Sunday, June 10, 2007

Conspicuous consumption

I read an article/interview this weekend about the founder of “Treehugger.com,” Graham Hill and I was struck by how consumption had become a high art, an almost religious adherence to “eco-friendly” consumption rituals. It is a triumph of style over substance.
The article was a fawning account of a typical “day in the life” of an “eco-warrior.”
Included were all the mundane details, from sipping his “fair trade” coffee to properly using the restroom---repeat this mantra: “if it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.”
His website, Treehugger.com is chock full of ideas on how to “green” your life. As far as I can tell--- at the end of the day it is best accomplished by purchasing and using “green” products, which works out nicely if you are hawking space to advertisers that want to target this affluent and guilt ridden bunch of city dwelling, nature worshippers.
At the end of the day, what is Graham's great contribution to society—what qualifies Graham to teach everyone how to “go green”? Among other things, he designed a coffee cup a few years ago! Well, not really a unique design…he made a ceramic version of the popular paper disposable cup. But now he spends his time pursuing social entrepreneurship, encouraging sustainability, buzzword buzzword buzzword…. And when he is not hawking his nifty knock off coffee cup, he spends his time brainstorming ways to get people from thinking to doing. I know, let that marinate for a moment—it’s really eco-deep.
I don’t know why I reflexively find this eco-preening so off-putting; I’m sure it’s proof of one of my many character flaws.
I have nothing against trying to “save the planet,” I just think that our time and efforts might be better spent saving lives, or helping others, or addressing famine, pestilence, hunger, or providing clean drinking water and shelter for the neediest among us.
In the time it took to read this, (if anyone bothered) 2 or 3 more African children died of malaria. Why? If you track back far enough, an American environmentalist wrote a fictionalized book about the effects of DDT on the food chain and successfully lobbied the US gov’t to prevent companies from using DDT to kill mosquitoes. Of course, American children aren’t dying of malaria from mosquitoes because we used DDT to kill all the mosquitoes and we continue to use pesticides to kill mosquitoes, but our recommendation for Africa? Put up a net while you sleep and hope they don’t bite you. (the nets are about 10 bucks each--or roughly 2 weeks salary)
But all the eco-warriors can sleep soundly, knowing that they are saving the planet by buying their vegetables from farmers' markets, drinking fair trade coffee from $12 dollar ceramic cups, wearing $215 dollar organic jeans and washing their hair with $20 dollar eco-friendly shampoo.
For what it’s worth the yearly per capita income in Uganda is $250.00, just about enough to buy a couple of coffee mugs, some shampoo and some overpriced jeans. In fact, the bottom 10 least developed countries all have a per capita yearly income under $300.00 US a year.
I bet Graham Hill is one of the coolest guys you could ever meet, and that treehugger.com is a worthy and noble effort, but I can’t help but wonder if this is all an eco-sham, like the pet rocks of the 70s---we have let marketers and advertisers convince us that some products have a hidden intangible value, not because they are better or less expensive, but because they are “greener” and we pay that premium for that intangible greenness, even though we could have just bought the cheap shampoo for $1.50 and given the $18.50 that we saved to charity, I bet there is a family in Uganda that could use the money.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Children don't die in this country from malaria because we have access to health care. I agree that time could be better spent focusing on real issues, not just tree hugging. Proper access to preventative health care (and nets!), which we could provide at very little cost, would do a lot more good for Africans than giving them pesticides. Africa does need more attention and help from the whole world.

...and your point about a possible eco-sham is an interesting one.

9:34 AM  
Blogger djobe said...

I can understand the confusion, most people think that the reason children aren't dying in the S from Malaria is because of our world class health care...but the reality is that we have a world class malarial control program. The fact is that we control our mosquito populations and prevent people from being infected by preventing them from being bitten by the nasty little Anopheles vector mosquito.

read more about the history of malarial mosquito control here: don't take my word for it.

4:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's worth noting that there are a multitude of issues facing the planet (global warming pollution, povery, malaria, and many others). It doesn't seem useful to knock somoeone who is working on important issues other than the one you're focused on.

10:01 PM  

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