Green Gone Wrong

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Why cash register solutions to ecological destruction fail again and again

Heather Rogers. Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy Is Undermining the Environmental Revolution. Scribner, 2010, 256 pages

reviewed by Amy Muldoon
Socialist Worker (US) July 21, 2010

The beauty of capitalism lies in its seductive ability to manufacture needs and fulfill them just long enough until a new need comes along to replace it.

It also creates true needs by the very fact of its instability and destruction. Incredibly, it has managed at particular times in history to attempt to fulfill the need to rebel against and reject capitalism itself with clever product placement. Oldsmobile’s famous “Not your father’s Oldsmobile” slogan embodied the strategy of advertisers to commodify the rebelliousness of the ’60s generation and sell it back to them on the open market.

Today, the looming destruction of the environment is creating a pressing need for solutions, but again, capitalism approaches the problem as one of how to sell the most products to the most people. Behind the façade of protecting the environment, the same rapacious logic that has brought the biosphere to the brink continues to operate — but is now being brought home in reusable bags.

Heather Rogers, who has truly earned the title “muckraker” after her exhaustive examination of garbage in her first book Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, returns to test the green credentials of the would-be saviors claiming that the solution to ecological meltdown can be found on the shelf of your local free market showroom.

Green Gone Wrong: How our Economy is Undermining the Environmental Revolution is a powerful rebuttal to this assertion.

Excellently researched through firsthand reporting, by turns infuriating and heartbreaking, and refreshingly respectful of the millions of working-class people who are seen by many environmentalists as the problem, Green Gone Wrong points to the large-scale nature of the problem and the need for systematic solutions.

Like in Gone Tomorrow, Rogers depicts consumers as being in the passenger seat of the market; it is industrial producers who are doing the driving.

Even when there is proven demand — as for the Volt electric car — manufacturers will pull the plug if projected profit margins are not high enough. In fact, it was competition from Toyota, whose hybrid Prius shocked the industry by generating waiting lists in its first years, that drove U.S. auto producers into the field of hybrids, not any moral commitment to green values.

And when the market does move to meet the “ethical” consumer choices of shoppers, its methods of meeting demand often violate the goals those shoppers profess. In perhaps the most horrifying section of the book, Rogers’ investigation of Wholesome Sweeteners’ organic sugar plantations in Paraguay shows how industrial logic has transformed “organic” into a meaningless brand.

The production of sugar, a tropical cash crop with a bloody history tied to colonization, slavery and genocide, continues this tradition under the organic banner by driving massive deforestation of the Amazonian rainforest.

The Upper Paraná Atlantic Forest “once carpeted about 100 million acres, an area comprising eastern Paraguay and crossing into Brazil and Argentina,” Rogers writes. “Today just 8 percent of the primary Upper Paraná ecosystem remains.” While cattle, wheat and soy have contributed to the deforestation, the fastest growing-sector today is organic sugar — the same brand marketed by Whole Foods and used by Silk soymilk.

While Rogers’ exposure of the cynical and often outright dishonest green capitalists is vindicating, she asserts that these issues are ultimately not about individual choices. They reflect the balance of power between a demobilized population and an aggressive industrial class, which frames how change can really come about.

Her study of eco-architecture not only illustrates how practical a transformation of housing — including existing housing — using energy-saving materials and systems could be, but why it has been happening in Germany.

Rogers places the movement to make shelter more energy efficient in the context of the successful fights against nuclear power that began in the 1980’s and accelerated after the Chernobyl nuclear plant meltdown. This popular movement and the development of the Green Party as a national force have effectively contributed to a more vigorous (albeit still insufficient) national commitment to reducing energy use.

Participation and struggle might seem like the harder road, but Rogers hammers the hypocrisy of elites preaching that we could shop our way free of ecocide:

We live in a time of curtailed democracy in which average citizens are implored to “Vote with our wallet,” rather than truly participate in the process of being citizens… In the United States, the top 20 percent of Americans own 85 percent of the wealth, and globally, the scales are tipped even further. So we can vote with our wallets all we want, but the people with the most money — precisely those who lavishly benefit from a system built on ransacking nature — will inevitably control the most votes.

Only through challenging the social structures that create and maintain inequality can the devastation of the environment be stopped and reversed.

Looking at the situation through the lens of Rogers’ writing, the sorry state of both our environment and our environmentalism (which is so saturated with consumerism that Wal-Mart claims to be one of America’s greenest companies) is neither surprising nor paralyzing. Instead of a continuous movement and an independent party committed to ecological preservation, we have unprincipled lobbyists and the Democratic Party.

Capitalism has been on a tear worldwide for 40 years, and the cost is more evident than ever. That capitalists and the government are forced to acknowledge, if not meaningfully address, the crisis shows that pro-environment sentiment is growing.

Green Gone Wrong is a timely contribution to advancing this sentiment into political action far from the cash register. It is required reading for anyone seduced by the siren song of socially responsible capitalism — and a potent weapon against the notion that somewhere an environmentally friendly ethical position exists in the free market.


  • Well, Christine, the local food I buy here in Toronto is mostly produced by unsustainable, industrialized methods of agriculture, and is transported to my urban neighbourhood by using fossil fuels. I cook it myself, but I have to use energy that is non-renewable and produced by planet-destroying technologies.

    This is the frustration I was talking about. I can’t just jump off of the capitalist treadmill and exist outside of the system. And even if I somehow could, the system would carry on without me, destroying the planet anyway.

    We have to work to get rid of the capitalist system, not walk away from it.

  • If increasing numbers of people stopped looking for answers and possible actions WITHIN the capitalist, consummer system and simply refused to take part, wouldn’t we have a huge impact? Stop buying stuff! Change your world view. Buy local food and cook it yourself. Give up manufactured cleaning supplies, cosmetics, the latest gadget, unnecessary purchases, fads and fashions. Figure out what is truely necessary. If a global corporation is selling it, it probebly isn’t sustainable.

    Refuse to measure value with money. Seek out and recognize value that doesn’t have a price tag.

    Stop using up the world’s resources! Change the way you live on the planet. “Green” purchases will not fix the planet. It is not possible to save the environment while maintaining our wasteful, unsustainable, greedy, capitalist lifestyle.

  • “I guess I get frustated by no matter what I do there is something wrong with it.”

    Natalie, I think all of us often feel that same frustration as we repeatedly run up against the realization that changing our lifestyle and consumer habits is not going to be sufficient to counter the enormously powerful forces of nature and society that we are up against.

    Our ways of thinking and the options we have available for action are all constrained by the system we live under – the same system that’s causing the problems we want to solve. We need to think and act beyond those constraints if we are to have any hope of halting the destruction of our biosphere.

    I think that’s what books like Green Gone Wrong are trying to do.

  • I have seen this book at my local bookstore and still have not decided to purchase it. I guess I get frustated by no matter what I do there is something wrong with it. I wish that people would start having decentralization discussions. Perhaps I will pick up this book,in the meantime I am reading “Soil not oil” by Vandanna Shiva. Food issues are an excellant way for people to realize how insane capitlism is.