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Interview with "Green Gone Wrong" Author Heather Rogers

Am Johal, August 17, 2010

Heather Rogers.

Brooklyn-based author and filmmaker Heather Rogers' latest book, Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy Is Undermining the Environmental Revolution, takes a critical, on-the-ground look at popular market-based solutions to ecological destruction. Rogers has spoken internationally on the environmental effects of mass consumption and is a senior fellow at the progressive U.S. think tank Demos.

Am Johal: In your first book, Gone Tomorrow: the Life of Garbage, you took a hard look at how we discard our waste and what happens to it. How did you approach this topic and what made you pursue this as an interest? What is your critique of recycling?

Heather Rogers: I started writing the book, got interested in it, because I not only wanted to know what happened to garbage, but also about the things we discard and where it goes. It's a system where waste disappears when we throw it away and it disappears when we recycle it into a bin. I wanted to shed some light on that. I also wanted to pursue the question of what happens after that. I wanted to know why we have so much garbage and why we've come to accept high levels of disposability, toxicity, and what that does to us psychologically, economically, emotionally—that's what the book is ultimately about.

My critique of recycling is basically that recycling deals with the problem of waste after it's been created. It enables a mass production system that's reliant on wasting to continue essentially unaltered. … Recycling is good to do. I recycle. But to imagine that somehow it will address the deeper, larger environmental problems that we face is bordering on delusional.

AJ: In your books, you look at the social and environmental impacts of consumerism. Here in Vancouver, the city has been rebranded as "Green Capital"—referring to the city as an incubator of green business and green jobs. Your book would be quite critical of this approach. What is your chief critique of consumerism and how it impacts sustainability?

HR: There is a connection between this critique of recycling and my latest book because it really comes out of that same analysis. We're told that this thing will work that is not effective. It's not completely ineffective, but it's nowhere near what we need to be doing—it's disproportionate. We are told this is how we can fix it. We can use the mechanisms of the market to fix environmental crises. I wanted to go into that a little further. When I was doing talks, almost everywhere I spoke—in the U.S., Canada, the U.K.—at least one person would say, "What if we bought the right products, won't all of this fall into place and work out?" So Green Gone Wrong is an attempt to unpack that. … How can we solve the problems created by mass consumption and mass production with more mass consumption and more mass production? It didn't make sense to me.

Once of the things I learned is that there's the promise in green consumerism and green capitalism that if we just demand green products, that will force our economy from being a dirty one to a clean one. There is this logic that we will have to start making green products. These are very efficient levers in the economy that manufacturers will have to start making changes, but it ignores the underlying logic of capitalism and its need for growth. If it comes from extracting ever more resources from nature, consuming ever more products so that we buy more, we will be ultimately wasting those resources. That's what keeps capitalism healthy. If we continue to have an economic system that needs for us to waste, we won't get to meaningful environmental sustainability.

AJ: The science around climate change was settled in 70s. It's taken 30 years for Al Gore to get around to doing his PowerPoint presentation a few years back. In terms of this crisis, the signs are everywhere—from ice caps melting to many other impacts on biodiversity and species extinction. You looked at biofuels and carbon credits in your book Green Gone Wrong and were critical of them. What are the things happening globally that you find the most inspiring, and what are the myths out there that are holding things back?

HR: One of the really fundamental barriers is the idea that we can buy our way to environmental responsibility. Carbon credits is a perfect example of that. You can go to a website and buy credits to offset and neutralize your carbon footprint from an airplane flight. The idea, the very language of it—"offset my carbon now"—that's problematic. The carbon is not offset now. The carbon is offset potentially decades into the future. There are so many links in the chain. Does the money make it there? Does the project actually get implemented? Is it successful? What are the unintended consequences of it? What is the time frame? If it goes into tree planting, depending on the lifespan of the trees, it could take 30 or 50 years or 100 years. There's no way of truly eliminating carbon. You can't wipe it out. While we are waiting for this carbon we're emitting today to be absorbed in the future, it doesn't bring down emissions today. That's what we need. It's very misleading.

One of the projects I visited was in India where one fourth of all the world's offset projects are implemented. It was a carbon-neutral power plant. It burned organic waste. That's why it's called carbon neutral—it sounds good. You build one of those rather than a coal-fired plant because it burns organic materials. It sounds good. It's built in this impoverished farming region. Many of the people who live there are landless peasants. What is starting to happen is that the material they use for fire to do their cooking and washing is hard to access. These materials are now being sold to the power plant and now the residents have to buy firewood, which is creating a market for that firewood for people to begin cutting down trees to meet that market demand. People are now meeting that market. They are cutting down trees, which is causing financial hardship for people who now have to buy it. Another impact that's happening is that these people who are living in the region are cutting down trees for the power plant. You can't see that from your computer when you buy offsets. The impact on the local ecosystem is not accounted for. It's not on the carbon ledger that's being kept. That clearly isn't working.

AJ: Let's say you were president of the U.S. and had a majority in the Senate and the House. What two or three policies would you implement that would move the environmental debate in a large-scale manner?

HR: Right now, if Obama carries out his plans for biofuel expansion, through taxpayer money and consumer dollars, the U.S. public will have paid over $1 trillion for biofuels by 2030 according to Friends of the Earth. If that money was spent on mass transit, … renewable energy, wind, solar, geothermal on a consistent level, rather than subsidies that get put out there then pulled back in fits and starts, you could actually build an industry that would be sustainable. Those are the types of policies that need to be implemented immediately.

There are reforms and transitions that need to happen in the agriculture sphere, like taking on big oil, big agriculture and big business. Those are the most important aspects of how our societies and our economies function that need to be directly addressed: changing the Department of Agriculture to support bio-diverse farming techniques. … The government needs to give research and financial support for farmers in a bio-diverse, truly holistic manner, using methods and materials that are supporting bio-diverse ecosystems and also supporting social ecosystems that incorporate the environment and social justice objectives.

Those are the types of changes we need. If you invest in mass transit, wind, solar and geothermal energy. This energy could be used for vehicles, buildings and homes. You can develop energy for new projects. You can get electricity to power buildings and homes. You could have policies that require certain levels of energy efficiency. Implementing all of these policies is really complex. These are the conversations we need to be having.

What are the impacts of jobs? In the Gulf of Mexico, the oil is still there. If we get off oil, what impact will that have? The moratorium on deepwater drilling affected 6-8,000 jobs and has knock-on affects in that region. People who are shrimpers and have oyster farms are outraged, mad at Obama for the moratorium, even though their own livelihoods have been destroyed by the spill. What are the things we need to start thinking about if we are going to change our economy?

We need to think about how will this affect the labor force. We need to build organizational structures that can bridge that. There is a lot of lip service paid to green jobs. We are not anywhere near the kind of real infrastructure that we need to realistically, feasibly make that transition.

AJ: What are barriers to organic farmers who are working on the ground from a policy perspective? Secondly, around green vehicles, what's positive and what's your critique?

HR: In terms of farming, what's happening is that you have people farming in ecologically beneficial and sustainable ways (I hate using that word)—what's happening is that they don't have the supports to survive. I visited some small local vegetable and livestock farms in researching the book. These people sell their produce at really high prices that are exclusive. I met a vegetable farmer who sells his eggs for $14 a dozen. Greens go for $40 a pound. This is not accessible to the vast majority of people. This farmer could never afford to buy the produce he sells. He basically makes $7 an hour. As an organic farmer, you have to be close to an urban center to make it financially viable. Real estate and taxes are higher closer to the city—you need more employees. Living costs are higher. More workers costs more. Workers compensation costs are then higher. You have much greater burden than if you use chemicals and machinery. If you do the traditional farming, you have access to low-interest loans and crop insurance. Alternative farmers don't have that access.

According to the latest reports, over 96 percent of funding is used for traditional growing and only about 4 percent for supporting organic and bio-diverse farming. They're not getting the kinds of support they need. If you are an organic farmer, you're really on your own.

When big companies like General Foods, Walmart and Kraft start promoting organic foods, you don't see a transformation of what is sustainable, but a transformation of what is considered organic.

In South America, organic foods are grown for export to the U.S. and Europe. I went to a sugar plantation in Paraguay. It was an organic sugar plantation, which supplies one third of organic sugar to the U.S. To meet the demand, they are expanding their land, which is encroaching on a tropical forest. They don't have land that is being farmed using chemicals and burning. That's still going on. What you have is clearing of new land to meet market demand for organic. That's not what people have in mind when they look for the organic seal. It's not ecologically sound.

AJ: Anything else?

HR: One of the things is that market capitalism can bring about a lot of innovations, but can also stifle innovation. It can create barriers to give people access to what they want. In the realm of green vehicles, the U.S. is notorious for having gas guzzlers on its roads. Ford makes the Fiesta, which it sells in the U.K., seats five people. It gets 74 miles per gallon. But the version in the States is half as fuel-efficient. So we have technological innovation. We have so much technology. It can always be improved. What's keeping us from having it? We are waiting for these companies to figure out how to make it more profitable. That's not acceptable. That's reckless and bizarre.

One of the things about getting to better environmental health is that it's not a product we can buy, it has be to be a process. You can't just be a shopper. There is a saying that you vote by shopping. But shopping isn't voting. Shopping is shopping. We have to see ourselves as more than shoppers but as critical thinkers with agency.

We can start to use our political agency and participate in a way that makes sense to us, be critical thinkers about what's going on. How can we participate? What can we do? We can't view the environmental crisis separately from the economic system or from the political systems. To deal with the environmental, economic and political framework we need to look at it from a new perspective. Green capitalism is problematic because how can you continue to have an economy based on growth? Can you continue to have an economy based on growth that is based on being green? I don't think you can. You have to separate out growth from the quest for profit. We have to separate that out from development. How can we still have good livelihoods and a good standard of living? We can still have a creating, sustaining economy. As political actors, we can start by making decisions that differentiate between definitions of human well-being.

Heather Rogers' website is http://heatherrogers.info.

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