Longform

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.)

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske