Fighting Misperceptions: What Green Living Means


Recently I offended an HLS student by asking her to live a Greener life. She, we’ll call her D.M., actually bristled. She demanded I explain how I could beg her participation in a “rich people’s pet project” when so many more pressing issues like racial inequality, war, and disease confront society. Why should she care?

Well, that’s a pretty big question. Of course, we face several important problems with imminent and serious implications. Racial injustice, gender prejudice, GLBT rights, 3L papers, boarder security, poverty-you name it. Many of these issues at least affect people we know, some even impact us directly.

Unsurprisingly, people are more easily motivated to confront issues like these-issues that seem more relevant because of the immediacy of their impact. Causes that address issues with mainly long-term impact, like climate change, are more difficult to champion. Despite news and documentaries like “An Inconvenient Truth,” most of us don’t feel the environment crumbling around us. Winters might seem a little milder now than they when we were younger. We may notice the L.A. smog while driving through the Hills.

To most of us, however, these minor changes in particular and state of the environment generally seem bearable compared to issues of immediate impact like the war in Iraq, economic downturn, or even the single dread-locked lady that guards the Harvard Square Coop. It has thus become a too common view that “green people” have an unbalanced set of priorities. The idea that Greenies are “unbalanced” is exacerbated by the popular practice of supplanting the broader Green movement’s political goals with Green consumerism-buying eco-friendly goods.

Buying responsibly is important, but at the end of the day we can’t achieve sustainability through Green consumerism alone. Sustainability will require significant political commitment, unprecedented global regulation, and it won’t be cheap. Nevertheless, it is true that Green consumerism is a popular way of showing solidarity and embracing the cause. It is also true that Green goods are often more expensive than their regular corollaries.

Critics, however, often unnecessarily balloon these latter two observations into misleading arguments. D.M., for example, claimed that many consumers are too poor to be Green anyway. She argued that many aren’t able to pay a premium for Green products. Everyone can’t afford to wake up in organic hemp sheets, pull on a pair of $250.00 organic cotton Levi’s, slip into $160.00 Timberland Earth keeper boots, and roll to work or school in a $100,000 Lexus hybrid. Granted. Even if, however, we were to accept the premise that Green consumerism is important for being environmentally responsible, the argument that people can’t afford to be Green fails on its own terms.

Quite simply, buying Green usually means buying less, which is usually cheaper than buying more. You conserve much more energy and resources, for example, by mending and reusing your old jeans than by purchasing a new pair of “organic” ones. Similarly, a $100,000 Lexus hybrid might very well reduce a driver’s energy requirements compared to a $100,000 Lexus diesel, but both use more energy than either a $2.00 bus ticket or a ten minute walk. Anybody on any budget can save energy and resources by what they chose-or more importantly choose not-to buy. On many levels, then, the Green movement is simply asking everyone to live more efficiently.

Living efficiently doesn’t require that you drastically change your priorities. No reasonable, environmentally responsible person would ask you to completely divorce yourself from other important causes to focus on exclusively green issues. The idea is merely that you responsibly conduct whatever business you choose. For example, nobody is asking anybody to be any less committed to the cause of racial justice. Please, work as hard as you can to achieve whatever social reforms you want-just consider working under eco-friendly compact fluorescent bulbs. Likewise, nobody is asking anybody to divert their attention from the war in Iraq or the economy-just remember to consider your candidates’ position on environmental issues as well.

Living Green doesn’t exclude anything but unsustainable consumption and waste. Thinking otherwise simply misrepresents the idea of environmental responsibility. D.M.’s arguments also belied a fundamental misunderstanding of why there is a Green movement at all. Honestly, that’s an easy mistake to make. When people talk about saving the planet, their words may be a little misleading. The earth, in fact, doesn’t need saving. It will continue to exist for eons with or without us. Nobody, then, is really talking about saving the planet per se-we’re talking about saving ourselves. Proponents of sustainability believe they should preserve the environment because they, like most, believe there is inherent value in human life-value worth sustaining. D.M., of course, would agree that humanity is valuable. Most ideologues are humanists. They should understand that their ideology begins with a fundamental appreciation of humanity, and then achieves its full expression in the methods the cause’s ideologues use to preserve or improve it. Why else would racism, sexism, or any other “ism” be important if not for the deleterious effects they have on the human condition? The big issues of the day would be meaningless if we didn’t believe the state of humanity was malleable-and worth improving.

So, let’s return to D.M.’s question: why should she embrace the Green movement given the immediacy of all her other political concerns? I’ve tried to outline three broad reasons. First, anybody can do it; reducing our consumption is on balance cheaper and millions do it daily. Second, efficient living is responsible living. Finally, the Green goal of sustaining humanity and D.M.’s goal of improving it are inextricably joined. We both believe in humanity’s value. Though we may see the world differently, neither of us can deny this value is optimized when humanity is both improved and sustained. Neither of us, then, can deny the importance of the other’s calling. Recognizing one without the other is to view the world with one eye shut.

3L Kobelah Bennah is an HLS Green Living Rep.

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