Global climate change? Let’s go shopping


Out of nowhere, it almost seems, everyone is talking about global warming. Presidential candidates, corporate moguls, media pundits -- the news is saturated with the latest climate-change buzzwords. My current favorite is “carbon footprint,” which made me wonder what I’d stepped in....what we’ve all stepped in. It’s a lot messier and more insidious than you might think.

When you listen closely, you’ll discover that most of the current solutions to our global crisis are entrepreneurial in nature. We don’t need to really change our lifestyles; we just need to fix the wrapping. Hybrid cars and ethanol fuel lead the list, but there’s more -- solar power, wind power, bio-diesel, carbon credits, even organic condoms. CanWest News Service reports : The famed adult store Good Vibrations announced they would no longer sell products containing “phthalates, controversial chemical plasticizers believed by some to be hazardous to humans and the environment alike.”

Or consider these observations from Newsweek, in its story about “making a buck green”: “So where’s the money in climate change? Investors sense a tumultuous market in the making, if they can only hit it right...” Save-the-planet investing has suddenly, well, heated up.

Just a week earlier, the same periodical featured “Green Giant” Arnold Schwarzenegger on its cover because "California’s Hummer-loving governor is turning the Golden State into the greenest in the land, a place where environmentalism and hedonism can coexist."

It really said that. The terminator had been a guest on MTV’s popular "Pimp my Ride" television program and had come to promote a 1965 Chevy Impala with an 800-horsepower engine revamped to burn bio-diesel fuel. "This," Schwarzenegger proclaimed, "is the future." He explained that it was important, "to show people that biofuel is not like some wimpy feminine car, like a hybrid."

Newsweek suggested that Schwarzenegger’s view is a world away from Al Gore’s alarming climate lecture, “An Inconvenient Truth." But is it these days? I was first drawn to Al Gore almost 15 years ago, with the publication of his book, Earth in the Balance. Gore said flatly: “I believe that our civilization is addicted to the consumption of the earth itself...our industrial civilization makes us a promise: the pursuit of happiness and comfort is paramount, and the consumption of an endless stream of new products is encouraged as the best way to succeed in that pursuit. But the promise is always false because the hunger for authenticity remains.”

Now jump ahead a decade and a half to an Associated Press story: “Former Vice President Al Gore on Wednesday praised Wal-Mart for a newfound focus on environmental sustainability, saying the retailer showed there is no conflict between the environment and the economy.”

Gore said some people questioned whether Wal-Mart was serious about the environment, then added: "Have you ever known Wal-Mart not to follow through on a big commitment of this kind? I have not."

Is this the same Al Gore? Does he think endless new, mostly plastic products might be more palatable if only we used greener technology? Gore’s search for authenticity sounds quaint in 2007. But more than anyone, it’s us, the "progressive environmental community," that created this honesty vacuum. When did we stop being conservationists? When it comes to the madness that defines an economy fueled by incessant growth, when did both sides of the political spectrum choose to embrace it?

Liberal Democrats aren't a lot different from conservative Republicans. Neither group wants to see us live with less. Republicans think we should continue to live extravagantly and are convinced our energy resources will last forever. Democrats want to be able to live just as extravagantly, but think we can live extravagantly in a more energy-efficient manner.

When critics asked John Kerry when he was running for president how he’d fund his massive health care bill, he said, "We'll grow the economy to pay for it." That means more big homes and expensive cars and massive shopping malls and extravagant lifestyles and a materialistic society that sees more value in "things" than anything else. And I see no one on the political landscape these days willing to ask all of us to live with less. So until we get serious, I have a hard time trying to be. I’m off to find some phthalate-free condoms and a bottle of cheap wine -- I promise I’ll recycle the glass.

Jim Stiles is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado ( He publishes the Canyon Country Zephyr in Moab, Utah, and is the author of the recently published book, Brave New West.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Jun 05, 2007 03:17 PM

Thanks for reminding us that conservation and buying green are not the same thing.  This way of thinking has certainly become quite the trend in corporate America.  It is pretty common to see companies' commericals (TV or print) touting their green credentials.  Think of all the oil companies who have commercials or ads touting their 'green' credentials. Granted a lot of it is aimed at improving their image but products can't be too far behind. Heck, even big food companies are offering organic lines and will probably do well among those who buy only organic.   

Oct 15, 2007 05:33 AM
Point well taken 
and while I absolutely agree that we live in times of gross conspiculous consumption, at present, catering to consumers as a way to deepen the eco conscience may be the best, and only game in town. Minimalism (or even reasonable consumption) are basic enviro ideals to stave off global warming impacts, but for the majority of the global public living in developed countries (or in rapidly developing countries with an emerging middle class, like China) these notions are eco-quaint at best and radical and unthinkable at worst. And as much as it seems an oxy-moron, getting people to consume the "green way," is a logical, or at least feasible starting point. I live in Hong Kong -- home of the rock stars of indulgent, material driven living-- everyone wants more, and a lot of it. These are people (expats and locals alike) who hear green and think "dollar." Having said that, the environmental movement is slowly taking hold here -- people can now say global warming without stuttering, and they're learning through ads, big ones. Flashy green websites like Billboards. Products. Trendy new handbags (ie) the pricey and coveted "I'm not a plastic bag" craze. Sunday trips to the mall. An enviro conscience is coming into being through the desire to consume -- and yes, for those of us who dream of living off the grid and growing our own food this seems a bit, well, offensive. But if it's getting people more involved with/sensitive to the issues, should it matter? If your lay Hong Konger is now purchasing eco friendly products vs. non eco friendly products should the method be questioned? Additionally, with regard to preventing dangerous climate change (as defined to be 2 degrees celsius rise above pre-Industrial Revolution average global temps) MAJOR changes will have to come from the global energy sector. And for this to happen, there's going to have to be a huge shift in the collective global conscience, which means that it may be more important for people to care about climate change, than whether or not they choose to buy green, vs. not buy at all. In the next 20 years China and India will be responsible for a quarter of the world's global CO2 emissions (China is the world's fastest growing energy sector) -- and what will matter is not the philosophical discussion over green consumption but whether or not there is significant world-wide pressure for these behemoth countries to impose regulations on their energy sectors. So if millions are introduced to the dangers of climate change through green products, is that such a bad thing? Is it so terrible that there is a fast-growing green industry and that there's money to be made in the quest to stave off climate change impacts? As I can tell, Hong Kong's much better off with regard to the environment now that the city's corporate/finance bigwigs are getting involved. Money still makes the world go round, particularly in the rapidly developing Asia Pacific Region-- and until we reach a point in time at which green ideals and common sense trump greed and materialism, I think enviros best appeal to that instrinsic human drive to consume.