Green Shopping Won't Save the Planet

With apologies to a cliché that predates the advent of Earth Day by a year, it is easy being green. Too easy. From adorable reusable shopping bags and organic clothing to hemp shower curtains (no nasty petroleum-based vinyl liner!) and "natural is now fun!" beauty products for girls, the proliferation of green products makes doing our bit for the planet a blast, since Americans can combine environmentalism with their favorite sport, shopping. Indeed, a Gallup poll released this month finds that large majorities of Americans are shopping for the good of the planet: 76 percent said they'd bought a product specifically because they thought it was better for the environment.

Shopping for the planet is just one manifestation of how green activism has gone seriously off course as it has spread a gospel of personal change rather than collective action. Of the Nature Conservancy's five recommendations for Earth Day, four—figure out your carbon footprint here, time your shower, go for a walk (!), and find a farmers’ market—involve individual behavior. Only a single suggestion, "speak up on climate change" by letting lawmakers know you support the energy and climate bill that Sens. Kerry, Lieberman, and Graham plan to introduce this week, gets at the only kind of change that has been shown in the 40 years since the first Earth Day to make a difference.

As my colleague Ian Yarett documents in his progress report on the environment, every example of major environmental progress—reducing acid rain, improving air quality, restoring the ozone layer—has been the result of national legislation or a global treaty. We reduced acid rain by restricting industry's sulfur emissions, not by all going out and sprinkling bicarb on sensitive forests and lakes. Leaded gasoline was banned by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1996, not by everyone choosing to buy cars that run on unleaded. Ozone-chomping CFCs were banned by the 1987 Montreal Protocol, not by everyone deciding to forgo spray cans and air conditioning.

The gases had to be banned, people. All environmental progress has come through national- and international-level regulation—to be blunt, by forcing people and industry to stop doing environmentally bad things and start doing environmentally good things, not by relying on individuals' green good will or even the power of the marketplace.

Yet as the same Gallup poll shows, the numbers of Americans engaged in environmental activism that leads to such laws and regulations is a small fraction of the number switching to reusable grocery bags (70 percent). Twenty-eight percent of us worked for candidates because of their environmental positions, and 17 percent belong to an activist group or contacted an official about a green issue. But 90 percent of Americans, Gallup found, say they recycle. And what good has it done? Some, to be sure. But we are producing 38 percent more garbage today than we were in 1970. There's a reason the mantra goes "reduce, reuse, recycle"—in that order.

Just to be clear: recycling, using compact fluorescents, cutting home energy use, and the rest of the "what you can do" propaganda is better than their opposites. And before the angry e-mail starts arriving, let me note that I do the usual green things—use mass transit (easy in New York and its suburbs), walk almost everywhere else, recycle, sun-dry clothes (do not try this at home if you have teenagers: Mom, my shirt is stiff!), keep the house cold in winter (ditto: Mom, I can see my breath in here!) and hot in summer.

The problem with the emphasis on changing individual behavior is this: it makes too many of us believe we have done our part. As evidence, just look back at the Gallup numbers on recycling (90 percent) and doing something as simple as dashing off an e-mail to tell our senators to support a climate bill (17 percent).

I'm not aware of any studies asking people if taking shorter showers, say, or substituting a canvas bag for plastic makes them consciously decide not to press for meaningful, society-level environmental change—readers are invited to direct me to any. But one recent study suggests this kind of displacement occurs. As I wrote last month, after volunteers visited online stores during a lab experiment and bought green products, they tended to act less virtuously and in a less good-for-humanity way. They seemed to believe, perhaps unconsciously, that they had fulfilled their virtue quota for the day. It's hard not to suspect that the same displacement—recycle soda can, don't have to vote green—is operating outside the lab.

In her new book Green Gone Wrong, journalist Heather Rogers calls the emphasis on individual green acts—especially shopping—rather than collective ones "lazy environmentalism." But it's nearly ubiquitous. When Rogers gives speeches about garbage, the subject of her last book, someone always tells her they thought "we could cure our environmental ills by consuming the right products," she writes.

If only. Instead, argues Rogers, a senior fellow at the public-policy research and advocacy group Demos, the idea "that it's possible to shop our way out of global warming ... [is] a form of appeasement," distracting us from the hard work needed to remake the world's energy system. "Seeing our options through the lens of consumption," she continues, "is keeping us from using tools we already have to protect the ecosystems everyone needs. Shopping green is alluring in part because it is simple ... unlike the messy business of working toward systemic change. But consumption as politics bypasses pushing for action that might bring substantive shifts, such as meaningful controls on greenhouse gas emissions, comprehensive programs that sustain holistic farming and food, support for establishing and distributing solar, wind, geothermal, and tide-based energy ... [and] major investments in mass transit."

Much of Rogers's book is a thorough, and thoroughly devastating, investigation of carbon offsets, the system in which one can cancel out the carbon-dioxide emissions associated with something we do (fly, drive, heat the house) by paying an intermediary to do something that absorbs an equivalent amount of CO2. Typical offsets come from planting trees or installing solar- or wind-energy projects in the developing world. But as Rogers points out, the CO2 is emitted today; the trees that get planted absorb it over decades, which means the greenhouse gases don't vanish with the click of a mouse on a site selling carbon offsets, instead lingering in the atmosphere for decades, adding to the planet's greenhouse-gas shroud. And that's a best case. With no official registry, there is no way to know if the same offset is being sold more than once, let alone if the trees will live as long as necessary to absorb the carbon the offset purveyor promises. (A famous mango forest that the band Coldplay sponsored to offset its carbon emissions was a dismal failure, for instance; the project didn't distribute to villagers all the trees promised and failed to keep alive those it did, as The Telegraph documentedin 2006.)

The message that we cannot consume our way out of climate change, or shop our way out of crashing fisheries or vanishing species or depleted seas, isn't as much fun as "buy green!" But the latter comes at a cost. By believing that green shopping—or even recycling, turning down the thermostat, or carpooling—is enough, we consent to the continuation of the same societal practices that got us into this mess. Compared with the scale of the disaster, changing individual behavior is pathetically inadequate.

I probably haven't convinced you. If you still think the route to environmental protection runs through your credit card, you may be interested in a green charity auction. Bid on a round of golf with Bill Clinton (estimated value: $100,000), an afternoon and lunch in Central Park with Candice Bergen ($5,000), lunch with David Duchovny on the set of Californication ($10,000), tennis lessons with John McEnroe ($20,000), and scores of trips, artworks, and tchotchkes. All proceeds go to Oceana, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Central Park Conservancy, and Conservation International, all worthy green groups that do indeed work to change policy. The bidding opened on April 8 and remains open through May 6. In that 30 days, Americans will emit about 460 million tons of CO2. The world will lose about 2.5 million acres of forest. It's easy being green, but hard being effective.

Sharon Begley is NEWSWEEK's science editor and author of  Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves.

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