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.


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