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.
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.
Leibowitz, the advertising guy, pointed me toward a recent BBMG poll, first cited in Brandweek. The poll found that while 28 percent of consumers said it was "very important" to buy from companies who do good things for the planet, only 17 percent reported "always" doing so.
Even that number, I'm betting, is inflated. "Always?" Just as suspicious is the 16 percent who reported taking a reusable bag with them while shopping. Just go to Whole Foods some day and watch the line. You may be at the most cheerfully "green" grocery chain around, but you're still not going to see one out of every six shoppers putting their groceries into little cloth bags.
Or take solar panels. Jim Arwood, director of the energy office of the Arizona Department of Commerce, is a big believer in solar power. Solar panels on his roof supply almost half of the energy used by his household. Even better, because the panels connect to the electric grid, the energy produced by those panels is never wasted. It goes back into the system to provide power for other homes, reducing the state's reliance on dirtier forms of energy — and earning Arwood credits from APS in the process.
But here's the rub.
Arwood is one of only 1,642 people in the entire state who've put up panels connecting to the grid. Seven times as many Arizonans voted for Fred Thompson after he quit the presidential race. Forty-two times as many people have outstanding warrants for their arrest in Maricopa County alone.
It's truly ridiculous. We're living in the sunniest state in the Union. We have tax incentives up the ying-yang. Students at Arizona State University's School of Global Management recently concluded that, thanks to those two factors, a medium-size set of panels would pay for itself in approximately 17 years. For an upper-middle-class family, that's not a bad equation.
And yet, for all the green hype flooding my mailbox, hardly anybody is doing it. California last year launched a "Million Solar Roofs" initiative, with the goal of plugging that many homes into the grid.
In Arizona, we'll be lucky to get 100,000.
Jim Arwood knows that he's still in a very small minority when it comes to personal solar generation, but he's optimistic. He clearly thinks I'm way too cynical about this state's underutilization of solar. "Thirty years ago, the 'solar industry' was a handful of backyard inventors," he says. "It takes time, but we're making a whole lot of progress."
But the path that progress is taking, I think, illustrates a bigger truth.
We can talk all we want about free enterprise, and individuals taking responsibility. We can read 411-page books designed to make us more green.
But we're not going to convert even a fraction of the state to renewable resources by depending on well-meaning individuals. Just look at how few homes have bothered to finance solar panel systems. If it isn't as easy as flashing a credit card or dropping an empty Coke can into a recycling bin, most of us simply won't do it.
And if it's not leading to a new outfit, even a credit card swipe has proved too difficult for 99 percent of us. Literally. APS has a "Green Choice" program, in which customers can opt to pay a little extra to get power from renewable sources. A spokesman says it costs the average household only about $11 a month. Still, fewer than 1 percent of the utility's customers have opted in.
But here's where it gets interesting. Even though individuals have proved utterly unwilling to do the green thing, we keep saying in polls that we care about the environment. You can't blame the politicians for thinking we really mean it.
So Arizona is about to get frog-marched into going green.
Right now, Arizona utilities are required to generate only 1 percent of their power from renewable resources. By 2025, though, the Arizona Corporation Commission is increasing that requirement to 15 percent. That's huge — and Arwood believes it's already making a difference. He points to the three-square-mile Solana Generating Station proposed for the Gila Bend area. It will rely on new technology to turn solar power into electricity, with a complexity far beyond the simple heat-storing rooftop panels.
In its first year, Solana is expected to generate 20 times more solar power than the entire state generates today.
Solana has its drawbacks. Despite its huge size, it's expected to generate enough power for only 70,000 homes, a mere fraction of the state's load. And it won't be cheap. Its energy will be 20 percent more costly than traditional sources. Hey, you said you wanted to save the Earth, right?
But there's an interesting twist in how it all could work. Thanks to the renewable-energy mandates, power in Arizona is likely to get more expensive. And as that happens, individuals will have more incentive to do their part. After all, a rooftop solar panel system will pay for itself a lot more quickly if the cost of electricity is sky high.
Just look at California. Because of heavy demand there, and local environmental pressures that have kept new coal-burning plants from being built there, it has to rely on power from other states. It's not cheap.
But the very expensiveness of power has created an interesting opportunity for private enterprise.
"In California, we're seeing companies putting solar panels on residential homes and maintaining them — and it doesn't cost the homeowner anything up front," Arwood says. In essence, electricity is so precious to our western neighbor that private companies have found it worth their while to harness individual roofs.
It could happen here. And with that 15 percent mandate looming for the power companies by 2025, it could come sooner than we think.
As a conservative, I get frustrated when I hear people say that corporations need to subsidize this or that. As if you and I don't ultimately pay for corporate subsidies in higher prices! Same for government programs. If the government is picking up the tab for "solar incentives," ultimately, you and I are picking up the bill.
So it's kind of funny that the poll cited in Brandweek concludes that consumers want companies to do more for the environment than they'll do as individuals. Nice try, people. That's not how it works, not ultimately.
We may be opting only for the quick-and-easy solutions today. But if this whole eco-friendly trend goes anywhere, we're all ultimately going to pay the price.
That may well be a good thing. Clean air, clean water, and trees may be worth part of our hard-earned pay. But let's be honest about it.
It's not going to be as easy as wearing organic clothes and cutting back on the lip liner. It will require expense — and hard choices.
I may even have to give up a magazine subscription or two. I'm thinking Vanity Fair. After all, if the name of the game is sacrifice, putting the Material Girl on the cover of your green issue is just plain stupid.
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