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The Green Veneer

A reporter uncovers which climate change "solutions" are part of the problem


Published April 13, 2011 at 11:26 a.m.

If you think you’re saving the planet by buying compact-fluorescent bulbs and organic, fair trade coffee beans, Heather Rogers’ new book might wipe the smug off your face. Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy Is Undermining the Environmental Revolution conveys some bad news: We cannot shop our way out of global warming. But Rogers also allows some reasons for hope, provided we drop the delusion that we can simply swap “dirty” products for “green” ones and leave our consumption-based economy untouched.

Rogers, 40, is an author, filmmaker and investigative reporter whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Mother Jones and the Nation. Her first book, Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, is a compelling account of the life cycle of trash and how Americans reached the point where we each produce, on average, about five pounds of garbage every day.

For Green Gone Wrong, Rogers traveled the globe tracing the headwaters of some of the oft-touted “solutions” to climate change, including carbon offsets, hybrid vehicles, biofuels and organic food production. Her journey took her to such remote locales as the Borneo rainforests, which are being clear- cut at a dizzying pace to produce palm oil, which is largely used for manufacturing “eco-friendly” biodiesel. This deforestation, Rogers notes, has turned Indonesia into the world’s third-largest greenhouse-gas emitter, right behind China and the United States.

Rogers, who will speak on April 21 at the University of Vermont as part of the Will Miller Lecture Series, covers a lot of terrain in her talks. During her first visit to Burlington, she may find a receptive and well-informed audience. However, Rogers probably will take on a few sacred cows of the environmental movement as she reveals some of the inconvenient truths that lie beneath such phenomena as the organic food movement and “green” consumer goods.

Rogers spoke to Seven Days last week from her home in Brooklyn, N.Y.

SEVEN DAYS: In your book, you devote considerable space to the negative consequences of using biodiesel. Until recently, all transit buses in Chittenden County ran on biodiesel. [Its use was suspended in February as a cost-cutting measure.]

HEATHER ROGERS: Hmm, maybe I should talk about that.

SD: Although this solution isn’t perfect, isn’t it better than doing nothing?

HR: I think that’s a false perception of the possibilities. The oil that’s harvested from the palm plantations in Indonesia is used to make biodiesel. There’s this tremendous clear-cutting and dispossession of indigenous communities. It’s not like, if this doesn’t work, then nothing will work, so it’s better than doing nothing. There’s a whole range of things we can be doing to cut our CO2 emissions, which is really what biodiesel is all about. So, any conservation we do, and shifting to mass transit, getting people out of their cars and onto electric trains and high-speed rail will put a huge dent in our CO2 emissions. There are many, many other options, but too often politicians and the media don’t talk about them.

SD: I understand that Green Gone Wrong was born out of your Gone Tomorrow book tour. Tell me about that.

HR: I went around the U.S., Canada and the UK, and everywhere I went there would always be at least one person who said, “Yeah, but if we just buy hybrid cars and eat organic food, won’t everything work OK? Isn’t that the solution?” My impulse was to really question that and say, What does it mean if we do those things?

SD: So, when a massive company such as Walmart says it’s not going to sell incandescent bulbs anymore but only compact fluorescents, isn’t that a step in the right direction?

HR: Sure, it is. But it’s important for people to keep in mind that, while Walmart is doing that, Walmart also has to keep growing. They function under the laws of free-market capitalism, so, if they’re not growing, then they become weaker as a company and start losing out to the competition. So, they have to open another Walmart, and another Walmart, and another Walmart. Those energy savings don’t just get retired, that energy, and more, gets eaten up. There’s this [principle] called the Jevons paradox, which says that under a market system, the more energy you save, the more energy you’ll use.

SD: It’s obvious that you’re deeply skeptical that the market can solve our environmental problems on its own. Where do you see the solutions coming from?

HR: I write about a community in Germany, in the city of Freiburg, called Vauban, which is the product of the people who live there coming together and saying, “We want to build a neighborhood that uses a fraction of the energy, that relies on mass transit, that’s based on these environmental fundamentals and people working together to maintain it.” They understand that in order to get to a place of greater environmental and human health, you have to engage in a process. It’s a process, not a product you can buy.

SD: How do we go about redefining success and personal satisfaction?

HR: We have to consume less. We have to change our economic system so that it isn’t based on growth the way our current system is based on growth. So, if we start consuming less, our economy doesn’t fall into crisis and everyone’s livelihood doesn’t go through the floor, which is what we’re seeing with the current, relentless recession.

SD: How is that message usually greeted?

HR: When you say, “We need to consume less,” some people immediately say, “You want us to walk around in smocks and eat gruel. And we won’t have any choice or freedom.” That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about cutting out the kind of waste we have in our system that it must have in order to grow. We have no problem producing goods. The problem we always encounter is having consumption that keeps pace with production. You know, 25 percent of all the food in the United States and Europe is thrown away. That would feed the world’s hungriest billion people. So, when I say we need to consume less, that’s what I’m talking about.

SD: It sounds like you’ve met people who give you enormous hope.

HR: For sure. When I was in Germany, [I visited] the Fraunhofer Institute, one of the top solar research centers in the world. They are really connected with local architects. They came up with this [drywall] that’s coated with microscopic paraffin spheres. You can use it just like regular drywall, and paint over it. In the summertime, those little spheres absorb heat from the room and liquefy, then release the heat at night and solidify again.

SD: Do you consider yourself an optimist?

HR: Yeah! I’m definitely a hopeful person. But I think it’s really important to differentiate between false hope and real hope. You can’t have real hope if you are deceiving yourself or allowing yourself to be deceived. It’s important to have a clear understanding of what’s going on.