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Going overboard on green hype can be dangerous.

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Gag Me With a Green Spoon

Green building, green gardening, green chemicals.  There are even green cigarettes (which are still hazardous to health) made with organically grown tobacco.  You can buy eco-toys, earth-friendly sustainably-harvested rubber potholders, skateboards made of recycled plastic, all-natural socks knitted from certified organic cotton, spudware spoons, and biodegradable bags for pet excrement.  The list goes on and on.  

AD NAUSEUM:  When issues are repeatedly forced upon us, people may understandably grow sick of them. Elvis Presley gorged on deep-fried peanut butter and mashed banana sandwiches on a daily basis, but that is not normal. Yes, repetition can make a point and help ingrain a habit.  It can also alienate when overdone.  This is especially true when the spokesperson is viewed as a whiney, whacko, tree-hugging fanatic. 

FADS:  Americans are notorious for falling for fads.  But even the most fashionable fads fade.  What was cool yesterday is passé today.  A decade from now, how many people will want to pay $14,000 on eBay for bubblegum spit out by Britney Spears?  Another concern is that people who flock to fads rarely examine the merits of the bandwagon they are hopping on.  They lack a real understanding of the reason change is necessary.  Programs viewed as the flavor of the month are unlikely to be subscribed to.

SUPERFICIALITY:   Recycling plastic beverage bottles may assuage a consumer’s guilt.  But it does not change the fact that many plastic resins like polystyrene have virtually no recycling potential, and tons of plastic ends up on roadsides and beaches.  Greenwashing (misleading the public about environmental practices or environmental benefits) products, services or programs destroys the credibility of those that really are earth-friendly to the core.  

From Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Keynote Address at the April 2008 Yale Climate Change Conference (see entire speech)

“For too long the environmental movement was powered by guilt. … I don't think that any movement has ever made… much progress based on guilt. Guilt is passive, it is inhibiting, it's defensive and the approach just simply doesn't work.  Successful movements are built on passion. They're built on confidence. …They're built on critical mass and often they're built on an element of alarm that galvanizes action.

I believe the environmental movement is switching over from being powered by guilt to being powered by something much more positive, something much more dynamic, something much more capable of bringing about revolutionary change."

GUILT BY ASSOCIATION:  Trying to guilt or shame people into doing the right thing creates negative connotations.  It can result in hiding recyclables in the trash, avoidance, or even increased resistance.  It is better to help people understand the consequences of their actions. This enables them to make informed decisions about why they should or should not do something. It also motivates them to seek help or advice in the pursuit of change.


In order for a sustainable, green lifestyle to become the norm, more than a few superficial adjustments are needed.  It must be more than a passing fancy.  It has to become an intrinsic ethic or value that we incorporate into our lifestyle.  That core value can then serve as a compass to guide our daily actions and choices.

Even worthwhile change is hard to make and stick with.  Trying to implement wholesale changes all at once can be overwhelming.  It usually leads to abandonment.  Instead, make it as easy as possible. Allow people to take small steps towards the desired outcome.  Involve and reward them for engaging in green behaviors.  This will encourage future involvement and long term change.

People must come to believe that green living is worthwhile.  To gain larger participation and engagement, help people see how their individual actions relate to the bigger picture.  Move beyond a focus on flavor of the month programs, to setting stretch goals based on a vision of the world we want to leave behind for future generations.  Provide support from the top, in the form of management and government policy, viable long term programs, incentives, and partnerships.

With help, we are all capable of extending our attention spans and modifying attitudes and behaviors to achieve real change that makes a real difference for the planet.

Originally published in the Villager newspapers on September 6, 2008

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