What do we lose when it’s economy vs ideology?

I was reading an article this morning about how ‘greenies’ span all income brackets, and that being green was about reducing costs.   It got me thinking: when we reduce the green movement to how to save money, what do we lose?

I’ve struggled with this concept for awhile.  I concentrated on Environmental Policy during my Master’s degree, and I ended up in classes with people who viewed environmental issues from an economic perspective only.  And then there’s me, who shuns all economics unless necessary for me to come into contact with it.  It was too opposing viewpoints, yet both believed that they were striving toward the same goal: a more sustainable world.

So which is better? Convincing people to go green because of the money it can save works.  Give people the numbers on how much they spend on bottled water versus how much the one time cost of a reusuable bottle plus tap water, and you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t change (arguments about the ‘taste’ of water excluded).  Especially in these times, saving money is a plus; each and every penny counts. 

But in making the modern green movement about saving money, do we also ensure that people’s attraction to being green will end with the recession? Or that it can’t possibly reach those in the upper classes of society?  It loses some of the permanency or urgency that is necessary to propel the movement forward.

There has to be some kind of ideological back up to pitching sustainability based on economy.  We can’t just leave it at ‘you’re saving hundreds of dollars per year by not using bottled water.’ I think we run the risk of making being unsustainable a marker of success — the mentality that if I am rich enough I don’t have to be sustianable and count my pennies. I’ve written about this before, in the context of reusuable bags, but you can see it in anything.  Gas prices are ridiculously high, yet suburbanites and urbanites alike still drive gas-guzzling Hummers.  Cutting the tie between the economy and ideology of being sustainable means cutting out the meaning of the action. It becomes a façade or a shadow of something powerful.

How do we make the modern green movement about more than just numbers? I think the key is to always be connecting with the larger context.  The slow food movement is great at this — the goal there is so reconnect people with where their food comes from, with the idea that if people know where their food is coming from, they will be more discerning consumers.  This is what the sustainability/green movement needs to do as well.  We need to connect with where our trash goes, where our energy comes from, and what makes our common products.  That’s what goes missing when green-washing and consumer driven sustainable are allowed to be the sole voices of sustainability. 

Being green is about making lasting changes to the way we live our lives.  Reducing ‘being green’ to how much money we can save cuts out the impact that those actions have on everyone — it reiterates that we live in an individual society where my actions only affect me.  One of the strengths of the green movement is that is has the ability to bring communities together.  Farmer’s Markets, car shares, community gardens — all of these reduce the impact on the environment, but also encourage community interaction,  something that seems to be slowly dying in our society.  And making ‘greenies’ out to be just money saving consumers, ignores that component of the movement. 

We lose the nuances and the forward motion if we reduce sustainability to just economics.  My former classmates’ views about the pricing of water were valid, and important, and altered the way I think about a ‘solution’ to water problems.  But without the ideological component to fuel those solutions, without being centered on the ultimate goal of changing the way people live and interact with their environment, those solutions will fail, as they have before. 

So when I explain to people why they shouldn’t throw out that plastic bottle, I include not only how much they are spending on a new one, but also that there is are giant mound of plastic bottles waiting to be incinerated or buried because there are just too many plastic bottles used to recycle all of them.  And of course those mounds are on lands that could be used for agriculture by some of the poorest in the world.  Economy plus context can equal a powerful movement.

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