Sunday, July 15, 2012

Green Washed: Why We Can't Buy Our Way to a Green Planet / Kendra Pierre-Louis -- N.Y.: Ig Publishing, 2012

There are plenty of books still to be published in 2012, but for now, I would rate Green Washed as the book of the year. This is not to say it does not have some unfortunate weaknesses. Broadly put, the book's thesis is that all of the highly publicized "green" products that have been coming out in recent years do little to address the serious environmental challenges we face. Even were we all to substitute green products for the conventional products we currently buy, we would still be facing environmental contamination, depleted resources, degraded and vanishing habitats, and of course, climate catastrophe. According to Kendra Pierre-Louis, the author of Green Washed, our only way out is to consume less.

My own views on this are in complete accord with Pierre-Louis's and because of the urgency of the environmental problems we face, I dearly hope that her book receives a wide audience. Unfortunately, the case she makes for her thesis is merely good -- not great. I suspect that anyone in the developed world who is moderately attached to his or her current lifestyle will find ways to dismiss Pierre-Louis's arguments, but hopefully Green Washed will be the starting point for a more serious examination of the futility of green consumerism and the need for reduced consumption and that it will not serve as a vaccine that inoculates consumers against calls for reduced consumption.

Most of the book is taken up exposing the environmental damage that is done by many "green" products: organic cotton, local food, cleansers and cosmetics, hybrid and electric cars, aluminum water bottles, and LEED certified buildings. Perhaps the strongest case can be made against hybrid and electric cars. Pierre-Louis points out that the advantages that hybrid and electric cars have over gas-powered cars are that they are marginally more efficient, that tail pipe pollution is not concentrated in city centers, and that the electricity on which they run can be produced from renewable sources.

What is left out in the enthusiasm for hybrid and electric cars are the resources necessary to make a car in the first place. The embodied energy in a hybrid or electric car is comparable to that in a gas-powered car; consequently, the improved gas mileage of a hybrid represents a fraction of a fraction of the energy consumed by the cars.

Even more telling is the environmental cost of building and maintaining the system of roads and parking facilities, without which our cars would be useless. The amount of concrete and asphalt that goes into our road system is staggering and it needs to be virtually rebuilt every decade or so. Roads themselves constitute a significant portion of the impermeable surfaces that are destroying our watersheds and heating our urban areas. Roads quickly transport tire fragments and motor oil into our sewers, streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans, regardless of whether they are accommodating gas or electric powered vehicles. Roads encourage the urban sprawl that is responsible for the destruction of vital natural habitats. Pierre-Louis is completely correct in observing that the "green" car is little more than a device that will perpetuate a system of transportation that is destroying the planet.

A more sensible response to the crisis brought on by gas-powered cars is to stop driving cars, or at least drastically reduce the amount that we drive. Imagine if all auto and truck traffic was reduced by a mere 50%. Auto production would decline significantly and the number of lanes we would need to maintain would diminish. Plant and animal life would rebound and our air and water would become significantly cleaner. Rational bicycle-oriented city planning and improved public transportation could make our cities completely car-free. This is far greener approach than converting our gasoline-powered car culture to an electric-powered car culture.

Pierre-Louis employs a similar style of critique to the other topics she addresses. Her criticism of the LEED building standards and organic cotton clothing are strong. She points out that the greenest building is the one that's already built and that wearing clothes to the end of their useful life is a far better way to green our wardrobe than buying organic cottons if we replace those clothes as rapidly as we do.

Her critique of the local food movement is not quite so persuasive as she focuses primarily on the slight benefits of reducing "food miles" and ignores a number of other environmental benefits of local food production. Oddly, in that chapter, she describes the rapid depletion of the Ogallala aquifer, upon which the production of food in the American Midwest depends. It would seem that local food production would need to make use of the water that is available nearer to population centers on the East and West Coasts, thereby forcing agriculture to rely once again on surface water and not as much on non-renewable ground water.

As her general approach is to point out how our social and economic institutions are at the root of our environmental crises, it is curious that she does not mention the significant environmental damage that is done by our meat-eating culture. This is particularly true in that her recommended way forward is to consume less, reduce waste, and develop alternative institutions that are more environmentally friendly. Meat production requires a significantly greater input of energy and a significantly greater use of land than plant food production for the same nutritional value. Furthermore, a 2006 UN Food and Agriculture Organization report estimated that the ranching and slaughter of cows and other animals for meat is responsible for 18% of the world's greenhouse gases and, of course, concentrated animal feeding operations (a.k.a. factory farms) have a profound impact on their environs due to the enormous and concentrated mass of manure they produce. There is likely nothing easier and more effective for reducing the negative impact one is having on the planet than simply becoming a vegetarian, or better yet, a vegan.

Pierre-Louis devotes three chapters to alternative, or "green" energy. Clean coal is an easy target, but Pierre-Louis's critique of biomass is a more valuable contribution to the discussion. Her examination of solar power is somewhat ambiguous. She criticizes impacts of constructing photovoltaic panels and their poor positioning by consumers, but solar power does not receive scathing criticism. The worst that is said of it is that it is likely to simply facilitate continued consumption of other resources and degradation of the land and water.

The last three chapters address "the way forward," which is, again, to reduce consumption. Pierre-Louis recognizes that our economic system is dependent upon ever increasing consumption and so the way forward will involve an entirely new economic model. Here, she recommends the "steady state economy" advanced by Herman Daly and others.

Among the more disappointing aspects of the book are its numerous typographical errors. The work appears not to have been proofread and instead, seems to have been prepared for publication by a spell check program. (Amory Lovins is, for example, noted as "Armory" Lovins.) The errors are -- in the big picture -- trivial, but it leads one to wonder how carefully done was the research that went into the work. As the research is based on a variety of kinds of sources (peer-reviewed scientific articles, government publications, N.G.O. reports, and popular news sources), one needs to look carefully at the support for the claims being made. Obvious errors in the bibliographic citations do not instill confidence.

Despite these criticisms of this particular work and its presentation, the thesis is eminently plausible and supremely important. Kendra Pierre-Louis has given us an honest attempt to make the case for adopting institutions that will support sustainable lifestyles. Very much of what she has given us makes perfect sense and she provides much material to raise questions about the effectiveness of green products. My hope is that she or someone like her will continue to publish works along the lines of Green Washed.

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