Going Green is Going Nowhere

green n. a. Lacking sophistication or worldly experience; naive. b. Easily duped or deceived; gullible.

Forgoing Metro, I rode by bike (recently christened "Bertha" by my friend David) to the office yesterday for the first time this year. The traffic in Bethesda was worse than I remembered it, clogging up side streets. The river of cars filled with solo drivers on Little Falls Parkway gushed through traffic lights while I waited to cross. "Why are these people in cars?" I asked myself.

Were these folks magically whisked to the Netherlands, would they simply buy more cars on their arrival because they like them so much? I think a significant portion of them wouldn't. And not because they're inspired to "go green" by the forward-thinking Dutch, but because the system there is designed for bicycles.

The Dutch had to push hard for this system change, and it had only tangential connection to environmentalism: mostly they got fed up with the number of kids dying in car accidents and turned out en masse on city streets to protest the situation. That and cheap gas disappeared. Leaders responded by building bicycle infrastructure and, voila, cycling shot up. Today, about 30% of the country's population gets around exclusively by bicycle. In the US? 2%.

"They're really making bicycling attractive," [International urban affairs professor at Virginia Tech University, Ralph] Buehler said. "People who normally drive, they know it will take five Euros for parking and take 10 minutes more than if they bike."

I bring up this story because an Atlantic Cities article I recently posted on the Citizens Climate Lobby Facebook page sparked a debate about the efficacy of individual vs. collective action. That article, Maggie Koerth-Baker's "Why Your 'Green Lifestyle' Choices Don't Really Matter" argues that all the recycled paper towels and bamboo floors in the country don't hold a candle to changing policy when it comes to building a better world.

I'm with Maggie on this one. And so is Annie Leonard, who makes the same point in her video The Story of Change. Going green, she says, is "like trying to swim upstream when the current is pushing us all the other way".

Many commenters on our Facebook wall took issue with this perspective:

If people do not make green lifestyle choices, those with the political power to make infrastructure changes will not see them as necessary. 

There is very little chance of systems change being implemented without a large push from what is now a "lifestyle" sector. 

It is an ill-conceived logic to decry these choices as ineffective. I think "lifestyle choices" are a powerful tool to point up to others what choices they have made without considering the alternatives. 

Articles with these kinds of titles assist in making people think doing nothing is ok. It's not. We all have to chip in.

I get the idea of personal responsibility, sure. I get around without a car. My roommates and I recycle and buy renewable energy credits for our electricity. But our culture stresses the personal responsibility aspect of environmentalism way too much, to the detriment of much more effective solutions. Lifestyle changes are the only way most people in the US know how to engage in change, and companies comfortable with the status quo are happy to encourage that. But it's a road to ruin, as the absence of strong chemical regulations shows:

Brock noted that she does everything in her power to give her kids a healthy future. However, as she has learned, what a parent can do may not be enough when product labels don't list every chemical ingredient, or when a chemical's safety remains untested. In order to uncover what chemicals were triggering rashes and breathing troubles in her daughters, for example, Brock said she spent a long time "playing detective" with what they were eating and applying to their hair and skin.

In addition to rejecting the "lifestyle" argument by pushing for policy change, scrapping the "green" label might be a good idea too. Witness students involved in the fossil fuel divestment campaign who've understandably become irritated by greenwashing and by being boxed into an esoteric interest group:

Photo: Fossil Free
Environmentalism may have been hijacked by our consumer culture, but maybe it's a blessing in disguise. We've been given the opportunity to redefine ourselves. I hope we'll look around at our neighbors who don't define themselves as "green", link arms, and storm the gates together.