Why The Washington Post Is Wrong About Going Green In Small Ways

by Owner on December 7, 2009

The December 6, 2009 edition of the Washington Post featured an opinion column from Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, that basically argued we should not waste our time going green in “small ways,” and should just focus on the big picture stuff (like a new climate protocol hopefully coming out of Copenhagen.) As an advocate of going green in ways both large and small, I think the article is just wrong, wrong, wrong.

First, the article makes the claim, without substantiation, that going green in small ways amounts to nothing meaningful in the long term. Where is the proof of this? On the contrary, metrics and statistics fall on the opposite side of the argument.

Take one instance I’ve quoted here before, the compact fluorescent light bulb. The amount of energy it saves over incandescent bulbs is discrete and measurable. From that measurable statistic, one can answer such questions as, “what would happen if every household in America changed just one 60-watt lightbulb to CFL?” The answer is, enough power would be saved that it would be the equivalent of powering the entire states of Delaware and Rhode Island, or a city of 1.5 million people. (Source.) That’s based on hard data and facts, unlike the “factoids” cited in the article.

Second, sitting around waiting for our politicians to “do something” about global warming is tantamount to irresponsibly passing the buck. Why should we make any sacrifices today, implies the article, when we could get much more bang for the buck tomorrow if (and only if) we convince politicians to adopt a stricter climate treaty?

We’ve seen where that got us for the last eight years. Also, for every person who believes global warming is happening there is another that does not. There are also financial and economic consequences of any climate-related choices, which is no small issue in an era of 10% unemployment and tepid economic recovery. If we sit on our duffs waiting for politicians to “do something,” even pro-climate politicians like Obama, we are likely to wait around for an awfully long time. In the meantime, what do we do?

I agree with the article that we should frame climate policy as a moral issue, and that we should not let going green distract us from the large-scale changes needed at a societal level. That includes putting pressure on politicians to do the right thing for the climate.

But we can walk and chew gum at the same time. We can mind our own carbon footprint at the same time we push for larger scale change. Pushing our politicians cannot and should not absolve us of individual responsibility to do everything we can to lower our own emissions–by saving energy, by weatherproofing our homes, by driving less, and by taking all of the other small and larger steps we take on an individual level.

Is there some feel-good greenwashing going on, to let people convince themselves they are doing good by the environment when they are really not? Sure, there’s plenty of stuff out there like the “green weddings” and the “organic toothpicks” cited in the article. But to pooh-pooh every effort to go green as akin to picking our teeth with organic toothpicks, and to think we should focus on the politics of climate change to the exclusion of all else, is just plain wrong.

So go ahead, do what you need to go green. Every little bit helps. Just don’t lose sight of the big picture–keep your Congressman’s name and number handy, and keep ratcheting up the pressure to do the right thing in crafting a better climate policy. Because you CAN walk and chew gum at the same time, right?

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Green Bride Guide December 7, 2009 at 9:04 pm

I totally agree! Our tag line at The Green Bride Guide is that “Every Choice Makes a Difference.” I really believe this. I often use the example of disposable aisle runners. If every wedding THIS YEAR in the USA used one, they would circle the globe twice. Small choices do make a difference. Keeping the bigger picture in mind is essential, and I agree everyone should be more politically involved, but we should never give up trying to make our individual actions less harmful for the planet. Thanks for the great post.


peter dublin December 8, 2009 at 9:16 am

I agree that people can gain and be happy from saving at personal level
But I disagree about consumer bans to achieve it…

Re switching from light bulbs to CFLs,
the supposed saving don’t hold up for many reasons
( power factor, heat factor, lifespan, brightness, lifecycle etc
comparison using governmental and institutional references
http://www.ceolas.net/#13x onwards )

In any case, there is no energy shortage
(given renewable/nuclear development possibilities, with CO2 emission
limits set as deemed necessary)
and consumers – not politicians – PAY for energy and how they wish to use it.
Notice: If there WAS an energy shortage, its price rise would
– limit people using it anyway, and make renewable energy more attractive
– make energy efficient products more attractive to buy.
No need to legislate for it.

And since when do light bulbs, TV sets etc give out any CO2 gas?
Not like cars.
And cars are taxed.
They could of course tax the bulbs etc, and lower the tax on energy
efficient alternatives.
Governments make money on the reduced sales, they can pay for CO2
emission processing and renewable energy, and consumers keep choice.
Taxation can be lifted when enough low emission energy is in place.

The taxes are unjustified, but better for all than bans.

Few seem to know about the industrial profit politics behind the supposedly environmentally justified bans


Joe Barrios December 8, 2009 at 10:02 am

Peter, your comment is frankly misinformed in a lot of ways.

Light bulbs and TV sets do not by themselves give off CO2, but the coal and fossil fuel used to generate electricity for them do.

Your comments about CFL’s is simply incorrect. The energy that goes into the lifecycle of bulbs (including their manufacture) is well known and considered. See, for example, this article: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/30/business/energy-environment/30led.html , which while it’s for LED bulbs is still on point as far as analyzing the entire life cycle of bulbs.

I do not think that consumers’ willingness to pay for something should be the ethical standard we use for anything, including what we do about energy. Consumers are willing to pay for just about anything without regard for (or without realizing) other ethical or moral consequences, like the impact their choices have on the environment (that’s what environmentalism is all about, teaching consumers about the consequences of their choices.)

The amount of energy available is not even relevant to the article, since it’s about global warming not energy shortages. Your beef seems to be that incandescent bulbs are being banned in some countries, which also isn’t the subject of this article. So I’m not sure what your point is in posting here….but please do get your facts straight!


Dream Green Weddings December 8, 2009 at 4:53 pm

Joe, thank you for being my voice today. I was baffled after reading that article yesterday. I always tell couples that making simple sustainable choices when planning their wedding can make a difference, and I truly believe that. You can’t tell me that with 2.5 million weddings per year that reducing the waste, even by 10%, wouldn’t make an impact. We’ve come too far to turn back now :-)


Chuck January 17, 2010 at 6:50 pm

I will touch on just one part of the article about going green in small ways.
I have been using an electric lawn mower for more than 20 years. Recently I changes to a mulching mower (no waste to landfills). I have also been composting. I started with a worm farm. It takes very little space and almost everything that comes out of the kitchen goes into it. I also use shreaded paper, thank you junk mail and bills. About 6 months ago I made my own composting barrel. Everything I could get my hands on went into it, especially old plants and items too big for the worm farm, such as watermelon rinds. When I start to plant this spring I will have as much compost as I need.
I am no finatic but I try to do my part. If more people, who have the space, would do something like composting, we could reduce the amount of trash going to the landfills. Also RECYCLE!!


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