I came across a really interesting editorial at Twilight Earth entitled “Green Wont Be The Norm, Until We Stop Calling Things Green.” Author Adam Shake says:
The word “Green” has become a separatist adjective. A term used to separate something from the norm. Until products become Green by default, Green will always be an outsider…Until the day when all counter tops are made Eco Friendly by default and all hardwood floors are made from Sustainable material, and people quite tagging them as Eco and Sustainable, the whole shift is doomed to something other than normal.
I thought about it for a few moments, and I realized that he was right.
This entire “go green” thing is in fact just perpetuating the problem and not really correcting it, or at least not correcting it as quickly as it needs to be corrected.
The editorial goes on to suggest that instead of labeling sustainable products sustainable, we should have a paradigm shift and label only unsustainable products as such, making “eco-friendly” the not-so-talked-about norm.
Lets back up a few years. Back before “ Better living through chemistry,” every thing that was ever grown for human consumption was by default “Organic.” But we have become so used to the fact that our food must be manipulated, sprayed with poison and grown from seeds conjured up in Monsanto Frankenfood laboratories, that Natural has become Un-Natural.
We shouldn’t be calling natural food “Organic.” We should be calling anything that is not grown naturally, Non-Organic!
So what would it take to force this shift? As usual, government intervention. If it is required by law, companies will have to phase out the use of the word “green” and phase in the eco-UNfriendly branding.
Of course, no company in the right mind would want to label their products in a negative light. And I highly doubt “not earth destructive” would fly off the shelves as quickly as “green. Properly structured, this sort of regulation would incentivize companies to make their operations green before being forced to put themselves in a bad light.
There are two methods of incentivization: positive and negative reinforcement, or the proverbial stick and carrot. Calling things green, giving subsidies, and making people feel fuzzy inside is the obvious carrot. Penalizing companies for being eco-unfriendly is the stick.
But as any animal trainer (or parent) knows, positive reinforcement yields much longer lasting and sustainable results than does negative reinforcement. Punishment and fear is an effective system for producing rapid change, but at high costs – the animal suffers, trust is broken, rebellion foments, and the entire relationship is degraded. From an high-level perspective, this is not an optimal solution. We can’t just go around ordering companies to flagellate themselves for being ungreen, if it made it past the lobbyists in the first place.
There are other ways to achieve rapid change, however. Again, it has to do with the structure of incentives. Imagine a large enough “carrot” – an enormous bundle of subsidies and benefits to become green WITHOUT bragging and touting the eco-friendliness. Anyone would be absolutely insane to not jump on this bandwagon. Integrate that with a mild mix of penalties for not joining, say, phased regulations for ungreen (or brown) product labels, and I predict that we would see a rapid shift in industry practice.
The problem with this, as with all government incentive packages, and especially in this economy, is the problem of who pays for it all. Does the government underwrite the subsidies, adding to its trillion-dollar deficit? There are other sticky issues, too. Is this government interference in free markets? Shouldn’t the consumer be free to choose?
Good points, all. But it seems all too apparent that the “invisible hand” of the free markets has led us astray. The main motivation of the free market is money, and it more often than not leads to short-sighted actions. Why not use this powerful motivation to redirect the market to a place where it can thrive without destroying its home?
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