New Internationalist

Keynote

Issue 203

new internationalist
issue 203 - January 1990

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Shopping for the Planet: The Green Consumer

Space traveller Sue Shaw
reports strange developments
on Earth. Here is a transcript
of her narration to the Fourth
Inter-Galactic Council, made
in the Age of Concern.

Friends and Councillors, my trip to Planet Earth confirms that the carelessness of a few generations could destroy that world. As you recall, I was despatched on this mission because ours is the only remaining planet in the Universe with intelligent life. Faced with our people's terror of enduring eternity alone, we are anxiously monitoring Earth lest it plunges into extinction like so many planets before. Here is my report.

My vessel arrived on Earth during Christmas - the festival of glut. This is the biggest religious celebration in the wealthy zones. Anthems blare, lights flash, currency is outlayed and packages are exchanged, transporting worshippers into paroxysms of pleasure. One Earth Child said to me 'I like to shop until I drop; stuff myself until I bust; drink myself under the table'.

This human is a slave to the primitive religion of 'more'. Like millions of others, she thrives on excess. It is the only god she knows.

Worshippers gaze reverently through temple windows, at offerings that adorn the altars to consumption: shiny shoes, gift-wrapped talcum powders, personal stereos, costumes and cars. When the spirit moves them, they rush in to exchange.

Many dedicate their lives to worship. They harvest currency by toiling silently before flickering screens, pressing keys like rosaries, or by pushing papers ritually around office desks. The monthly pay-cheque is their ticket to salvation.

Ownership is all that many Believers understand. They seek life's meaning in possessions, and use inanimate objects to tell other Earthlets who they are. Strange and costly garments branded Gucci or Dior are worn to signal that humans have judgement, style and personality. 'You are what you buy,' is a common hymn.

And when they tire of their offerings, Believers throw them away to replace them with 'better' things. Waste, for them, is an inevitable by-product of worship.

All over this world - in New York, Singapore, Hong Kong, London - Earthlets worship in the temples. Their religion keeps the inter-zonal economy growing. Consumption is demand; demand brings enterprisal growth; and growth provides the means for still more consumption.

The cycle is governed by a holy commandment: 'Thou shalt consume to thy maximum capacity, according to thy means and the artifacts available.' Humans have obeyed for generations - and in their millions. First they satisfied their individual material needs for food and shelter. Then they fulfilled needs fostered by each other. 'If my neighbour buys a car,' one typical consumer told me, 'I buy a bigger one. If she has a holiday, mine is more expensive. Whatever she has or does, I try to stay ahead.'

But the combined effect of this consumption for their private good, has damaged the public interest. Breathing-gas is polluted. Fish are dying. The soil is impoverished. Individuals possess conveyances to go to the country. But the country is no longer fit to be enjoyed.

Fellow Councillors, this strange religion has smacked up against the limits of Earth's resources. The cult is destroying the very planet upon which it depends.

But Earth Children are also changing. They are realizing how small their world is - and that zonal actions have interzonal consequences.

This understanding has dawned slowly. First they discovered that an atom-smashing war would have catastrophic effects - like planetary winter and the death of terrestrial cultivation. Then humans inflicted a trail of environmental catastrophes on themselves from a leak at 'Bhopal' chemical factory on the V-shaped landmass, to a nuclear-power-plant explosion in 'Chernobyl' region. Two reforming priests helped the process of realization: Brandt publicly declared that the world's poorest hemisphere was being destroyed; while Brundtland associated poverty and planetary pollution with unbraked economic growth.

Earth Dwellers have now begun to grasp that they are tattering the ozone layer, which protects them from the harmful rays of their sun (star 4135 in our heavens). Some humans have prophesied a global temperature rise of around three degrees centigrade by the year 2030 as a result of atmospheric contamination - and Councillors you have to smell this pollution yourselves to believe it! Even Government high priests are uneasy.

Earthlets themselves have reacted variously. Non-believers have created their own 'Green' sects which argue for negative economic growth. But Believers as yet cannot praise this solution - though they have likewise despaired of waiting for political leaders to become planetary saviours. They have prayed for new ways to effect transformation and green consumerism has been revealed to them.

Green consumerism encourages humans to consume in ways kindly to their planet. It is an auspicious development, similar to the religious movement which marked the beginning of our own Green Age.

On Earth, progressive tabernacles called ethical investment schemes have been using currency to support social causes for some time. And recently the radical sect Friends of the Earth campaigned against squirters or 'aerosols' containing ozone-damaging CFC gases by persuading Believers to use CFC-free artifacts. Many big enterprisals agreed to stop making the offending items.

This gave Believers hope that things could change. They started buying artefacts that they saw as environmentally benign - with remarkable effect. For example, the McDonald's pantheon was forced to stop using CFCs in fast-food receptacles as a result of the threatened boycott of Big Mac flesh-burgers.1 Even supermarket pantheons commenced going green. Ordinary Earth Dwellers are discovering that they can control what happens to their planet.

Today 'Green' temples are sprouting everywhere. 'The Body Shop', which makes and vends environmentally-friendly beautifiers, has proved astonishingly successful. From a single small temple opened in 1976, it now operates in 33 zones. Oracles set up to confer green rites on business-priests are booming.

Worshippers are demanding environmentally-friendly artifacts. In Zone 'UK' 67 per cent of humans are willing to exchange more currency for such objects2. Earthlets in Zone 'Canada' exchange up to 10 per cent more for 'green' goods.'3 And suddenly the temples of consumption are proliferating 'green' offerings; green batteries, green cleaning-fluid, green fuel. Even 'sweets' - a mild drug which induces a brief taste-high but damages the body - sport the verdant claim.

Traditional consumption could soon become socially unacceptable. Humans are on the road to accepting what they call the Gaia Principle, which sees Earth's living matter as one. They are moving towards an inter-zonal community based on environmental sustainability and respect for all. But the path is not assured.

Unscrupulous businesses are milking green consumers of their currency. Unsliced wholemeal bread which has not been expensively purified exchanges for more than its sliced white imitation. And low-alcohol beer - which incurs no duty - is more expensive than the real thing. The cost of organic fruit and vegetables is particularly inflated4.

The environmental panic is heaven for the high priests of advertising whose function it is to capitalize on fears and desires. They are multiplying phrases like 'environment-friendly' and 'phosphate-free', to obscure the real 'greenness' of an artifact and confuse humans into exchanging more.

They are helped in this by the lack of language controls to describe offerings. 'Free-range' can refer to animals kept in barns which are even more crowded than battery cages. And 'ozone-friendly' often designates soft CFC gases which, though less destructive than others, still destroy. Parents are even offered 'environmentfriendly' disposable bottom-wrappers for their sproglets.

And some high priests have told falsehoods. The BP multi-zonal company initially affirmed that its 'supergreen unleaded petrol did not foul the environment - even though all such fuel produces nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. Similarly the Shell enterprisal spawns glossy scriptures about community environmental projects that it will fund, while manufacturing some of the Planet's most treacherous chemicals.4

New gospels have appeared instructing humans how to 'go green' in style. These depict foppish dwellings, tastefully furnished in plain wood and provisioned with all kinds of 'environmentally-friendly' gadgets. Commercial air fresheners bow to ionizers, as if raw breathing-gas is no longer good enough. Drinking water comes in bottles. Low-radiation televisions transcend the humble picture-box. And the old commandment remains unchanged - buy, buy, buy.

'Saving the planet' is being translated into a religion for Earth Children who can afford for it. The god of conspicuous consumption has been refashioned, and money-harvesters now worship frugality with style. Pleasure was what Believers sought in their old god; innocence and naturalness are what they buy in the new. When Earthlets discovered they were devouring their planet, they repented. And penitence is buying green; buying green is their prayer for grace.

Old gods die hard, fellow Councillors, as I'm sure you recall. Yet there is hope. Believers have gluttoned on the god of excess and found it wanting. Some may be tempted by old dogmas, but most are identifying deeper hungers within themselves. From this hollowness green consumerism springs. My suggestion is this.

Earthlets are crossing the bridge we traversed in the Age of Darkness. They could get lost. I propose sending them a guider - a transcript of this report will mysteriously appear in a reputable Earthly magazine and will make the following recommendations.

Humans should demand that businesses guarantee them accurate information about green products. If Earth Children lobby and demonstrate; if they pray only at the tabernacles of the worthy, they will propel the high priests of consumerism towards Earth sustainability. Zonal governments should be compelled to decree controls on manufacturing enterprisals and make the polluters pay.

Earth's richer zones have erred by forcing others to pay for their religion. The poorest half of the planet has been drained to resource the god of conspicuous consumption. Now there is a danger that this 'poor world' will fall victim of the greening process.

For example, rich zones which long ago destroyed their own glorious estate, now claim the poor world's tropical kingdom as a legacy for all. They suggest that tropical forests be translated into zonal parks or exchanged for poor-world debts. Rarely do they investigate the needs and desires of the forest-dwellers themselves. Yet it is poverty which drives these poor worlders to hew their saplings. And this poverty needs correcting or greening will translate into more domination.

Green Believers are now pressing the priests of rich-world industry to scan supply chains right down to their poor-world beginnings. This is quite correct and yet the preferences of green consumers are already impairing sales of poor-world wares like palm oil, coffee and sugar. And they could lay waste to that hemisphere's traffic in tropical lumber.5

There is only one remedy. Green Believers in the rich world will not save their planet unless they guarantee the sustainability of poor-world economies: rich-world money must pay for poor-world industry to go green. Old temples must be cleaned and green ones opened. The poor world has great potential in this respect, including some 2,000 divisions of poisonous plants which might become pest killers. Green Believers should also support the chapels of fair trading which return profits to poor-world workers.

From our own experience, InterGalactic Councillors, we know that if Earthlings want to save their Planet they must realize their predicament is a global challenge. It can only be met if zonal governments connect through all-planetary councils. Green Believers must quicken these connections.

Green consumerism is a hopeful token of more substantial change. Earth's children are dawning - rather later than we did but perhaps not too late. And when their space-vessel reaches Pluto, they may hurry their Green Age even faster. I touched down on that planet during my homing, and all that remains of that great civilization, dear friends, are mountains of empty drink cans and a carpet of potato-chip packets.

1 This happened in the US in 1987. Green Consumer Guide, by Julia Nailes and John Elkinglon. (Victor Gollancz, 1988.)
2
The Sunday Correspondent, 24 Sept, 1989.
3
Canadian Consumer No 2, 1989.
4
Beyond Green Consumerism by Sandy Irvine, (Friends of the Earth discussion paper 1, September 1989)
5 South, September, 1989.

 

Ideas for Action
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INTERNATIONAL
International Organization of Consumers Unions, PO Box 1045, 10830 Penang, Malaysia. Tel. 604 371396.
UNEP International Register of Potentially Toxic Chemicals,
Palais de Nations, 1211 Geneva, Switzerland.
Tel. 41 22 98 5400.
African NGOs Environmental Network,
PO Box 53844, Nairobi, Kenya. Tel. 26255 or 331019.
Environmental Liaison Centre,
PO Box 72461, Nairobi, Kenya. Tel. 24770 or 340849.

 

AOTEAROA/NEW ZEALAND
Consumer's InstItute (NZ), Private Bag TARO, Wellington 1. Tel. 847963.
Environmental and Conservation Organizations of NZ Inc (ECO),
PO Box 11057, Wellington. Tel. 04 846 971. Greenpeace, Private Bag Wellesley Street, Auckland. Tel. 09 776 128.
Friends of the Earth,
PO Box 39065, Auckland West. Tel. 09 3034319.
Forest and Bird Society,
PO Box 631, Wellington. Tel. 04 728 154.

 

AUSTRALIA
State Pollution Control Commission,
157 Liverpool Street, Sydney, NSW 2000. Tel. 02 265 8888.
Australia Consumers' Association,
28 Queen Street, Chippendale, Sydney 2008, NSW. Tel. 698 9200.
Friends of the Earth,
56 Foster Street, Surry Hills 2000. Tel. 02-211 3953.
NSW Environmental Centre,
176 Cumberland Street, Surry Hills 2000. Tel. 02 27 4206.
Greening Australia,
347 Riley Street, Surry Hills 2000. Tel. 02 211 2155.
Australian Conservation Foundation,
672B Glenferries Road, Hawthorn, 3122.
Greenpeace,
134 Broadway, Sydney, 2000. Tel. 02 211 0500.

 

CANADA
Consumer and Commercial Affairs,
1871 Smith Street, Regina, Saskatchewan, S4P 3V7. Tel. 130 656 555000. Consumer Protection Office, 6 Rue de l'Université, Quebec, G1R 5G8.
Canadian Environmental Network,
PO Box 1289, Station B, Ottawa, Ontario, K1P 5R3.
Pollution Probe,
12 Madison Ave., Toronto, Ontario, M5R 2S1.
Saskatchewan Environmental Society,
Room 205, 219 22nd Street East, Saskatoon S7K 0G4.

 

UNITED KINGDOM
SustainAbility Ltd,
1 Cambridge Road, Barnes, London SW13 0PE. Tel. 01-243 1277.
Friends of the Earth,
26-28 Underwood Street, London N1 7JQ. Tel. 01-490 1555.
Greenpeace,
30-31 Islington Green, London N1 8XE. Tel. 01- 354 5100.
Ark,
498-500 Harrow Road, London W9 3QA. Tel. 01-968 6780.
Centre for Alternative Technology,
Machynlleth, Powys. Tel. 0654 2400.
London Food Commission,
88 Old Street, London EC1V 9AR. Tel. 01- 253 9513.
Environmental Information Service,
PO Box 197, Cawston, Norfolk NR10 4BH. Tel. 0603 971048.

 

UNITED STATES
Greenpeace,
Waste Trade Campaign, 1436U Street NW, Washington DC 20009. Tel. 202 462 1177.
Natural Resources Defense Council,
122E 42nd Street, New York NY 10168. Tel. 212 9190049.
US Environment Protection Agency,
Office of International Activities, 811 West Tower, 401 M St. SW. Washington DC 20460. Tel. 202 382 4870.

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