“Green is a trend and people go with trends. ... I don’t think people know the real facts.”
These words of a green consumer reported in The New York Times last year echo what we see everywhere: environmentalism has become trendy, and green fashion is all the rage.
From plaques on the sides of “green” buildings, to bright green reusable grocery bags and hybrid cars, the evidence is everywhere. People like to publicly proclaim their concern for the planet, politicians prominently highlight their latest green proposals and business owners promote environmentally friendly products — while each seeks to reap social and financial rewards in the process.
Lost in the rise of these eco-fads is an honest assessment of whether these actions are actually helping the planet, or just making us feel better about ourselves.
• Witness Washington state’s requirement that new schools meet “green” standards. The Legislature’s auditing agency this year found most “green” schools use more energy than non-green schools.
• Consider King County Metro’s program to buy soy-based biofuel for their buses. The agency dropped the program after managers found the fuel may actually increase air pollution.
• Take politicians in Seattle and Olympia proclaiming a commitment to reduce carbon emissions, even as they admit those emissions are increasing faster than the national average.
Perhaps most surprising is that buying locally to reduce “food miles” often doesn’t help the environment. Consider this simple example. It is less efficient to ship Yakima hay to cows in King County so Seattleites can buy “local” milk than to leave the hay in Yakima with the cows and ship the milk. Calculating food miles in this instance misleads about the real environmental impact. Why is there such a consistent disconnect between environmental promises and real environmental results?
The reason these approaches fail is simple. Too many of today’s environmental policies are designed primarily to create a green image — not to deliver environmental results. A number of recent studies show how powerful the emotional benefits of looking green really are.
A study involving Seattle and Boulder, Colo., found people were willing to pay thousands of dollars more for a Prius than other hybrids due to its distinctive “green” appearance and style. Another study by J.D. Power and Associates found the No. 1 reason people said they buy hybrids is “what it says about me.”
We should not begrudge anyone for benefiting from decisions that truly help the environment. The problem arises when emotionally satisfying decisions do not actually help the environment. Do we admit our mistakes, losing the good feeling we gained by appearing green, or do we reject the data and jealously guard our carefully built green self-image?
As anyone who has hiked, fished, sailed or cares about wildlife can attest, real concern for the environment is not a fad. So why treat environmental policies like an impulse buy at the supermarket — indulging a desire to publicly demonstrate our green credentials?
Too often the choice made by politicians and green consumers is to reject science and stick with failed, but trendy, environmental fads. The very trendiness that increased awareness about environmental problems is now one of the chief obstacles to making science-based, rational assessments of environmental policy.
This need not be the case. We must recognize that chasing a trendy green image undermines our ability to make sound environmental decisions.
If we obstinately refuse to change failed policies, however, we harm the environment. At a time of tight budgets, continuing to pour scarce resources into failed policies squanders opportunities to improve water quality, protect wildlife habitat and improve energy efficiency.
Politicians, businesses and activists see eco-fads as an opportunity to reap the rewards of cultivating a green image. Unfortunately, eco-fads are now the biggest obstacle to making real environmental progress.
Todd Myers is environmental director at the Washington Policy Center and author of “Eco-Fads: How the rise of trendy environmentalism is harming the environment.” Learn more at washingtonpolicy.org and eco-fads.org.