It is time to rethink the language we use to describe efforts to improve our relationship with the environment. Below are the four reasons I believe we have entered a Post-Green, Post-Sustainability Era, and need a new meme:
- Red or Black Only
A price on carbon – whether in the US through ACES or internationally through COP15 – means that the discussion by businesses about “going green” becomes no longer exceptional (“hey, look what we did”), it becomes merely a requirement. Sustainability moves from the realm of marketing to the realm of bean counting and execution. Compliance to a regulatory framework for emissions means carbon is either a business asset or a liability, both of which impact the bottom line. Result: “Green” is folded into what business has historically been about – finishing the year in the Red or in the Black (and hedging against future shifts in the new currency of carbon). Similarly, strict compliance guidelines such as RoHS and WEEE also mean that making products more recyclable or less toxic is also taken out of the realm of marketing.
Going into Copenhagen, the international discussion will officially shift from mitigating climate change to adapting to it. Species extinction, ocean acidification, the addition of 2.5 billion more people globally in the next 40 years are all clear signals of this shift. This trend represents a necessary shift in language. In the new world of adaptation, “green” and “sustainability” will be revealed for what they are: constructs that imply that by “going green” or touting “sustainable practices”, we are somehow going to end up with a world as we knew it. The fact, however, is that the only thing that will be sustained going forward is our penchant for being unsustainable. We are already in a world of adaptation, so talk of going green and sustaining is obsolete. Instead, what we’re looking at is “maybe, if we’re really lucky, we’ll be able to achieve some level of ecological health that resembles what used to be”. But who wants to hear that message? So people will still sell green, and unfortunately others will continue to believe it exists.
- “Y” Green is Yellowing
There is also a generational shift. This blurb from Matt Bai in a recent NYTimes piece sums it up nicely: “In a sense, the gay rights movement of an earlier era was so successful in changing social attitudes that the movement itself can now seem obsolete, in the same way that younger Americans who have grown up with the premise of environmentalism in their daily lives consider Greenpeace to be a kind of hippie anachronism.” Point taken.
- Green Splatter
As writers like Joe Romm and Felicity Barringer have recently pointed out, “green” and “renewable” have a troubling elasticity to them, which has stripped the terms of any real meaning. Similarly, Dr. Andrew Dent has pointed out that “green” is not quantifiable because the data set is not quantified. Moving forward, specificity of language will be required to give meaning to action, so expect to see references to specific attributes such as recyclability, non-toxicity, low VOC, etc. Besides specificity, transparency and authenticity around product claims are about to be thrust upon businesses, which will push people away from empty platitudes. In the US, the Federal Trade Commission is reviewing its guidelines for green marketing claims with the goal of developing metrics that can be quantified. It should be noted here, however, that even this is far from full-proof, since the issue will ultimately be enforcement. The USGBC’s LEED rating system is proof of that, having recently come under fire for fostering “LEED-washing” – instances in which buildings claim and are often awarded LEED status, but don’t actually deliver the results.
The shift in semantics has started. Bill McKibben, the author of the “Death of Nature” and recently back from a trip to Australia, said at a recent event in Seattle that ministers Down Under are considering no longer using the term “drought”. The reason: drought implies that there is a beginning and an end to a water shortage, when the reality is that water shortages (in Australia and increasingly in other locations) are now endemic. The Economist hosted an interesting debate recently in which Stanford professor David Victor argued that sustainable development is “intellectually bankrupt and should be abandoned”, in part because “its meaning has become fuzzier”. The person arguing for sustainability’s relevance, Peter Courtland Agre of Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute, believes we can achieve sustainability because he is optimistic people will discover activism and change their behavior.
Unfortunately, work by psychotherapist Linda Buzzell and others undermines this Pollyanna belief by pointing out that people as a species “don’t seem to be very good at understanding enormous, complex challenges like the ones we’re presently facing, let alone processing our emotional responses to these threats and moving into action.” I agree, and as I’ve explained in earlier posts, this is why my work focuses on technologies that can provide a buffer between consumption and natural resources without behavioral change.
I’m sure people will continue to use green and sustainable as an easy shorthand for things that are less harmful on the environment. But that will become disingenuous, if it hasn’t already. So what will take their place? The younger set have started searching for something more meaningful, although I’m not sure the term “Freen” does more than add another cool-sounding, but largely meaningless term to the existing lexicon of self-indulgence. Others have lobbied for using a nomenclature built on the notion of “blue”. Ultimately, none of these terms pass the smell test. “Low carbon” is good, but carbon is simply one piece of the problem and solution, so it is insufficient. “Resource-sensitive” and “low-impact development” start to get at the issue, but are kludgy. “Beyond compliance” is too narrow. Whatever the answer, the reality is that the words we use to define our struggle for survival are badly in need of an update.
If you have thoughts on the matter, post a comment or send me something pithy on Twitter @mrcleantech
William Brent heads the Cleantech practice at Weber Shandwick, a leading international marketing communications and PR firm. Formerly a serial entrepreneur and news correspondent during a 15-year stint in China, he now works to promote technologies that will power a clean economy. He lives in the Puget Sound area, and can also be found online at www.mrcleantech.com and @mrcleantech.