Building Bridges: A Bull Market in Green Guilt isn’t Sustainable

Woman pointing a finger of blameThe stock market is down, unemployment is up, and the political class is falling all over over itself trying to take action (or, at least create the appearance of taking action). Looking for some calm in this economic storm? Two words: carbon offsets.

That’s right: according to the Washington Post‘s David A. Fahrenthold, there’s “a bull market in environmental guilt.” Fahrenthold’s tone, and those of several bloggers whom have linked to his article, suggests something nefarious is happening with the sale of offsets.

I don’t agree with that, but I didn’t sit down today to defend offsets from detractors.  I think there’s a much more interesting question raised in this article: the sustainability of a “green economy” that’s focused primarily on, well, environmentalists… or, at least those who share our larger set of values. Fahrenthold notes:

…people in this business are worried that the guilt boom is about to bust. Most of their customers — usually college-educated and making more than $50,000 a year — have not been hit hard by the weakening economy. Yet.

“People still come to the site, but where you used to get people signing up [for offsets] every day, now you’d be lucky to get a few people a week,” said Fred Weiss, a small-time offset seller based in Ann Arbor, Mich., who sends customers stickers that say, “Carbon Neutral Vehicle.” Apparently that isn’t as important now.

“Who cares about the environment? Am I going to have a house next week?” he imagined would-be customers saying.

As an environmentalist, it’s tempting to respond to Weiss’ rhetorical questions with something along the lines of “But you should care about the environment because…” — fill in the rest for yourself. More and more, I think that first impulse is probably the wrong one.  Rather than focusing on the first question, we should think hard about the second one… and worry if we can’t come up with an answer.

Where Does the Environment Meet the Kitchen Table?

Fahrenholt’s article brought me back to questions I’ve been bouncing around for some time now: is “green fatigue” setting in? Is that related to current economic troubles? Are we environmentalists still preaching to the choir even as the choir has expanded? For that matter, why are we preaching at all? Doesn’t that concept imply (rightly or wrongly) that our main focus is on creating more “believers?”

Think about offsets for a minute.  Who’s going to buy them?  People like you and me: people who believe that climate change is a genuine, impending threat that must be tackled (and, yes, I’m not addressing larger, institutional buyers here… different issues there). If you don’t hold those beliefs, though, you’re likely going to view offsets as a scam, or at least a waste of money. How do you or I respond? “Well, see, here’s how offsets work, and why they’re a good thing…”

How well does that work?  If you’re dealing with someone who’s really not interested in climate change and related phenomena, probably not very well. In response, we’re probably tempted to write that person off in some fashion: a “denier,” an idiot… pick your pejorative.

What have we accomplished in that scenario? Nothing.

I don’t think that’s good enough.  I don’t think writing off people who hold different values sets works very well for us (or for any movement). Furthermore, I wonder if we need to reprioritize “spreading the word” in the midst of the current economic troubles. Will our message resonate with those concerned about losing their homes, jobs, and savings? Perhaps it’s time for us to start discussing solutions to these kinds of concerns…

The good news is that we’ve got ideas on this front. Now it’s time to start thinking about we communicate those ideas.

Over the next few months, I plan to start addressing the notion of building bridges: bridges to somewhere. Bridges between the green movement and those who don’t like or trust us very much. Bridges between those of us who see economic opportunity in sustainable development, and those who think that environmental concern is a luxury unrelated to their current needs and desires. Bridges to environmentally responsible behavior that meets a variety of needs and values.

To get those bridges built, and have others meet us in the middle of them, we’ve got to start looking at what’s on the other side, and what lies in between. What do we have in common with people who don’t share our passion for the environment and sustainability? What can we bring to them? Perhaps more importantly, what can we learn from them?

I doubt we’ll get many of them to buy carbon offsets. But I do think our shared economic stress could provide a golden opportunity for discussing efficiency, conservation, and, yes, sustainability. I think there’s genuine overlap with concepts such as faith, family, patriotism, self-reliance, and security. It’s easy to write folks off who don’t share our values and beliefs… I don’t know that we can afford to do so anymore.

Of course, I invite you to join me in this exploration. Where do we start? With whom do we talk? What past successes do we hold up as examples? I welcome your thoughts and ideas… fire away!

Image credit: druss101 at Flickr under a Creative Commons license

  1. Steve

    Two words: Selfish Sustainability.

    Lets face it, we’d all like to think the world is full of do-gooders willing to bend over backwards in order to do the right thing. Unfortunately, when it comes to paying the bills every month, what are the first things that get cut when finances get tight? Things that don’t provide real economic value or savings.

    Even green businesses need to justify their sustainability programs by how much money it saves them compared with doing things the “old way”. People are that way too. If we can make being green profitable for someone (or at least not more expensive) things can get easier.

    For example, here in Oregon we have access to green power. Simply by checking a check box on our power bill, we can sign up for a program that buys the same amount of power I use from renewable resources. There is a (small) premium for this service on the order of about $10 extra a month or so. Well, no one really wants to pay $10 more a month for electricity. However, I spent $20 to replace all my incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs. Doing so saved me about (you guessed it) $10 a month on my power bill.

    So end result, I use less power and the power I do use comes from renewable resources for ZERO additional cost. I know, its selfish but when things get to the bottom line, being selfish can also be sustainable 🙂


  2. Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

    Steve– In general, I agree with you. How I interpret “selfish sustainability” comes down to values: what is it that our audience/market needs or desires, and how can we bring “green” ideas to them in a manner that fulfills those needs and desires. As I’ll point out later on, I think there will be plenty of instances in which we should just leave “green” out of the communication — if people are focused on trimming the family budget, let’s focus there… again, we don’t have to convert them to our way of thinking necessarily; we can, however, show them “green” actions that meet their needs. And that’s a “win-win.” I think we’ve got to be transparent about our own mission, but not make converting them to that mission the first priority.

  3. Concetta

    Steve’s got it dead on.

    Businesses will turn to “greening” to save money – its all about the bottom line. Keeping the lights off until the majority of workers come into the office, for example, can represent several hundred extra dollars a month. And keeping non-essential area lights off unless being used can save even more.

    Families will turn to “greening” again – to save money. Water bills are skyrocketing, power bills are skyrocketing, gas bills are skyrocketing – all the green movement has to do is show them ways to save money – we just don’t have to tell them what they’re doing is also good for the planet. What matters to people is the people and environment around them, not the planet as a whole. The more drilled down to their immediate local benefits, the more people will turn “green” and not even realize it. And that’s the way it should be.

    I don’t buy carbon offsets. I would rather do the work myself – go out and plant some trees, be a little more vegetarian each week, use less gas. The King of the Hill episode on last Sunday about the men selling carbon offsets and paying low-wage workers to plant trees, and finally nothing at all, is a very real fear of mine – I don’t know where my money is going and what its really being used for. I feel like its cheating in the green movement.

  4. Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

    @Concetta — thanks for weighing in! I agree that saving money will attract many people that might not otherwise think much of “going green,” and I think it’s an important argument to make. But I think we’ve also got to consider emotional triggers, which are even more powerful than the logic of the pocketbook.

    Offsets are a good example, actually: while I don’t necessarily think that “green guilt” drives all of their sales, I think emotion plays a big part. It feels good to act on our values, and offsets provide an easy way to do that. Our logical sides might ask the very questions you raise; our emotional side says “Hey, I’ve done something for the environment… that feels good.”

    We tend to dismiss emotional responses when they don’t work for us, but I think we’ve got to start considering what they do for others, and how we can frame environmental concerns within those emotional contexts…along with how to save money…;-)


  5. Uncle B

    I don’t think we Americans understand what the word sustainable means we had our chance at a better world and we blew it! If the U.S. had chosen to be a moral people, and leaving Iraqi oil alone, and following Al Gore, decided to develop the South Western deserts, with the technology of the times – solar/thermal-molten sodium – electricity installations, for the same amount of money as that war cost, ($650 Billion), today, we would be tapping into the largest, renewable, sustainable, energy source the world has ever known. It would have paid every energy bill in the U.S.A. for maintenance fees only – FOREVER! It would be equivalent to an oil field that can NEVER run dry! Low cost electric power, and storeable hydrogen gasoline replacement from the electricity, for all!
    After the millions of murders, and $650 billions of dollars, borrowed from our children’s futures and pissed away, with thousands of our own and others maimed and disfigured for life, millions of families utterly destroyed, ours and theirs, we are no closer to Iraqi oil production than the Iraqis are!
    The next time you hear a blithering idiot spoiled brat, drunken, drug addicted, sociopath, rich Arabic saber dancing daddie’s boy oilman, stand at a microphone and threaten YOUR safety with someone ELSE’S weapons, remember what you lost America, remember, and weep! (also see http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=a-solar-grand-plan)

  6. Bobby B.

    “I think there’s genuine overlap with concepts such as faith, family, patriotism, self-reliance, and security.”

    That one statement provides proof that our discussions over the past few years have resonated in your psyche. I have a couple of comments about the mistakes (as I see them) that the greens have made with regards to each topic that you listed. I will try to phrase my comments politely, but forgive me if any passion bleeds through.

    1. Faith: To this topic, I can only speak from a Christian viewpoint; other religions may see it differently. The greens should avoid statements that attempt to tie Christian salvation to environmental stewardship (i.e. green good works). Most Christians are taught that good works are actions that result from a genuine faith that has already led to salvation. They do not believe that good works are required to maintain one’s salvation. As a matter of fact, the purpose of good works are to provide examples of God’s completed work of salvation to open doorways to sharing one’s faith with others and ultimately expanding the body of believers. Criticizing the faithful for not doing the “approved” green good works and using that criticism to question the genuineness of their relationship with God is offensive, because it is viewed as an attempt to degrade the significance of Christ’s crucifixion.

    2. Family: Who is my family? Being a southerner born to northerners, I think that I have a unique perspective on the family unit. The northern family unit tends to be tightly knit around the immediate family (i.e. Mom, Dad & kids). Southern families also have that strong central unit, but are more likely to regard grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and in-laws as close family. The environmental movement has an undeniable affinity for global socialism. Although socialism is generally regarded as an economic construct, the greens often extrapolate it to mean that we are all part of a single global family. An example of a green global argument might be the claim that if I drive an SUV in the USA my gross consumption of my Arab’s brother oil drives his rage against my religion and causes my Sudanese brother to starve. That concept is difficult for even the most inbred southerner to accept.

    3. Patriotism, Self-Reliance & Security: I think these three basically form one common topic. Patriotism and self-reliance have strong ties to western civilization. Security is the ability to defend oneself (or a nation) from those who want to alter the first two. The green argument that the world will only improve when the members of western civilization change their lifestyle tends to be an affront to our belief system. Why should we westerners be asked to slow our progress – or even regress – when the rest of the world is not asked to stand still? The United States did not sign the Kyoto Treaty because Kyoto sought to send the western world back in time, while allowing the developing world a free pass to pollute in order to advance its societies. Standing strong against Kyoto was to a degree patriotic and displayed considerable self-reliance. Those western nations that did sign on are beginning to see security threats from some of the nations that received a free pass to pollute as they are now poised to expand their interests.

    I think that I will stop there and allow cross examinations. Have a great weekend!

  7. Maria Surma Manka

    Even when the economy is dominating people’s minds, one of the enviro topics that can still move people to action is energy, especially energy efficiency. Energy is so clearly tied to our pocketbooks, national security, health, etc that I it’s an area where people quickly see why it’s in their self-interest to support cleaner and especially more efficient systems for it. In a tough economy it’s even more important to use clean, faster, smarter energy to better our lives.

  8. GreenJoyment

    I think the “selfish sustainability” ideas above are awesome. We have to make it so that people view it as in their best interest to go green.

    And it can’t be the variety that says “Well, buy these solar panels now, and they’ll pay themselves off in 30 years.” As we’ve seen in both the government and the housing issues lately, people aren’t thinking out further than about 3 months. So any selfish sustainability has to show people how green choices help people RIGHT NOW to save money, and help their kids, and get more love in their life, and whatever other factors motivate them.

    Additionally, I think we have to make it “cool” and “fun” to go green. People who are having a hard time paying the bills will still find a way to pay to rent movies, buy video games, and go to see professional sports.


    It’s fun. And it’s what everyone else is doing.

    The social proof and entertainment aspects of the environmental movement haven’t kicked in yet.

    I think one question that should be asked and answered is how can we make it more “fun” and more of a social norm to be environmentally friendly?

    I am glad you’re opening up this discussion and look forward to being a participant and help in making green mainstream.



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