Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Ethics of Green Consumerism

Keywords: Green Living Show; green roof; green wall; Buzz Hargrove; hybrid cars; Wal-Mart; fluorescent bulbs; GE.

Yesterday, along with maybe 10,000 other people, I went to the Green Living Show at the CNE in Toronto. I’m not sure what I expected, but I enjoyed it. Mostly it was good for people-watching. I ran into acquaintances whom I hadn’t seen for ages, and I wandered through the exhibits two hours with two women friends.

But I didn’t come close to buying anything. The only thing that attracted my acquisitiveness was near the entrance: a stall showing ways of building a green roof (which I don’t need) and a (which I also don’t need, but would really like). I don’t think people often get the chance to see green roofs, but the sides of buildings are obviously visible at all times and could be absorbing CO2 from city atmosphere in big quantities. I’d even like to have one indoors, but there’s no reasonable place for that in my apartment.

They construct frames, and then there are modular units about two feet square, into which one plants a selection of small plants. You insert a stack of modules to make a vertical display. At the top there’s a container where you pour water, which trickles through and collects in another container at the bottom. Unlike vines, which supposedly damage the brick facade of buildings, these units would seem to be pretty benign. Also expensive, if you want to cover a whole building. I don’t know how much it would contribute to the quality of air and climate inside the city, but it would look pretty.

The displays did not get me yearning for anything, though there was a nice-enough “green” home to walk through. I liked the in the bedroom window. There were many shaded glass squares about four inches square that emit heat, but you can see through them. If I were building a house, I’d think about that.

All three of us, as we drove away in the car, experienced the same ambivalence about the show. It’s about whether or not consumerism is compatible with “green living.” One friend mentioned that , the president of the Union, is pressing for legislation that would remove old cars from the road. He would like for lots of us to junk our present cars and buy (or presumably, hydrogen or electric cars when they come out) ASAP. To me, that makes no sense as a contribution to the environment. Surely the amount of GHG created by mining metal, smelting, fabricating, transporting, and marketing a new car must be far greater than the amount by which one could reduce one’s overall emissions. My inclination is to live in quite the other way: make my old car last as long as possible, while driving it less often and — though these may be no more than token gestures of social responsibility. (The New York Times today has an article about that question but it doesn't actually offer any overall answer. There's a cute drawing at the top of a penitent Christian asking for absolution for his SUV; the priest takes his money and gives him absolution. Is that really all it amounts to?)

In general, the show was a commercial promotion of new, greener equipment that can save water and energy — but usually you’d do more for the planet by living with what you already have. The are an exception. Probably there are other exceptions too, if I knew which ones they are.

On the other hand, I was favorably impressed with the growing trend for business to take the initiative to develop greener new products instead of waiting for the government to institute higher environmental standards. Some companies are actually more forward-looking than political leaders. , for example, is replacing its fleet of jitneys with more efficient ones, and has asked its suppliers not to use polyvinylchloride packaging. Since Wal-Mart is so huge, it can actually change the standards in the entire industry by itself. It’s also giving away fluorescent bulbs and abolishing incandescent ones.

Along the same lines, according to Stratfor’s Bart Mongoven and Kathleen Morson, has begun promoting the marketing of energy-efficient and environmentally friendly products, such as new appliances with more efficient motors. It started producing a line of such products in 2004, leading the pack of industries. Its annual sales reaches $11 billion within three years and it is aiming now to reaching $20 billion. Now it is lobbying for energy-efficient legislation and a carbon cap. These laws would be in its own self-interest, of course, but why not? If GE had the foresight to plan for such developments, I think its leaders are pretty smart and ought to get my dollars, when I get ready to spend them.

It won’t be right away, though. I bought a new about five years ago. I'd feel guilty throwing it out, but I’ve heard that the new fridges do consume less than mine probably does. (Last week, when I bought a new reading lamp, I did make sure the old lamp was smashed up before putting it into the dumpster, so nobody would take it home and keep using it.)

That’s where the moral dilemma arises: When is it ethnically proper to go shopping and when is it better to live with what we already own? There are answers to these questions, on a case-by-case basis. But I don’t know them yet.



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