Time to Stop the Greenwashing

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by Glen Barry
from Earth Meanders, January 4, 2008

It’s a very positive sign for the green left that some mainstream green activists are publishing statements as strong as this one. Dr. Glen Barry is the President and Founder of Ecological Internet (EI). He is a conservation biologist and political ecologist, a writer of essays and blogs, and a computer specialist and technology researcher.

Global ecological sustainability depends upon identifying and acting upon ambitious, sufficient eco-policies now; and rejecting misleading, exploitative and inadequate reformist pandering

The Earth and all species including humans are threatened with imminent ecological ruin. You should be afraid, very afraid. Yet real hope remains that fundamental social change can avert looming failure of global ecosystems. The biggest current obstacle to such change is that now that everyone, every product and every business claims to be “green”; we have been diverted from urgent, adequate ecological change required to secure being.

Many mainstream (and some “radical”) environmentalists, most businesses and essentially all governments are greenwashing — misleading the public regarding the environmental benefits of their practices, policies and products. Certified FSC logging destroys ancient forests, climate and water. Coal is unlikely to ever be clean as existing plants emit into the atmosphere, and sequestration is unproven. Biofuels hurt the environment, geo-engineering will destroy remaining natural processes, and buying more stuff is rarely good for the environment.

It is time to stop the greenwashing. After two decades of successfully raising awareness regarding climate change, forest protection and other challenges to global ecological sustainability; increasingly my time is spent reacting to dangerous, insufficient responses that fail to address root causes of ecological decline, provide a false sense of action, and frequently consolidate and do more environmental harm.

Many “greenwash” to make money, some to be perceived as effective advocates, while others believe incremental progress without changing the system is the best that can be done. Yet all are delaying policies necessary simply to survive. The greatest obstacle to identifying, refining, espousing and implementing policies required to maintain a habitable Earth may come from “environmentalists” proposing inadequate half-measures that delay and undermine the rigorous work that must be done to bring humanity back into nature’s fold.

Sufficient policies required to save the Earth are massive in scope and ambition. Deep-seated change is required in how we house, feed and clothe ourselves; in our understanding of acceptable livelihoods and happy lives; and in our relationship with the biosphere and each other. To maintain a livable Earth there is no alternative to less people and consumption, a smaller and restorative economy, and an end to cutting natural vegetation and burning fossil fuels.

Systematic failure of global ecosystems and social systems must be addressed in more than a token manner. A whole series of policy actions exist that we know are needed, would work, are sufficient, and could start immediately. These include massive investments into subsidizing renewable energy, implementing population controls, banning coal, ending old-growth logging and financing carbon emission reductions.

Given the Earth has already exceeded what can be sustained in these regards, not only must the destruction stop, but massive regional scale ecological restoration must commence to establish rewilded and connected ecological reserves. Economic growth beyond steady-state use of natural capital must be stopped, and sustainable relocalized communities built around bioregions.

Certainly ecologically positive technology has a role to play. Living in the country and needing a vehicle I recently chose the best transportation option society offers me and bought a Toyota Prius. But leading environmentalists touting technology as the primary emphasis to save our environment are dreadfully misinformed, and are obviously unaware of the ecological nature of being. They seem to have forgotten about the primacy of maintaining and restoring ecosystems.

Even as we personally strive to live frugal, rich lives; necessary consumption should focus upon durable items that will last. Strong tools are required to grow food, make a living, and otherwise practice ecological living. Excessive consumption is a poor substitute for a truthful, fully aware, knowledge filled and experience rich life. All can enjoy some luxuries, rather than some enjoying all.

Global ecological threats are intensifying — oceans lifeless, forests tattered, water scarce, and the atmosphere perhaps irreparably damaged. This occurs even as a climate change backlash builds, largely as a result of truthful apocalyptic warnings without adequate policies that go beyond greenwash responses and actually promise a hope filled solution.

Given this increased urgency and public awareness, the environmental community must espouse rigorous, sufficient polices “while the iron is hot”; and demand real actions that are sufficient to solve global ecological crises. And greenwashers beware: if you stand in the way of sufficient ecological responses to the greatest emergency of all times, you will be exposed as Earth destroying charlatans and resisted.


  • I preach to the choir but…

    Moderation = “politics as usual”, which is to say no politics, no polemic, no intervention, no change. People arrange for themselves a series of convenient and proper choices that adequately relay “concern” and “commitment” and they subsequently hit the ceiling, content that they’re doing their small parts.

    That conspicuous “environmentally-friendly” consumption is alleged to be political is perhaps the most problematic aspect of the green/sustainable-technology discourse and the constellation of lifestyle-oriented “green choices”. This paradigm ultimately depends on the same social and political economic mechanisms, processes, flows, and relations that have left us so swamped with fall-out. Why would we trust or endorse a system that has wrought damage, degradation, and demise?

  • Glen mentions some environmentalists promote moderate, insufficient changes because they believe that’s the best we can hope for. I meet those folks every day. They tell me, “Better to make a little headway than occupy an extreme position that gets no traction whatsoever.”

    My response: Imagine what we might accomplish if we all got together on the side of the truth! Practical environmentalists accomplish a lot of good out there, but they also do a great disservice to the planet when they refuse to stand up for the honest truth about what needs to be done. We are dividing and conquering ourselves!

    If you set mediocre goals, you can expect – at best – mediocre results.

    Dave Gardner
    Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity