Monday, April 26, 2010

Green Gone Wrong by Heather Rogers

Today, despite the doubters, a majority of Americans agree that climate change is real. This book takes as its starting point that these matters are settled. It is time for the conversation on global warming to move forward, beginning with a critical assessment of solutions to ecological crisis. In the context of the profit-driven American and global economy as it exists today, I asked the question: do the remedies being promoted in the marketplace have the power to keep biodiversity intact and the planet cool?

Green Gone Wrong is structured in three parts - food, shelter and transportation- to address the basic questions of what we need, buy and use in daily life. In delving into the issue of food , I made two trips to investigate what day-to-day existence is like for small organic farmers who raise their crops and animals without chemicals, hormones, or antibiotics on land that's managed to maximize biodiversity. In New York State's Hudson Valley I found that these projects were confined by the meager incomes earned by farmers. For even the most successful growers, costs add up fast. Although they sell the highest-priced produce around - - which only a wealthier clientele can afford - many of these cultivators can barely make ends meet. To get by, the unconventional farm operator must usually rely on the subsidies of inherited land, free and low-cost labor, and off-farm income. They are often beaten down by a lack of resources for cultivation and distribution, inappropriate and expensive food safety rules , insurmountable debt and inadequate pay. No matter how much we consumers want local, ecologically responsible food, the people who make it may well go extinct.

In Paraguay I found that an organic sugar plantation was violating the organic standards of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements. Among the plantation's sketchy activities was mono-cropping, which causes dramatic erosion, exhausts soil nutrients and depletes groundwater. Chicken manure contaminated with hormones and antibiotics from factory farms was being used to fertilize the fields, native forests were being cleared to plant organic fields. In interviewing registered Fair Trade small-hold farmers , I found that many were not paid the higher incomes that consumers in the West believed, many others received the higher price for as little as 20% of their crops. Fair Trade licenses were in the hands of large corporations financed by international banks. The real working operations of plantations that call themselves FT and organic were obscure, as were the rules themselves, leaving room for manipulation and fraud.

In considering the question of shelter I went to three different eco-villages, one in a London suburb and two in the German city of Freiburg. These communities achieved major reductions in CO2 emissions, although the community in London was struggling for lack of the proper technology and support services. Why such resources have flourished in Germany and especially in the exceedingly high-income areas of Freiburg is no mystery. Germany itself has a a strong social welfare and industrial regulatory system; Freiburg is in one of the most pristine natural areas in that country, with powerful local government structures and the strongest Green political party in that nation. Still, only 5% of Freiburg's electricity is derived from renewable sources and most homes are not properly insulated.

Since transportation involves fuel, vehicles and emissions I made three different trips for my investigation. The first was to the Island of Borneo in Indonesia, the world's top producer of palm oil, an increasingly important raw material for bio-diesel. Much of the palm oil produced on Borneo comes from plantations established on the incinerated ruins of clear-cut tropical rain forests. In the summer of 2007 two activists organizations from Indonesia and an environmental group based in the Netherlands released a report on three Wilmar plantations on Borneo. The document details many illegal acts on these estates including logging protected areas, using fire to clear trees, draining and burning peatlands, coercive and forced displacement of indigenous people and small farmers, inadequate or non existent permits, all in violation of Wilmar's own social-responsibility policies, the standards of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and the International Finance Corporation, a World Bank agency that has provided Wilmar tens of millions of dollars to expand their business. " Deal-making" which misrepresents risks and avoids obligatory accounting for social and environmental costs resumed after a brief suspension of operations at Wilmar.

The new head of the EPA recently stated that the Obama administration would continue to support, through mandates and subsidies, crop-based eco-fuel, as 'a bridge to the next generation of bio-fuels'. These 'bridges' are said to be at least five years in the future, as they were said to be five years previously.

Next I visited Detroit. With the Obama administration strengthening fuel economy standards from 27.5 mpg. in 2009 to 35.5 by 2016, it might appear that at least in this area we are on the right track. However, while higher efficiency is good, if you consider that American firms profitably make and sell fuel-frugal cars overseas- some that get over 80mpg, that change seems feeble at best.

My most interesting visit in Detroit was with Terry Cullum, GM's director of corporate responsibility, environment and energy. The firm, like Ford, has installed hybrid technology mostly in their fuel-binging SUV's such as the mammoth Chevy Tahoe and Cadillac Escalade. On the subject of gas-electrics, I expected Cullum to talk about the Chevy Volt. Instead he grabs a spread about GM's hydrogen -fuel- cell trial called Project Driveway and is effusive about the program's potential to deliver a carbon-free future. A few weeks later GM's Bob Lutz told reporters from the Wall Street Journal that with hydrogen-power "We are nowhere near where we need to be on the costs curve". The president of Toyota agrees: "It will be difficult to see the spread of fuel cells in ten years time."

My conclusion was that while Project Driveway may well be a genuine effort, it also serves as a distraction - a no-strings attached gesture that proclaims the automaker's fealty to an environmentally healthy tomorrow [P.R.]

I also found it hard to reconcile Cullum's lack of enthusiasm with GM's lavish PR for the Volt and the constant flow of flattering coverage in the press. It was , according to the PR, supposed to hit the road in 2010, yet when I talked with a veteran worker at GM he reported that no preparations or re-toolings had been made on the shop floor though it can take up to a year and a half to get an assembly line ready to build a new model, and that's using the same frame and standard engine which the Volt does not have! At any rate little testing has been done on the Volt, a driver would have to follow inflexible regimes, claims that it will substantially reduce emissions over its entire life are dubious and it is doubtful that it would add much to GM's profit line and that's all they care about anyway.

Finally, I investigated the problem of carbon offsets. In this business consumers pay a fee based on how much CO2 they create and offset firms channel the money to projects such as planting trees and constructing renewable energy facilities. To find out if offsets work I went to India which hosts 25% of such projects globally. I discovered that some of the projects claimed by offset firms weren't happening at all, some were poorly implemented and others were causing additional ecological damage. Since it is a voluntary industry, it is unregulated, and sometimes my inquiries on the ground led me to fear for my own life. At any rate, the CO2 balance from a person's travel, for example, will only be settled in a reforestation project over the lifetime of the trees that are planted- thirty, forty, one hundred or more years. Carbon emitted today cannot be wiped out today, even though most buyers seem to believe otherwise. In addition, when a tree dies, of course, all the CO2 it has absorbed is returned again into the environment.

Some renewable energy projects in India provided substantial benefits to rural residents without any other access to electrical power. Once power becomes available on a grid, usually generated by coal, they are often discarded or just used in a supplementary fashion like during a blackout or at a small shop by a road during evening hours.

When I was in Borneo, I met an anthropology PhD. student who was doing her fieldwork. She was on her second long-term stay in a Dayak village. She told me that in her village an oil palm plantation was trying to break the community to get their land. One by one the villagers began making deals. Those who didn't want the plantation were rapidly being outnumbered as deception ripped through the families. The anthropology student said one reason so many people were taking the plantation's money was because they couldn't imagine that the forest wouldn't be there in the future. They see it as a place they can always go back to, she said, even if for now it will be used for palm oil. The rain forest's history is ancient, and it has always served the Dyaks. So even though the community knows the palm oil estate will level the native ecosystem, many believe they'll be able to return to the forest, that its abundance will never actually run out.

I later realized (while watching a documentary featuring the philosopher Slavoj Zizek) that in many way Westerners aren't so different in how we regard the natural systems we need. Imagining life carrying on as we know it comes easily. But visualizing our quotidian environments wiped out, or eroded by the effects of global warming, is almost impossible; that level of disaster is still to abstract.

Governments and major corporations are fully apprised of the findings of the world's top climate scientists. Regardless, the majority of leaders continue policies and practices that obviously exacerbate the situation, including promoting ecologically themed but ineffective products. By accepting green consumer goods- instead of direct regulation, prohibitive taxes, publically financed energy and transportation projects for example- we consent. Compared to the scale of the impending disaster, such 'consumer' solutions are extraordinarily inadequate . We could do things differently. Viable solutions and real change in all realms are out there. We suffer no shortage of knowledge and or ideas, no dearth of entirely level-headed and realistic possibilities that aren't just a new range of products to buy.


  1. Green Gone Wrong; How Our Economy is Undermining the Environmental Revolution by Heather Rogers; Scribner, 2010

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