Max Darnell, 2013


                Remember the mantra that was drilled into us when we were little, that lasting nugget of influence that the Earth Day generation had on society? The timeless Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. It’s been years since the phrase’s induction, so let’s examine how we’re doing. Judging by the number of recycling bins colorfully dotting curbsides, Recycling is going strong and heading in the right direction. How about Reusing or, what has become the more trendy term, ‘upcycling’? I’d say it’s catching on as well, citing the ability of remarkably enterprising individuals to turn old light bulbs into miniskirts or toothbrushes. What about the very first term of the mantra, Reducing? Frankly, it depends. By improving Recycling and Reusing, we have entered into the age of a strange new Green consumer culture that simultaneously motivates and undermines efforts to Reduce and subsequently make society more environmentally friendly.

                Let me start by acknowledging the benefits of this Green consumer culture. First of all, Green products, especially high-end or designer ones, drive the trend towards more eco-friendly practices across the spectrum. For example, take the Fisker or Tesla high-end electric cars. Is the goal of these ventures to put one of these electric speedsters in every garage and electrify the fleet? Not for now at least, but by making an electric car sexy, it helps to erase the stigma that they are “sissy,” which ultimately benefits lower-end electric cars.

                One could rightly argue that Green products which are Reusable or Recyclable  satisfy our first ‘R’ by Reducing waste. This point is well made and completely necessary, but it is only half of the story. The truth of the matter is that every product has an end. Therefore, Reducing is not just a matter of minimizing what leaves, but also what we take in. And so, treasured reader, we are faced with the tragic irony that our new seemingly beneficial Green consumer culture is still exactly that: a consumer culture. That idyllic culture that was born out of 1950′s suburbia, replete with Wonderbread, ranch houses and superhighways is still alive and well. Even if we have exchanged our Impalas for Priuses, Wonderbread for organic flax loaves, and our ranch houses for modernist reclaimed-lumber homes, maybe a better testament to the right ideal would be bike lanes, kale, and tiny houses.

                Even the exalted Toyota Prius is not immune from scrutiny. The hallmark hybrid boasts only three and a half tons of CO2 emissions annually as opposed to the national average of six and a half, but hybrid cars actually have a larger manufacturing carbon footprint than non-hybrids. I’m not going to argue against the fuel economy of the Prius, but many are choosing to purchase brand new cars in order to reap these benefits, without making the corresponding changes in their driving habits. While these cars are surely a step in the right direction, drivers must ask themselves how much less CO2 is emitted if they walk or cycle the half mile to the coffee shop instead of drive. I’d put my feet up against the Prius any day.

                Another example involves products that use natural materials, such as wood, and grace ironic lists for “Green Gift Ideas.” Although the use of wood reduces the demand for non-degrading plastics, a tree somewhere was cut down for that product. Forestation is still arguably our best barrier against rising greenhouse gas emissions which illustrates the point that, depending on the metric used, “Green” products can quickly lose their luster.

                Don’t get me wrong. It is easy to understand why we have fallen victim to this trap. Do I want a drool-worthy all-bamboo watch? Yes, please. But at the same time, I can easily convince myself otherwise by considering the question of whether I need a new drool-worthy all-bamboo watch. Of course, we need those enterprising up-cyclers, wood-reclaiming designers and mossy-footed trumpeters to extract the benefits of our Green consumerism and advocate, but what’s the old saying… “Products is products”? Our Green consumer culture could use a healthy transformation into a Post-consumer culture.

                So let’s start to Reflect on our intake, Reduce our purchasing and, if you’ll allow me to humiliate the hackneyed “footprint” metaphor, tip-toe instead.

Max Darnell is a PhD candidate studying Bioengineering at Harvard University.