Do Americans Have Green Fatigue?

I'll admit it: I am a lapsed recycler. When confronted recently with an empty jar of peanut butter, rather than soak it in hot water to remove every last smear before placing it in the recycling bin, I simply tossed the jar in the trash can (and quickly covered it with greasy paper towels to avert the wrath of my eco-fanatic husband). In my mind, I made a quick and highly unscientific calculation: saving the planet from one little plastic jar wasn't worth my time or the hot water necessary to clean it.

I may be wrong about that. But the fact is, I don't know what to believe anymore. I'm sick of everyone from Al Gore to the guy who mows my grass telling me to "go green." I'm tired of sifting through the "eco-safe" claims of products as diverse as cleansers, cars and cookies: recycled, recyclable, reusable, organic, all-natural, environmentally friendly, environmentally preferable, environmentally safe, biodegradable, compostable, ozone-friendly, zero-carbon, carbon-neutral … the list is limited only by the imaginations of the marketing geniuses who developed it. We are drowning in so many vague, dubious or breathlessly hyped assertions that sometimes it's easier just to throw the sticky peanut-butter jar away. "Confusion creates inner shock," says Suzanne Shelton, CEO of the Shelton Group, a U.S. marketing firm that monitors America's environmental pulse. "And when consumers are confused, they just do nothing."

I am not alone in my green fatigue. The Shelton Group's latest study, Energy Pulse 2007, revealed that between 2006 and 2007, Americans' enthusiasm for energy-efficient products and services fell across the board. Among its findings: the number of green or energy-efficient activities consumers said they participated in—such as recycling or riding a bike to work instead of driving—dropped from an average of 3.63 in 2006 to 3.0 last year. Furthermore, the number of respondents who considered energy efficiency "important/extremely important" in deciding whether to buy a product fell from 72 to 67 percent. "We are really seeing a backlash to the whole green thing," says Shelton. "We've tested environmental messaging for some clients lately, and we get a lot of eye rolls and deep sighs. We hear things like 'I'm so tired of the green label being slapped on everything,' 'I'm so tired of being guilted into being green'."

A new field, eco-psychology, has even arisen to help people cope with their mounting "eco-anxiety"—worries not just about the planet's health but also about their own environmental inadequacies. Melissa Pickett, a self-proclaimed eco-psychologist and president of the SoulWays Center for Conscious Evolution, believes it's only a matter of time before insurance companies recognize it as a treatable psychological ailment. "I compare it to PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]," she says. "Years ago, there wasn't a label for it. There isn't a diagnostic label [now] for green fatigue or eco-anxiety. At some point there probably will be."

We can only hope to live so long. The growing sense of green fatigue stems in part from the feeling that no matter what we do, it will never be enough. I own a Toyota Camry hybrid, have replaced roughly a third of our light bulbs with compact fluorescent ones —though I should confess I've changed a few back to incandescent because the time delay and cold light drove me crazy—and recycle fairly religiously, hard-to-clean containers notwithstanding. Yet judging from the daily news, the earth's predicament grows only more dire: Ethiopian runner Haile Gebrselassie has pulled out of the Olympic marathon because of Beijing's toxic pollution. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently found that 345 of 700 American counties monitored had air quality considered unsafe to breathe. "The discussion about changing our light bulbs, about washing our laundry on a lower setting, all seem to be very petty approaches to what is being described as a great climate catastrophe," says James Panton, cofounder of the Manifesto Club, which is committed to preventing ecological disaster without limiting human potential. "Changing a light bulb isn't the way forward."

So what is? Environmental experts seem to agree that the best way to jolt consumers out of their green daze is to instigate reforms from the top down, like putting a price on carbon and including airline emissions in CO2-reduction targets. "If there were stronger infrastructural changes, then you would have a clear lead from the political and economic leadership of our society, and you won't have that kind of fatigue," says Tim Baster, executive director of the U.K.'s Climate Outreach and Information Network. "It's individuals who get demoralized. There has to be collective action." It takes a village to recycle a peanut-butter jar.