The Prius Paradox: We Can’t Buy Our Way Out of Environmental Problems

"Green" living isn't enough. We need to do "green" thinking

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The Story of Stuff Project

Annie Leonard made YouTube history in 2007 with a film called The Story of Stuff. It’s a charming — and, by Internet standards, leisurely — 20-minute stroll through the history of how we make, market, buy, use, and get rid of the tsunamis of stuff washing over our lives. So far, that little film has been viewed more than 15 million times and has spawned a series, including The Story of Broke and The Story of Cosmetics.

Whether or not you agree with her message (and Cap and Traders won’t, for instance, like The Story of Cap and Trade), no one has done a better job of connecting with regular people about everything from the marketing of bottled water to toxins in our lipstick to campaign-donation laws. This week, Leonard launched her latest video, The Story of Change. Once again, she’s done a terrific job of talking about an urgent issue — one that is close to my heart.

(MORE: The Countdown to Clean Air Begins)

As the director (and a founder) of Moms Clean Air Force, an organization fighting air pollution to protect our children’s health, I spend lots of time thinking about change. How can we clean up our air? How can we stop the carbon and methane pollution that is severely distorting our weather — for the worst? For that matter, how can we get ourselves to care about air pollution?  I talk to mothers around the country about how, sometimes, being a good mom means being an engaged citizen — because only good, strong laws can protect us from pollution.

If only we still believed in our power as voters. In the last few decades, we’ve lost the habits of good citizenship — instead, we’ve been honing our skills as consumers. For lots of good reasons, we have come to think that we must buy the answers to our problems. We talk about the power of the pocketbook. Unfortunately,  that doesn’t often work.

Why does citizenship matter? A couple of years ago, I began to pay attention to the conversational energy among self-styled mommy bloggers about “green” issues. Lots of discussion, tips, advice, suggestions and debunking — of shampoos, baby bottles, canned foods, pacifiers, diapers. You name it, and there is an opinion about the best thing to buy to protect your loved ones, and do your part to make the world a better place.

At the time, I was impressed by the power of consumers.

And then I began to see how pocketbook politics could backfire. Let’s take the example of the hundreds of unregulated and toxic chemicals in our stuff. Moms generated an online fury around BPA (bisphenol-A), a plastic hardener that contains endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Retailers began to pull baby bottles made with BPA off their shelves. So manufacturers came up with BPA-free bottles. One big problem, though: Many of those bottles simply contain what scientists refer to as “regrettable substitutions” — plastics made with a different bisphenol compound that might be just as toxic.

The real bottom line is that it is a mistake to put too much faith in our pocketbooks. Only sweeping reform of the laws protecting us from toxic chemicals will fix the problem of poisons in our stuff.

(MORE: FDA Bans BPA From Sippy Bottles and Cups)

The other problem with believing that we can make change with our dollars? Annie Leonard captures it succinctly in The Story of Change: “If I’ve become a better shopper, and I tell all my friends to do the same, I’ve done my part … And if I don’t buy all this green stuff, then it’s my fault the planet’s being destroyed.” That’s an impossible position to be in — guilt is paralyzing, and often leads to denial. It certainly isn’t an effective way to inspire people to change. Individual action is certainly necessary and as Leonard skillfully points out, home is a good place to begin to change. But it is a terrible place to stop. All our Priuses — all our personal habits — won’t end global warming. The only way to stop significant methane and carbon pollution is through sturdy, resilient laws.

When Moms Clean Air Force was getting off the ground a year ago, it felt strange — and Pollyanna-ish — to be talking about such old-fashioned values as “citizenship.” But I began to understand how revolutionary it would be for parents to regain their confidence — to believe that our voices matter, that our concerns, and not the concerns of campaign donors, were what their elected officials should ultimately be heeding, because in the end, we are the constituents voting them into office.

I talk to mothers around the country about how money can buy the right to pollute — as polluting companies well know. Money cannot buy clean air. That’s something we will get only by demanding it. Our voices can power real change. Without spending a penny.

MORE: The Racial Politics of Asthma

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Bing Jou
Bing Jou

Of course Mom's Clean Air Force is well intentioned, but moms don't understand the manufacturing process well enough.  All goods are produced with a lot of waste and consumption of energy.  The waste and energy consumption cause pollution.  The bigger your house is, the more pollution there is to build and maintain the house.  The change in the chemical composite in plastic bottles is a change from one chemical to another.  The production of one chemical can be more polluting than the other even though one chemical is theoretically safer than the other.  The better way is to use glass bottles, but glass bottles inconvenience us. 

In too many cases, the total amount of pollution remains constant no matter how we alter production methods. (I am talking about efficient production employing the best available technology)  Recycling is a perfect example for recycling process is much more polluting.  To make our environment better and healthier is to abuse less of our environment.  It means less consumption.  We live in a smaller house, buy fewer things, use our stuff longer and waste less.  In other word, we must inconvenience ourselves.  The problem is - IT CAN'T BE DONE.

Americans are weaned on the idea that we thrive upon having a bigger and better life and there is no limit what we can achieve.  Just look at your own car carefully and you will realize how many more stuff we have add to it since 1970.  Almost every home in my city is equipped with central A/C.  Everyone has a laundry dryer which you don't really need in Southern California. Another example is the shoes we wear.  Our shoes are not durable as used to.  Why?  Because we don’t wear our shoes for more than 5 years any longer.  Manufacturers cope by making more fashionable shoes that don’t last. (Fashion never lasts.)  We look good by having plenty of fashionable new shoes every season.  You will never be wearing a pair of old shoes for 10 years like your grandfathers.  There is environmental cost Moms don’t want to know.  

Moms Clean Air Force can't make Americans be honest with themselves on environmental issues.  Moms can't be honest with themselves either.  It takes a smaller population to consume less and a lot of inconveniences to reduce  environmental cost.

everest101
everest101

I don't think the above statement is Paradox. It's true that we can't buy our way out of the environmental problems. The environmental problems will never be eradicated completely whatever effort we put into it, however it can be controlled to some extent if we work towards it honestly and diligently.

The technological advancement has gone beyond our expectation. These days there are so many alternative sources of energy. Technology can produce that much of clean energy which is actually sufficient for the 6 billion people however people don't stop selling the fossil fuel why???? it's all becoz fo profit.......Oil companies are the one of the highest revenue generating company in the world if they stop selling what will happen to their profits and what will happen to the current employee of that company. This will never stop....just what we can do is we can control our environment by adopting clean energy.....

Gerald Zhang-Schmidt
Gerald Zhang-Schmidt

That's the other big mistake, I fear: thinking that we'll raise awareness, change thinking, and get the politicians to change the laws, and thus have change.

In that hope for others - now, not the corporations we buy from, but the politicians - to change things for us, we overlook how comfortably embedded we are in the same systems we say we want to change: even environmentalists love flying, whether to unspoiled wilderness or to green conferences arguing against overconsumption (such as... jetsetting every which way?).On the other hand, we can live better, and create better ways of making a living - and in the process, get more jobs, better-functioning (local) economies, and more resilience, as well as less pollution. (Or better yet, work towards no pollution.)

Of course, it's not an either-or, but it's about time we realized our power to also be producers (and lots of things are happening in that area, certainly when it comes to the area of food entrepreneurialism - green markets, urban farming, food startups of various stripes and colors).Next up, crafts that aren't just for a hobby, but to get back to producing things that are needed and that last...

But to even want those, we need to change what we consider normal and worth it. We'll need to get to an orientation on The Ecology of Happiness (for the online-obligatory plug for my own project), the ways our happiness is (in often hard, but meaningful and worthwhile ways) connected with the world.