Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Who's Got "Green Fatigue?"

Last week The Independent published an interesting article on "Green Fatigue," the idea that many of us are losing interest in supporting the environmental movement because we're starting to think that our individual actions are irrelevant in reversing the effects of global warming. We're also growing cynical as corporations keep telling us that we can "go green" through more consumption, a trend that was captured in this fascinating and depressing New York Times article.

The wealthy are buying 8,000 sq. ft. eco-mansions and hybrid cars that only get 22 mpg, while celebrities host mega-concerts around the world to raise awareness of environmental issues, oblivious to the fact of what hosting events of this size actually harm the environment. Corporations offset their "carbon imprint" by planting trees, a "magic bullet" solution that impresses few. Studies show that most of the products labeled "organic" are actually not. Is it any wonder we're growing a little jaded?

Many environmental scientists are skeptical that the small changes individuals make will actually slow global warming, since most of the damage has already been done. Still, there's no shortage of products on the market that promise an eco-friendly alternative to the traditional packaged goods we use, and the market for these types of products grows larger every year. While we all know that the best solution is just to "buy less," it's going to be very difficult to sell the idea of decreasing consumption to a culture that's based on just the opposite.

One point that the Independent article made was that environmentalists fear that "green fatigue" will only get worse as people get frustrated with the lack of visible change despite their efforts to help the environment. We're a very results-oriented society when it comes to charitable giving, and unlike many charitable causes, it's impossible to see any short-term change that comes from living a greener lifestyle. Many people need the satisfaction of facts and figures that show that poverty levels have lowered or more people have access to AIDS drugs or fewer women die in childbirth to continue to support their chosen charitable cause with their time and money. The environmental movement can't provide that, and it's hard to say whether our interest in environmental issues will turn out to be another short-lived trend.

Personally, I'll admit that I've experienced some of this "green fatigue" myself. When shopping, I tend to choose eco-friendly products over the traditional kind (though I won't go out of my way to shop at different stores to find these products, and price is still usually my first concern). I'm a big believer in eating locally (thank you Omnivore's Dilemma). I do my best to recycle, have cut down on using water bottles and hope to purchase a Hybrid when my current car dies.

I make an effort, but I'm certainly no role model for green living, and I do these things more because I feel it's the responsible thing to do, but also because I know other people will judge me if I didn't. When it comes to corporations or government policy, I do believe that efforts should be made to reduce our negative impact on the environment. But while I feel bad about not doing more, I don't really believe that my actions make much of a difference either way.

From reading comments on this blog (particularly in response to this post), I've noticed that many of you seem to be motivated by concern for the environment. I'm curious to hear what you think about the issue of "green fatigue." How much of your actions and purchasing decisions are based on environmental motivations? Do you think people will begin to lose interest in the environment if they don't see positive changes, or alternatively, see global warming get much worse?


Deja Pseu said...

It's become more or less habit for me to choose the "greener" alternative when shopping. There's a push in CA right now to get people to swap out their incandescent bulbs for fluorescent, and that's my next project. Installing solar panels is still big business here too; the energy generated goes back into the "grid" and reduces utility bills.

But the bigger issue is that once again, something that probably will require larger systemic initiatives to actually see some results is being handed off as a matter of individual responsibility/initiative. Yes, there are steps we can all take, but until we shift the world's dependence off of fossil fuels (and meat production, another MAJOR source of greenhouse gasses) our little drops in the bucket aren't going to solve the problem.

Anonymous said...

I work as an energy-efficiency consultant, and most of the recommendations we make to homeowners , developers, and architects are based on the fact that being green (making decisions based on least impact on the environment) and being blue (making decisions based on saving energy) actually save green (money). People will always respond to money. The greenest thing you can do is recycle things.... like consumer items!

Diana said...

Hi Meg. I completely feel where you are coming from with today's post. There are some days that I think my efforts are completely useless. But growing up, my mother was my role model for being green. She taught me the important lessons from day one about recycling and taking care of the earth. By no means was she considered a "hippie" or a "treehugger", she simply felt that it was her responsibility to do her part. Period.

I feel that she successfully instilled these values in me, and I feel that I'm at a point where I couldn't change if I wanted to. Like her, I recycle everything I possibly can, I bring my own shopping bags to EVERY store, I buy organic if at all possible, I've replaced my appliances with more energy efficient ones, I'll walk instead of driving if possible, and I use CFL bulbs in my house.

I feel like there's so much more I can do and I feel that we're well past the time when big companies, including the government, should take a cue from us. They leave the lights on at night when the buildings are empty. They have the air conditioning set so low in the summer, the average building temperature is around 66F (people can function with higher temps). They claim to recycle, but most people have seen the cleaning staff dump every trash can, recycling and non-, in the same trash bin.

Overall, it's not just "green fatigue" for me, it's the frustration of feeling that I'm the only one doing my part.

Anonymous said...

I went through this about a year back, when I was looking into greener options for...well, everything. For example, I got into soapmaking, because it seemed more natural and earth-friendly than buying shower gels (with all the chemicals and plastic and whatnot). And then I read about the environmental and ethical no-nos involved in harvesting palm oil (a big component of most soaps). It kind of depressed me for a while, and I had that moment of "why bother", which was echoed in thousands of other similar cases. It seems like for every step forward, there's a step back as well - there are no easy, impact-free choices when it comes to going more green. I was ready to throw in the towel.

But then I thought more about it, and realized that I could spend my life feeling apathetic or I could try to do something anyway, something that aligns with my core values. No all my actions are going to be perfect or make a huge difference, but ultimately I can choose to do nothing, or choose to do something. The big changes need to happen collectively, but they won't happen if small changes aren't made individually, you know?

(In the case of soapmaking, I found alternative formulations that don't use palm oil, and I found fair-trade alternative sources for palm oil as well.)

tmp00 said...

I agree with gentle hedonist; although I am more limited in my actions (I buy my soap). I take the bus the 10 miles to work, which is easy because it's one bus. But at least I am not using the car. My city has recycling- they do the sorting. I don't have bottled water in the house (other than containers in my earthquake kit) and don't consume it out, much. I have a mug for my coffee at work, and I try to conserve water and power at home. I don't think it will do much to help, but then again it's doing less to hurt.

In SoCal I think the biggest thing one can do is cut down on driving. I know several people at my job who could easily take the MTA to work, if they could just get over the mindset that public transportation is dirty, slow or just for "them".

Sasha said...

Hello Meg,

I can't really argue with much you've written there - its true that many people are going green for the image while the rest of us wonder whether our actions are trivial or not. One thing that has always been a motivating factor for me is when I imagine an ideal future where we have all acted together successfully on the issues of poverty, climate change, global warming, ecological deterioration etc etc and I think - would we rather accomplish that through our individual choices (the little things we do everyday) or because governments and large corporations forced on us?

I much prefer the idea that one day the planet might be a stable, sustainable, fair and prosperous place because -I- chose to act the way I do :-)

Anonymous said...

great work here, meg. the thing about the green fatigue for me is not so much products and cars and grocery shopping, but clothing and accessory items. like you, i like my target and other discounty items. it's the impact these "throw-away" items have on the environment that really stresses me out. beside totally clogging landfills, they can be often produced in greenhouse gas-producing ways, in sweatshop conditions and travel half-way around the world so i can buy a $50 "cashmere" sweater. what to do? it's a growing problem a lot of conscious, but also fashionably conscious, people don't address.

take care -- lena

Anonymous said...

I think what frustrates me most about the green movement is exactly what you are talking about--rich people preaching to everyone else about how important it is to be green and environmentally conscious, and then they do whatever they like and then just throw money at something to offset their carbon footprint. For a lot of people I know, it is so frustrating to get bombarded with all of these messages about how much we suck for not doing a and b and c, and those people can't practice what they preach.

Also, it's really hard to find quality, well priced organic products when I'm a college student living in sioux falls, which is not a very green place.

Andi O'Rourke said...

Great post Meg, I like your perspective. My take on it is that in order to combat percieved "green fatigue" is for people to make a choice to try and opt out of the whole consumption-based capitalism cycle as much as they can. Buying organic, local and fair trade groceries, home solar systems, turning off appliances, hybrid cars- all of these things are worth the "hype". We need food, we need power, and sadly, most people in the US need to drive. But when it comes to makeup, moisturizer, new clothes and all the tschoctksie that we so easily amass... how much of it is necessary??

For example, instead of going through all of your beauty products and buying all new "greener" replacements, it would be better for the environment to just cut out what you don't need and get back to basics! Plus, you can save tons of money and avoid a lot of the (possibly) harmful chemical exposure from all of these products.

Ladies, our grandmothers and greatgrandmothers didn't use near the amount of stuff that we use, and they still managed to look beautiful (at least I know mine did). Just stop buying stuff, or if you really want t rebel, make your own.

Allison said...

It was "offsetting" that truly turned me off the green-movement.

Offering such an option is just another way to create class distinction.
Those who are unable to afford to "off-set", purchase often more expensive cars, homes, and products, must live meekly to be green; make up for one's poverty by making one's life more difficult.

Sometimes these green choices are not an option. The minimum wage workers can often not afford to live within public-transportable distance of their work, and can definitely not afford hybrids.

Only the middle-class and up can afford to be green, and maintain a western life-style.

Aruek said...

"I know several people at my job who could easily take the MTA to work, if they could just get over the mindset that public transportation is dirty, slow or just for "them"." -tmp00

I definitely agree! I just moved to Los Angeles and my fiance and I both take the bus to work the bus/metro around the city on the weekends. Almost everyone we talk to us shocked that we take the bus to work and use public transportation so much on the weekends because we do have a car. It's amazing how many people have never been on the bus/metro!

Anonymous said...

Well-spoken! I'm sick of all the lip service showered upon environmental stewardship issues by self-rightous politicians. Who often live in 28,000-square-foot homes, drive fleets of SUVs, and then buy their way to smugness with so-called carbon offsets. We all have to live within our value system, or feel miserable all the time. It's a fine line between being a good environmental steward and actually surviving in the real world, and some changes are probably inevitable. After all, the earth's cimate was drastically cyclical BEFORE human intervention, and it will continue to evolve long after we're all gone. We can all only do the bit we can do.

Ana said...

Several family members have gotten sonar panels because after states subsidize it, you get a pretty nice return on your investment. No gas bills! Also, it increases the value of their home.

Everyone in my family drives a Honda. The mileage is great and people car pool as much as possible. It's not at all about saving the environment because no one eats organic and few recycle. It's about saving money.

Ayomide said...

You know, I really admire the fact that you are doing a little something to help the environment, and I'll be perfectly honest with you: your small actions aren't enough to help our current climate crisis. At this point, small changes aren't big enough anymore. Right now, what we need is global reform, and a change of the idea that success is something that can be proven in numbers, stats and percentages. Change will begin when people do good not because it will bring fame, money, or even recogm=nition and compliments, but because it is the right thing to do. Right now, we need people to understand that buying doesn't make you better. Right now, we need people to understand that being environmentally friendly isn't about depriving yourself of material objects, but about opening yourself up to a world and a lifestyle that does not rely on objects to bring happiness. I think that we are products of our environment- in the figuritive sense. We are products of corporations that tell us that owning so-and-so car or beauty products will make us better and happier. We are products of parents telling us that somehow, one way or another, we are dramatically better, different and more "special" than all the other kids. We're products of selfishness and isolationism (the idea that every person is an island) and of course, we each choose to buy into all of it. We are not islands, but individual parts of a much larger whole. So while little changes are a great start, the world is going to need more than hybrid cars to stave off dissaster. The world needs a lifestyle change.

Tak said...

Ana's really got it here- for the 99% of us who would rather not "opt out" of the capitalist system, the way to help the environment is to support green solutions that are economical and are ready for prime time. That might mean buying cost-effective hybrids, replacing incandescent bulbs with CFL's, buying solar panels in some areas, efficient water heaters, etc. By doing things that are good for the environment AND your wallet, you can help the environment without suffering from "green fatigue".