Sunday, November 11, 2007

Green Without Being Green

October 25th's New York Times contained a special full-color insert titled "Corporate Social Responsibility - Designing a Sustainable Future". The introduction, given by the President and CEO of Business for Social Responsibility Aron Cramer, tells us that "Consumers are paying more attention to the sources of the food they eat and the safety of the products they buy for their children", implores business to heed "a new urgency for business strategy integrate social and environmental impacts with opportunities", and goes on to say "The most exciting chances to leverage business success for broad social benefit involve innovations that deliver new products…"

You don't have to be fluent in business-speak to realize what he is saying; people are buying more and more "green" goods and services, and capitalists can make money from it if they pay attention. The insert contained other articles on the following: Yahoo! Green's Carbon Footprint calculator, Greenpeace helping Coca-Cola revamp its refrigeration technology, DuPont's latest efforts in Frankenfoods, delivery of women's reproductive health care to under 25 year-old sweatshop workers in Asia, and some marketplace innovations made by an outdoor apparel and a household chemical company. All of these are intended to show you that companies big and small are changing their practices to become more "sustainable" - part of what capitalism means when it says "green". Just to drive the point home are small green graphics of a globe, a 3-member family, the recycling symbol, and what looks like a tulip. Finally, nestled at the page bottoms (but by no means hidden) as if it was some kind of sick inside joke, the sponsors of this insert reveal themselves in ink-intensive splendor - Shell and ConocoPhillips.

Make no mistake, capitalism isn't sustainable, and it isn't suddenly going to start caring about the environment. In fact, it has been systematically exploiting and destroying whatever it touches since the Industrial Revolution. But they want you to believe it so that you buy their new "green" products (and hopefully don't sic your congressman on them) and pretend everything is ok. It's the newest frontier in branding. See, they realize that buying products and services that are associated with the "green" phenomenon has quietly become a way for the affluent West to assuage the guilt some feel when they realize what the results of their lifestyles of conspicuous consumption have been to the planet and its less fortunate population. For example, the concept of buying carbon credits, where people or corporations pay to invest in companies researching some green technology or another in order to "offset" their massive carbon dioxide emissions is the fashionable equivalent of the old 10 Hail Marys after confession. It does nothing to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by one molecule, but it looks like one is kinda-sorta-maybe doing something about the problem of way too many greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Regardless, the credit buyers feel and look better and capitalism gets healthier for it. If I go on, I could turn this into an exposé of the various ways capitalism tries to make green by seeming green, but it will probably just depress you and is not my point.

Capitalism can never really be green, so it has to try really hard to make you think it can so you keep on playing along. Actually reducing the amount it pollutes the world affects capitalism's ability to produce the most amount of products for the least amount of labor - so environmental costs are never supposed affect the bottom line and so are hopefully passed along to the public in one way or another. After avoiding any real effort on the part of governments to make it do so for decades, capitalism is now sensing some backlash at the marketplace by actual consumers, if only just a trickle. This is enough to spur the captains of industry into action…to seem green without being green, and at the same time get the consumer to pay for it.

Socialism as an economic system is also green without being green, but for an entirely different reason. Being a completely different economic system, its motivations and actions come from a different point of view. A system designed to meet the needs of the entire human population would actually be working against itself by polluting the planet and its people, so negative environmental impact costs must be factored into a socialist administration of production. Since profit is not the objective, and property law no longer pits people against each other, socialism avoids the "tragedy of the commons" by distributing the benefits among the same ones bearing the costs. Society as a whole decides just how much environemental damage is worth it, and then has to deal with the outcomes directly.

How would socialism solve the problems addressed in the articles contained in the insert? Yahoo! Green's (misleading because it makes one think individuals are the causes of greenhouse gases) calculator would be irrelevant because everyone's carbon footprint would be pretty much the same and calculated ahead of time as a tool to administer production. Coca-Cola's army of refrigerators would no longer be needed to keep an army of Coca-Cola cold as it's waiting to be sold, since things will only be produced in quantities that are needed. A socialist society may just even decide it's no longer worth it to continue making caffeinated sugar-water any more. Frankenfoods will no longer be necessary, as people in "Third World" will become part of the only world and can start growing their own food again, they way they want to, instead of the export crops demanded of them by global neo-liberal capitalist markets; the massive amount of food wasted waiting to be sold will also be avoided by producing enough to satisfy needs and making it freely available. Eliminating sweatshops will go a long way towards safeguarding women's reproductive health around the world (and stop fucking assholes like Aron Cramer from blaming problems on "ignorance and cultural taboos"). Production of all products will automatically have "superior design, factoring in sustainability" instead of depending on hipster start-ups like Nau and Method make them seem so cutting-edge and marketable.

Hopefully, if you are reading this, it is because you too are concerned about the fate of humanity and the planet we live on. Perhaps you already see the hypocrisy in the marketing of mass-produced green products and services to be sold for profit. We think that socialism can provide real, practical solutions to the problems caused by capitalism (not the least of which is environmental degradation) through eliminating their causes rather than selling salvation. If this possibility interests you, check out what we have to offer or contact us!


No comments: