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The commodification of green

By James Carman - posted Friday, 29 October 2010

A couple of years ago, I bought an electric kettle. This kettle advertised itself as "eco-friendly technology". I was buying a lot of things for a new house at the time, so I thought I may as well get it - eco-friendly is good! It must be more efficient or something. When I got home, I discovered that its secret was that it had a water reservoir from which you could feed water into the boiling chamber, "so you only boil what you need". This, instead of simply filling it only to the level you need. For that, you get a kettle with two chambers, moving parts including a water pump capable of moving water from a nearly-empty chamber into a nearly-full one and a lot more plastic than a regular kettle. The carbon price on that would outweigh any energy savings created by being too lazy to carry the kettle to and from the sink a little more each day.

This line of thought crystallised more recently when I had one of these home energy efficiency checkups. One of the items on the advice list was to "sell your desktops and buy laptops." I do agree that laptops are more energy-efficient. On the other hand, how would this save carbon? The lower energy usage of the laptop would not compare to the energy cost involved in creating the laptop, let alone the environmental cost of certain components (namely those involving gold - whose mining is still quite toxic environmentally - and the battery). The true answer should have been to use the computers less, turn on power saving settings, and when it came time to replace them, to then buy laptops instead of new desktops.

All around us we see the industry that has grown out of Green. Unfortunately, for everyone actually doing good work, there are ones who exist only to peddle the image of Green; the warm happy feeling of "doing good" rather than the hard slog of actually helping. It stands to reason; the climate problems facing us are massive and the difficulty of dealing with them is high - it's very confronting, which is part of what drives climate scepticism. On the individual level, what is our best response? For everything we think of doing, there's some cost attached. It's just easier to go out and buy something, get some product that solves our problem. It's what our consumer culture has taught us, after all.


We know that what we have to do is to simply use less energy by changing our lifestyles to be more efficient. To use the car less, to turn lights and computers off; but changing lifestyle is a hard thing to do, as everyone who's ever been on a diet knows. It's so much easier to get a lap band or take diet pills, or to complain that "those doctors don't know anything about weight". We're daunted by the prospect, so we reach out to consume.

And so we are sold hybrid-electric cars, even though the battery manufacture is toxic and none of the parts are recycled. The old line is that the most cost-effective car you can possibly drive is the one you currently have. These days, you can adapt that line about carbon efficiency - the carbon cost of manufacturing a new car, especially a hybrid, is nothing that will be made up by its increased fuel efficiency. The electric component is not without carbon cost, either; but in that case, it's out of sight, out of mind. If it's not spewing out the tailpipe, the drivers think they're helping. If you were going to replace your car anyway, that's one thing; but those celebrities who buy a new model of hybrid every year are being fashionable, not environmentally-conscious.

We are sold carbon offsets, even though many of them are ineffective (and in some cases, counterproductive; planting trees in latitudes too far north can change white tundra into dark forest, thus trapping more heat and making the situation worse). This practice has been compared to medieval indulgences, those "permission slips for sinning" handed out by the Catholic Church of years past in exchange for money. They give people cover to continue living as they are. Green has been divorced from the environment; it has become simply another commodity we can buy at the store.

Ultimately, this is a global issue and must be addressed on a global level. As individuals, we have very little power to change the climate; but we can do our own little part. Even if we don't manage to halt global warming, at least we'll be spending less on energy ourselves, seeing the sun more from walking instead of driving, and enjoying cleaner air in our cities, if those around us follow suit. Just don't make the mistake of thinking this is a problem you can just throw money at to make it go away.

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This article was first published on Critical Commentary on October 27, 2010.

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James Carman lives in Melbourne and blogs at Critical Commentary.

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