Gone green: Secret, easy and cheap ways to save the environment
"It's not that easy being green." — Kermit the Frog
George Elvin remembers when he first began to really care about the environment.
He and a friend were hiking through a forest in Canada about 35 years ago. Across the valley, above the trees, they could see a waterfall cascading over the edge of a mountain ridge. They hiked through the dense woods and climbed up the roaring edge of the waterfall — looking forward to the pristine view. "When we peeked over the mountain top everything was completely clear cut," he said. "We had expected to see the forest, instead we saw the human capacity for destruction of nature."
Elvin is the owner of Gone Studio, a "post-petroleum design company," and an associate professor of architecture at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. Like many Americans on Earth Day, he wants to be green.
But "green" is a vague term, Elvin said, and has become a marketing pitch. "People abuse it," he said.
Ozzie Zehner is a little blunter. He is a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley and the author of "Green Illusions" which looks at the true influence of clean energy initiatives.
Zehner said slapping "green" on a product is a way people can buy whatever they want as long as they pay more to salve their conscience. "'Green' is one of those things marketers enjoy," he said. "They translate 'sustainable' to 'ka-ching!' It is just a trick to get people to take the wallet out."
But people are beginning to wise up, he said. Marketers want people to believe greenness is something that is measurable and objective. They also want people to think green products are neutral or beneficial to the environment.
"They are both wrong," Zehner said.
The reality is more complex. Products don't appear out of nowhere and do not disappear when people are done with them.
For someone who is environmentally conscious, it really isn't a question about which purchase is the most green. "The best material consumption is less material consumption," Zehner said.
Is it green?
When looking at products, Elvin said people should consider the entire lifecycle of the item. Where do its raw materials come from? Where they mined? How? What manufacturing process was used to create it? What wastes and byproducts and energy use did that process have? How is it disposed when its use is over? Is it recyclable?
But knowing a product's lifecyle isn't easy, Elvin said. Few companies want their customers to know that much about what they are selling.
And some things are not as green as people might expect.
Zehner's book, "Green Illusions," looked at the total story of things commonly thought to be environmentally friendly. Ironically, many alternative energy technology solutions have environmental downsides.
Solar panels, for example, contain toxic materials and heavy metals, Zehner said. The manufacturing process of the panels includes the emission of gasses that are up to 25,000 times more harmful than CO2.
Wind turbines in the U.S. have little offset value against fossil fuels, Zehner said, because of what he calls the boomerang effect. When the alternative energy is subsidized, it lowers energy costs overall, which increases demand. "No matter how many wind turbines you build, as long as you are in a consumer society that is growing, all of those gains will be eaten up," he said. "When you build alternative energy capacity, it actually accelerates the demand for coal, but does not slow it down. It does more harm than good to build solar cells and wind turbines in that context."
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