20 Jul
2021

In a time of crisis, Tony Carnie looks at how green the world really is.

You have to be quite nimble to avoid tripping over the mountains of green bottles, green straws, green plastic bags and all manner of “green” hogwash mushrooming from the fertile minds of corporate spin doctors. But it is no longer quite as crass as the 50s-era newspaper adverts in which cute babies, smiling nurses or doctors in white coats were used to promote cigarette brands like Lucky Strike, Marlboro or Camel.

Instead, we now have terms like “clean gas”, “clean coal” or “100% recyclable” to sanitise the many projects and products which heat up the world or add to the piles of trash clogging up the land, sea and rivers.

Greenwashing is a term coined in the United States in the mid-1980s to describe the proliferation of feel-good propaganda campaigns designed to counter mounting public concern around the fossil fuel industry, global heating, junk food, packaging and whatnot.

In simple terms, bucketloads of green paint were splashed about liberally, not just to camouflage dirty or dubious processes, but also to boost consumer sales.

In 2009, McDonald’s outlets in several parts of Europe changed the colour of their logos from yellow and red to yellow and green “to clarify McDonald’s responsibility for the preservation of natural resources”.

New names were invented, or modified.

The Chemical Manufacturers’ Association – mouthpiece for America’s chemical and plastic corporations – changed its name in 2000 to the American Chemistry Council.

“Council” has quite a nice ring to it, suggestive of a credible and impartial government agency, rather an industry lobby group hawking its wares and influence.

A year later, the pesticides and plant poisons industry group (known originally as the International Group of National Associations of Manufacturers of Agrochemical Products) transmogrified into “Croplife”, partly to shed some of the baggage associated with unfortunate events such as the Bhopal pesticide gas disaster and controversies around toxic formulations like DDT, 2.4D or lindane.

The new title and tagline – Representing The Plant Science Industry – also reflected the industry’s growing diversification and emerging monopoly in the arena of genetically-modified crops.

British Petroleum also commissioned a nice new green and gold sunflower logo and sought to reinvent itself as the “Beyond Petroleum” energy group.

Closer to home, Eskom and government energy mandarins now speak of “clean coal” and “carbon sequestration” (burying carbon emissions under the sea or in a remote spot of rural land near the Mozambique borderline).

Several companies and investors exploring for new deposits of “clean gas” in some of South Africa’s richest water catchment areas have been very careful to avoid the new F-word, lest this should alert vigilant farmers and public busy-bodies.

That’s why you seldom see the word “fracking” spelt out in black and white in exploration proposals. Instead, the threat of underground rocks being fractured apart with high-pressure jets of water, sand and chemicals is likely to be described as “well stimulation” or “horizontal drilling”.

Tracey Davies, an attorney and executive director of the shareholder activism group Just Share, notes that “natural gas” is made up of 95% methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than CO².

Davies, who prefers to use the term” fossil gas” says it is remarkable how seldom we see even the most superficial interrogation of the truth or accuracy of gas-related pronouncements.

“This is particularly concerning because almost everyone who touts gas as a ‘game-changer’ has a vested interest in gas-focused policy developments.”

She argues that there is no space left in the global carbon budget for new fossil fuel projects, especially for a country with existing high carbon emissions.

But surely industry and corporations alone cannot be blamed for the mess we are in – are we not all to blame as consumers?

Danielle Laity of the Aurora Sustainability network in Cape Town suggests that consumers have more power than they think. “It’s people who have purchasing power, people who impact regulation and people who drive organisations and cities. As consumers, we can set the pace for change.

“When each individual changes their consumption patterns, we are collectively able to influence companies to change their production patterns to more sustainable methods and outputs. But this requires more individuals realising that the collective ‘we’ have a lot of power in keeping these industries in check.”

As an example, she quotes a recent Unilever group which showed that its “most sustainable brands” grew 46% faster than the rest of the business and delivered 70% of its turnover growth.

By the end of 2017, 56% of Unilever’s agricultural raw materials were reported to have been sustainably sourced, while the PG Tips brand recently introduced fully biodegradable tea bags.

This all sounds very nice of course. But it simplifies the bigger picture and the mammoth ecological crisis of the Anthropocene era.

Redesigning tea bags may go some way to reducing the volume of microscopic plastic fibres in the air and in seafood. Redesigning industries to reduce waste, energy and water is also crucial – but ultimately there are now too many people and too many companies depleting and destroying the resources of a finite planet.

There is no easy 10-step guide to saving the world. It’s fantastic to “do our little bit”, but quick, cosmetic solutions won’t make any measurable difference to reversing the current scale of rampant destruction.

If you type the search term “World Population Clock” into your Google browser you will get some idea of just how fast humanity is multiplying.

Last time I looked, the clock had whizzed past the 7 856 000 000 mark (that’s nearly eight billion people compared to one billion people just 200 years ago). Now imagine the cost of feeding eight children instead of one.

The idea of curbing the growth of the world’s human population (and rampant consumption) remains a hugely taboo subject, with some critics suggesting it is founded on racism, or an attempt by rich consumer nations to shift the blame to the poor.

Sadly, we are all in the same boat. The inconvenient truth is that we have to find ways to fly less, drive less, buy less and breed less while we navigate a very difficult path back to the future.

In his courageous papal encyclical Laudato Si’ published in 2015, Catholic Pope Francis put it this way:

Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand.

Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us. Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational.

This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit. 

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply