In case you haven’t heard, Nestles has come out with an “Eco-Shaped” bottle for water. They are telling us it’s good for the environment because it uses less plastic than it used to and has a smaller label. But before you run out and buy a bunch of these things to save the environment, you should recognize that your local water utility provides the same product minus the environmental costs associated with creating and disposing of plastic containers, which makes the Nestles ad a case of greenwashing.
Greenwashing, and the larger issue of environmental degradation, may not be a problem well-suited to America's strengths. Like the Romans, we are better at handling threats from without the imperial walls than those festering within. We have tried and true methods for dealing with fascists, communists, and now terrorists. When we have a problem abroad, we know what to do. We blow it up.
But this climate change thing is different. It’s internal . . . creeping about and threatening that most meaningful and heartfelt aspect of our lives—shopping. This will not be an easy nut for us to crack. There was a day when we would have confidently looked to our worldwide leadership in technology to pull us through . . . just rely on good old American ingenuity to remove the threat of climate change. But that was before the Toyotas and Lenovos began to shake our confidence. GM is making a valiant effort to claim the lead in creating the first widely used and practical electric car—determined to crank out the Chevy Volt before its foreign competitors can respond. But according to Jonathan Rauch’s article in the July/AugustAtlantic, those poor engineers at GM are near exhaustion from trying to tweek the battery that will carry the Volt forty miles before its gasoline engine kicks in to regenerate it. It’s not yet clear whether GM will succeed or die trying.
If technology isn’t going to pull us through the climate problem, then what will? We aren’t very amenable to radical solutions—living in hobbit-like structures that require no grid and so on. The Europeans seem to be better at solutions that require personal sacrifice. There’s a website calledRooted in Irelandwhere you can buy an oak tree as a gift for someone, and they’ll plant it there for you as a way to reduce greenhouse gases. It’s a beautiful idea, but I’m not sure it’s going to catch on among Americans. “Honey, instead of getting you another gasoline-powered lawn care device this year for Father’s Day, we bought you a tree. . . It’s in Ireland.” We Americans never really bought into that “It’s better to give than receive” thing. We sort of suspect it was made up by someone on welfare who didn’t have a lot of stuff to give in the first place.
There are voices out there calling upon Americans to think differently than they have in the past. In her recent book,Big Green Purse, Diane Maceachern has the audacity to tell us we should not only buy green, but also buyless. I like the message, but I’m afraid it may be too radical for American ears. This is a people who regularly elect Texans (the land of big) and whose revered ancestors believed that it was their Manifest Destiny to takemore.
There’s always Hollywood. Discovery Communications has recently launched its new Green Planet channel, which promotes “eco-entertainment,” featuring a host of stars to lead us down the green brick road. I turned it on today for the first time and heard a beautiful starlet explaining how she had created a green nursery and “had dimmer switches on all of her lights.” I suppose this helps, but unless a lot of you are in the market for an eco-friendly $12 million high rise condo in Manhattan or a $4000 Christian Lacroix seaweed dress, don’t count on the Green Planet to do the bulk of the heavy lifting on climate change.
I think it’s time to think outside the box. Let’s get back to what we Americans are good at . . . war. We could begin a war on greenwashing, enlisting all those methods that have worked so well in the war on terror—observing people’s telephone conversations and emails, checking what people are reading at their local library, and so on. But here’s a tactic that will put the fear of God into anyone who even thinks about greenwashing. You know those Homeland Security dogs that sniff out bombs at the airport? Well, we could enlist them. We’ll need some very official looking dark green jackets that have FTC written on them in bold white letters. And we’ll need little matching vests for the dogs. Then we’ll periodically show up in stores throughout America to carry out high profile raids on greenwashing. The dogs don’t actually have to be able to smell greenwashing. We just need to convince people that they can.
I know a woman who works in juvenile court and happens to also train companion dogs for people with disabilities. One day she took her dog with his little canine companion vest into juvenile court to show him to some of the teens. As a joke, she told them the dog could detect whether people had been using drugs in the past three months. Well, the kids all backed off like the dog had the plague.
We could have the administration announce that the Department of Energy has been involved for years in classified research to train these dogs. Remember, this is a country that believed Star Wars would work. It shouldn’t be too difficult to get them to believe that dogs can be trained to detect greenwashing. A few raids with lots of media attention should have a sufficiently chilling effect to drive the greenwashing movement into something analogous to the tribal territories of western Pakistan.