Green consumption and false economies - book review by Peter Aldhous, co nsultant

14/4/2010 New Scientist Magazine issue 2756 16:30 15 April 2010 I LIVE in the San Francisco Bay Area, the epicentre of smug green consumerism,where self-proclaimed environmentalists drive to wholefood shops to load their fuel-inefficient hybrid SUVs with too much organic produce. They should read Heather Rogers’s stories and weep.

Rogers travelled a long way to investigate the emerging green economy. Her destinations included supposedly organic sugar-cane plantations in Paraguay and tracts of rainforest in Borneo that are being felled to produce palm oil for biofuel.

Having flown all over the globe, Rogers did not try to salve her conscience by buying “carbon offsets”, which are supposed to negate air miles by funding tree-planting or renewable electricity projects in developing countries. When you read her account of the problems with auditing these schemes in India, you’ll understand why.

Green Gone Wrong is primarily a fast-paced travelogue, which leads to some loose ends and an uneven structure. In India, for instance, we are told that a carbon-offsetting project is “perhaps” composting ash into organic fertiliser, “but I saw no trace of it”. (Having done my share of “touristic” journalism, I’ve experienced similar difficulties: on a flying visit, it is hard to tell whether you’re looking at part of the problem, or part of the solution.)
The section on housing, meanwhile, is dominated by a glowing account of developments in Germany that put more power into the grid than they remove. I would like to have seen more discussion of whether or not this is because green housing is intrinsically easier to get right than green agriculture.

I wanted a synthesis, not a succession of anecdotes. In this regard, another problem is Rogers’s apparent distrust of quantitative analysis. For example, she dismisses analysis of the total greenhouse emissions over the production cycle of a food as often failing to capture the realities of how crops are grown in distant lands. Maybe so, but without quantitative rigour, we are forced to lean on assumptions that may be as ill-founded as those this book demolishes.

Rogers seems to view nuclear power as bad and small farms as good. But can we develop a low-carbon economy without a nuclear component, and does a local farmers’ market result in higher or lower greenhouse emissions per kilo of produce than a food industry that achieves economies of scale by hauling much larger quantities of food, even if the distances are greater? A true green economy can be built once we have the answers to these and other equally tricky questions.

Book information:
Green Gone Wrong by Heather Rogers
Published by Verso/Scribner

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