-water is quite high. Eventually solar technology will realize its potential for efficiency, and when it does free sunlight could mean dirt-cheap power; but don't expect to pay that as a consumer if consumers don't own the means of production.

Solana is built, owned, and operated by a private company, Abengoa Solar, which sells the electricity to APS. True public ownership would not only reduce consumer costs, but would also solve the problem of how to fund much needed research & development, advancing the technology to the level it needs to reach to function as our primary national power source.

Whatever the attitude of Abengoa might be, more generally in the private sector the short-term, bottom-line mindset demonstrated by the shareholders and boards of many of today's private companies may be a hindrance when decisions must be made about capital investment.

Exactly how quickly a viable alternative energy source must be developed is a matter of debate. The Arizona Republic published a recent op-ed piece by someone with a degree in forestry (not petroleum engineering) that was alarmist and inaccurate. But there is a broad scientific concensus that the quantity of oil is limited and that, even with the discovery of new oil and/or the development of more efficient extraction techniques, serious problems loom, on the order of decades rather than centuries.

It isn't even a question of when the oil will run out, because long before that, when supply cannot keep up with demand, prices will increase. And demand is currently increasing as countries like China and India undergo rapid industrialization, whereas supply is not.

Most U.S. electricity generating plants today burn petroleum products to power the process; the vast majority of freight (consumer goods, business inputs) in this country are distributed by trucks running on diesel fuel. Petroleum products are also widely used in the manufacture of aviation fuel, plastics, asphalt, and a wide variety of other things.

Increased demand relative to a supply that does not increase as fast (or a supply that does not increase at all, or a supply that decreases) implies increased prices, according to basic free-market principles. Since energy prices and freight shipping prices are primary cost inputs to the economy as a whole, and businesses pass on increased manufacturing and marketing costs in the form of increased consumer costs, that's a recipe for inflation.

Inflation in turn can mean decreased consumption, and that can result in recessions or depressions, which can lead to unemployment and social crisis; those in turn can precipitate ill-considered political changes, insurrections and civil wars, and wars between nations vying for control of limited resources. And in a world whose economies and underlying financial institutions are increasingly interlinked, problems in one major country can easily spread to the region or world.

At the moment, according to U.S. Government statistics from the Energy Information Administration, five countries provide 70 percent of the U.S. oil supply: Canada, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Nigeria, and Venezuela (in that order).

The same source states that at current production levels Mexico's proven oil reserves will run-out in about 10 years. Nigeria is politically unstable with a rebel movement that routinely sabotages the oil production infrastructure, and Venezuela has recently nationalized its oil fields and has threatened (probably as a bluff) to stop oil sales to the U.S. should the U.S. continue meddling in regional (South American) affairs.

All of this, as well as the time it can take to properly develop and work the kinks out of something like an entirely new energy source and integrate it into the nation's energy and manufacturing infrastructures -- even assuming that the will to do so exists and that sufficient investment capital is available and allocated for this purpose -- suggests that we need to get serious about alternative energy, starting right now.

Note: Iraq is currently sixth in terms of supplying U.S. oil imports, but its unexplored western region is currently regarded by the petroleum industry as the best bet for the discovery of large new oil reserves. In any case, oil production will increase to pre-sanctions levels once political stability returns to the country.

Since removal of the restrictions on Iraqi oil sales were effectively tied to the removal of Saddam Hussein from leadership, but 12 years of those oil sanctions failed to result in his removal by domestic coup, the desire to restore Iraqi oil availability to pre-sanctions levels may have provided the Bush adminstration with an (unadmitted) casus belli.

The best way to accomplish the political stabilization of Iraq (and consequently to insure a substantial increase in Iraqi oil production) is a matter of current debate; my personal opinion is that U.S. withdrawal will permit existing factions to resolve their problems faster because they will not have the excuse of an "occupying army" to justify their belligerence. Others argue that this will result in civil war in Iraq; but it's difficult to envision an Iraqi civil war that did not result fairly quickly in the victory of the Shiite majority which currently controls the government, army, police, and several powerful private militias, with or without the assistance of Iran.

The influence of Iran in the country would no doubt increase, but that's fairly natural considering that they border Iraq and share cultural and religious values with a majority of its citizens. The current propaganda effort to demonize Iran (admittedly not a particularly sympathetic government even on its best days) is reminiscent of the pre-war campaign against Iraq; but U.S. troop commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan make a new ground war implausible.

 
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