Thursday, June 04, 2009

Against the Green

Without totally missing the point of John Cloud’s Time Magazine article Competitive Altruism: Being Green in Public, I’d like to take issue with a few minor items. The article begins,
“Many people on both the right and the left like to portray environmentalism as sacrifice — denying oneself some kind of pleasure (a heated pool, extra space in an SUV, the convenience of dry cleaning) in order to help save the planet. Conservatives do so partly because they believe pursuing self-interest in the form of material pleasures is necessary for the proper functioning of markets. Liberals do so because they believe rampant materialism can distort the proper functioning of democracies (and because "Yes We Can" T shirts don't need dry cleaning anyway). But what if environmentalism didn't really involve sacrifice in the first place?”
He’s not going where I though he was going, which would be something like, “hey, green products are getting so good that...” or “manufacturers and consumers alike have been discovering that they save money in the long run.”

No. Instead, he’s turning a negative—essentially that people like environmentalism for the wrong reasons—into a positive: look at the status you gain by being green! Green is the new expensive!

So that sacrifice he mentioned is actually still there. I’m still losing space in my SUV, I’m still swimming in a cold pool and my clothes still aren’t clean. But my neighbor is trying to out green me by removing his pool, wearing stinky clothes and trading his Prius for a lousy Honda Insight. (Photo of stretched Prius via: www.dieselstation.com.)

This competitive mechanism is alarming when you apply to something less benign than environmentalism. When I hear crap like this, a curmudgeonly contrarian side of me comes out, sneers, and starts to mutter misanthropic oaths.

Would I, as Cloud suggests many do, buy a florescent bulb out of some smarmy desire for status among my poor friends? Oh, I hope not. No, I’ll keep my hot, wasteful incandescents because the light they cast can be dimmed and because it doesn’t give me headache or make my friends look ashen and wan. You know what’s green? My tiny apartment and the fact that I’m not home very much.

Cloud writes, “Evolutionary psychologists have a cynical term for cooperative, procommunity behaviors like buying a Prius or shopping at Whole Foods or carrying a public-radio tote bag: competitive altruism.”

I’ll start with the Prius. Many of us already knew of this “competitive altruism” business because of the smug way so many Prius owners have been carrying themselves since the homely hybrid came out. How else can you explain why people would waste money and perfectly good used cars to acquire a car that falls so short of green expectations?

And yes, we’re all familiar with the damn public radio and TV totes. They’ve been the bag of choice among backslidden hippies for decades. It’s the awful “I’m NOT a Plastic Bag” totes he should have referenced. This microtrend caused a pretty quick and much deserved backlash: the “I’m NOT a smug twat” bag.

For people like me who use those plastic bags from grocery stores and bodegas as trash bags (and don’t buy other trash bags, thus saving a few bucks), the smugness was particularly irritating. The answer must be biodegradable shopping bags that don’t break down as soon as something wet (like garbage) hits it.

Finally, the Whole Foods issue. I’ve refused to shop at Whole Foods since the first Minnesota outlet opened on Grand Avenue in St. Paul about 12 years ago. Initially, I avoided it because it was callously anti-union, unlike other local grocery stores, and not employee-owned/run like local co-ops. The problem with Whole Foods is that it rides on the affordable and sustainable reputation of co-ops, and yet it is neither. It’s more like a grocery Wal-Mart gone upscale and green, and to think that shopping there is in itself some sort of responsible green action, as Cloud suggests, is ludicrous and offensive.

I still won’t shop at Whole Foods, not just because I cannot afford it, but because I am reacting to my friends who still ask me with furrowed brows, “Why is it again that you won’t shop there?” As if I’m punishing myself. No, dammit, I’m taking a tiny stand, and the more people ask me the more vocal and indignant I become. Call it competitive contrarianism.

The most interesting thing about Cloud’s piece is the studies that he cites about competitive altruism. To me it’s less about the altruism and more about the social competitions we apparently engage in instinctively. As long as this works toward a beneficial end, like promoting more sustainable manufacturing methods, habits and products, it’s a good thing.

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