Stephanie Chok / Perth, Australia
As millions around the world celebrate Earth Day, Stephanie Chok asks if the green movement could do with an Earth-shaking boost of revolutionary red.
Should an ‘eco-mall’ be celebrated if it’s constructed by an army of underpaid workers? What if an ‘environment-friendly’ resort is built on land acquired by displacing local villagers? Are toxin-free ‘green’ products becoming exclusive ‘eco-labels’ only the wealthy can afford? As the Earth aches under our mindless abuse, it is critical to adopt green values. But in promoting eco-mindfulness, how are we dealing with the ever-challenging question of equity? Equity relates to fairness and should include notions of eco (‘green’) as well as social (‘red’) justice. For those that ask why it should matter, here is a counter-question: What are the likely consequences of not integrating green and red values?
Wanted: Hormone-free milk for my organic fair-trade coffee
One newspaper columnist in the UK termed it ‘supermarket apartheid’, a situation where well-heeled greenies in sweatshop-free apparel fill baskets with organic juice, biodynamic yoghurt, spray-free berries, hormone-free milk and phosphate-free detergent. In the meantime, sniffing around the bargain bins are working class families, who buy additive-laden, heavily-processed bulk foods with longer shelf lives – exotic fruit is a luxury, much less of the organic variety. Clothing the family means an outing to the nearest discount chain store, with the irony being that such garments are often stitched by individuals as undervalued as they are.
The apocalyptic vision of the world’s rich retreating to exclusive eco-heavens while the poor choke in toxic slums may appear exaggerated at present but its rumblings cannot be ignored. In the United States, heated debates continue over environmental racism, a situation where people of color disproportionately bear the brunt of pollution and environmental decay. Concern over climate change exacerbates this, for negative environmental impacts create uneven burdens. Wealthy people, for one, have more choices about where they live. They can choose not to live next to toxic waste sites or areas prone to floods and landslides.
Affluent communities are also better able to prevent unwanted pollution through better access to powerful decision-makers. Resource scarcity or the privatization of public goods is less of an issue because the rich can afford to pay higher prices for utilities like water and electricity. While natural disasters like typhoons and tsunamis can indiscriminately affect families rich or poor, post-disaster recovery is qualitatively different for those with resources to rebuild their lives safely and others who end up environmental refugees, living hand-to-mouth indefinitely and reliant on disaster relief efforts, which are often short-term.
It’s important to qualify the following. I believe ethical consumerism is an important political responsibility. Producers and retailers who adopt Earth-friendly production methods should be fairly rewarded, as should the people who harvest the fruit, package the products and stack our supermarket shelves – there is nothing wrong with charging more for a product that costs more to produce. There is also little use in paralyzing relatively wealthy people in industrialized countries with guilt over their privileged status.
Our current pattern of resource-intensive growth is marked by inequities between and within countries. The problem is that those who benefit the most from this arrangement often respond with denial and defensiveness. This does little to nurture creative problem solving and continues to promote misleading myths, a key one being that we have greater consumer choice now and can shop our way to a greener future.
Can we shop our way out of an eco-disaster?
Grocery shopping as an ‘ethical consumer’ can be mind-boggling, involving a maddening maze of eco-calculations – product source, travel miles, mode of travel, mode of production, processing and packaging. There are other intersecting ethical considerations as well, such as working conditions and the treatment of animals along the product supply chain. Labeling (organic, fair-trade, sweatshop-free, hormone-free, paraben-free, petroleum-free etc.) is meant to guide consumers and distinguish ‘ethical’ products from mainstream options (by default, now marked ‘unethical’). However, labeling standards are uneven and the auditing process contested.
Moreover, exercising consumer ‘might’ is not as easy as it seems. In a typical large supermarket, shelves bulge with different types of products (tea in different flavors, coffee of varying strengths, shampoos for all hair types). Yet if one attempted to boycott companies indicted for ‘corporate crimes’ involving environmental scandals, human rights abuses, animal testing, price-fixing, producer bullying and public health violations, it would be near impossible to fill that basket. Peeved with Nestle? You may have passed on Nescafe but buy Perrier water, Movenpick ice-cream or Maggi stock cubes and you are contributing to Nestle’s profits. Not a fan of Procter and Gamble? You can forget about buying Cover Girl make-up, Duracell batteries, Gillette shaving cream, Metamucil and Pringles chips.
In a popular supermarket chain in Singapore, a 900g tin of organic milk powder costs $52 while a mainstream label of equivalent size sells for $12. Want to drink organic fresh milk that does not have antibiotics or synthetic hormones? You’ll have to pay $9.95 for a 946ml pack – or choose ‘normal’ milk for $3. If you had $8.90, you could purchase 250g of organic butter or 25 organic Earl Grey tea bags or two organic lemons. This is not a shopping list low-income families or pensioners can afford.
While many people who can afford it may not buy such products anyway, the central concern is the growing gap between those who can choose and those for whom such ‘choices’ verge on unthinkable. Buying toxin-free, pesticide-free, cruelty-free produce and products is not just a greener choice, it is also a choice to reject chemical suicide. Once it becomes clear what really goes into our food and how it is processed, who wouldn’t want to, if they could afford it, choose safer, healthier and more nutritious options? As environmental consciousness continues to grow, what would be the consequences of some people being better positioned to act while others, despite having developed an eco-conscience, are unable to live by such principles due to economic lack.
Acknowledging serious equity differentials diminishes the tendency for smugness – that is, the notion that we should be applauded for making greener choices. It is incumbent upon us collectively, and more so those of us living in relative financial privilege, to understand the consequences and obligations of such privilege. What then, are we doing with our political position, purchasing power and technological prowess? Where are we putting our money, voices, energies and talents?
Calling for an eco-lution
In a global order marked by gross inequalities, democracy is fundamental in our battle to protect and restore a ravaged ecosystem. Environmental justice requires a radical paradigm shift in the way we consume, travel, work and play. There will be many, most notably those with much to lose from this arrangement, who will resist such shifts. While making better consumer and lifestyle choices are important efforts with positive effects, we need to recognize that we are more than self-interested consumers. People power must extend beyond the till for we need to revolutionize industries as well as consumption patterns.
As Rachel Carson asks in her landmark book, Silent Spring, “Have we fallen into a mesmerized state that makes us accept as inevitable that which is inferior or detrimental, as though having lost the will or the vision to demand that which is good?” Continuing, Carson quotes ecologist Paul Shepard, who believes such thinking “idealizes life with only its head out of water, inches above the limits of toleration of the corruption of its own environment… Why should we tolerate a diet of weak poisons, a home in insipid surroundings, a circle of acquaintances who are not quite our enemies, the noise of motors with just enough relief to prevent insanity? Who would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?”
To that I would add, why should we tolerate ‘spin’ rather than action from well-resourced companies and governments? Why do we continue to innovate for profit rather than well-being? Why this pressure to compete rather than co-operate? Who would want to live in a world bursting with ‘stuff’ yet craving for wholeness? On Earth Day, let us reflect, deeply and collectively, on where we have erred and how we can restore and demand, with firmness and integrity, that which is pure and good – for the Earth and all its inhabitants.
Read, watch, equip, investigate, educate, challenge, debate, ACT! Some links to get you started:
The New Internationalist: http://www.newint.org/
The Change Agency: http://www.thechangeagency.org/
The Story of Stuff: http://www.storyofstuff.com/
Slow Food: http://www.slowfood.com/
Guerilla Gardening: http://www.guerrillagardening.org/
The Ecologist: http://www.theecologist.org/index.asp
Carson, Rachel. 1962. Silent Spring. Penguin: UK.