Environmentalist Says 'Going Green' Is A Waste Of Time

The Copenhagen climate conference currently underway in Denmark has sparked global focus on "going green" in favor of environmentally friendly habits. But one environmental activist says that's a waste of time. Mike Tidwell, of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, explains why he's skeptical of the green movement. Tidwell says the focus is a distraction from serious environmental action.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now for another perspective on conscientious living. You try to be a good, green citizen, lowering the heat, biking to work, recycling your water bottles, better yet skipping the water bottles and going straight to the fountain. But what if it doesn't really matter? What if your individual efforts do very little to prevent global warming, except mostly making you feel a little bit better about yourself?

Mike Tidwell wrote an op-ed in this Sunday's Washington Post where he says stop going green, just stop it: no more compact fluorescent light bulbs, no more green wedding planning, no more organic toothpicks for holiday hors d'oeuvres. He goes on to say despite all our talk about washing clothes in cold water, we aren't making much of a difference. Mike Tidwell is executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, and he joins us now in our Washington, D.C. studio to talk more about this. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. MIKE TIDWELL (Executive Director, Chesapeake Climate Action Network): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: That's kind of a shot across the bow there. How could it be bad to make individual efforts?

Mr. TIDWELL: It's not necessarily bad. I think everyone who truly understands the global climate crisis has a personal moral responsibility to do all they can in their personal life to have a lower impact. I certainly do. I drive a Prius, I'm a vegetarian, I have solar panels on my roof. I'm obnoxiously green. I'm hideously green.

MARTIN: Now you kind of cast a - the eye at me when I brought my paper script in instead of reading it off the screen. I saw it. Don't think I didn't see it. But anyway...

Mr. TIDWELL: The thing is, though, if that's our main emphasis is personal choice, then we lose. The problem is most people don't take voluntary action. Less than 10 percent of all our light bulbs, household light bulbs, are compact fluorescents. Only two and a half percent of auto sales are hybrid cars.

The problem is most people want statutory change. They want laws that lead to shared responsibility and shared benefits versus, well, if I go to all this trouble, and my neighbor doesn't, then I'm cleaning the air for him. I'm stopping global warming for him, too. That's not necessarily fair. I'd rather do it the way we've done it in the past.

For example, in the civil rights movement - which I talk about in the Washington Post op-ed - you know, we banned the practice of segregation. There comes a point when the moral, economic, social issue is so large that we have to make statutory changes. We did it for slavery, women's suffrage. Now we have to do it for climate change.

MARTIN: Well, you know, there's an argument that it has to be both/and, that one of the arguments about why we have seen the kind of ongoing resistance we have, in fact, seen to real integration, real integration, real social justice in this country, is that there was never that personal commitment on the part of key players - that you see it in the criminal justice system, for example, which remains biased, according to - if you just look at the data about how it affects different groups over others.

There are people who would argue that you can change their behavior, but you can't change people's hearts, and what some would say, if you don't change people's hearts, the behavior doesn't really change.

Mr. TIDWELL: Well, I'm old enough to have remembered the 1960s and went to school in some newly integrated public schools in the Deep South, and I know the world my parents grew up in in the Deep South and the world that I grew up in in the Deep South, and my experience was very different.

Here's the point: In the 1960s, we passed laws that banned, legally, discrimination in housing, employment, public accommodations. Now, did those laws instantaneously change every human heart in the American South and the rest of the nation? No, but we still made enormous progress, and all you have to do is look at who occupies the White House right now to know that it's a much different world.

Would Barack Obama even be president if we'd left civil rights to voluntary change, and let's do it one house at a time, one heart at a time? No. We banned certain practices, which have led to value changes.

MARTIN: Do you think, though, that there is enough of a consensus to demand the kinds of broad-based changes that you are saying are necessary? For example, you know, some parts of the world, there are very stringent measures in place, you know, high levels of taxation on energy consumption, for example, real investment in the most up-to-date technologies that are expected to be broadly applied.

We don't have that here, as you say, and I wonder if that is in part because you said at the beginning of our conversation that what people really want is kind of a broad-based, shared social investment so that they don't feel that they're making these efforts, and the other guys getting away with it.

The question I have is: Do people really want that? Do they really want that broad-based social investment? Because if that's the case, if they don't, then isn't that a matter of elites imposing their perspective on the country, and that isn't sustainable.

Mr. TIDWELL: We are being distracted by the go-green mania that results in very little change. Every time we pick up another green issue of Vanity Fair, every time we see "10 ways to go green at the office" on some Web site, we have the impression that broad change is happening when it's not.

Now, you look at nations that have, by statute, changed their societies in terms of energy, the Scandinavian nations, Japan, Europe, they use half the energy per capita as we do. They have laws that have penalized the actions they don't want, i.e. the burning of oil, coal and natural gas. They tax what they don't like, and they make free the things they do like.

In the United States, we don't do that. We make harmful fossil fuels almost free in comparison to the rest of the world. So we use a lot of it, we bake the planet, we create national insecurity in terms of buying oil from countries that don't like us.

Going green is great. I've done it. We need to do more. We can check that box. We've raised awareness. Now we have to change laws in this country that phase out rapidly the use of harmful fossil fuels.

MARTIN: Mike Tidwell is executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. He was kind enough to speak to us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. If you want to read the piece that we have been talking about, we'll have a link on our Web site. Just go to npr.org. Click on programs and then on TELL ME MORE. Mike Tidwell, thank you.

Mr. TIDWELL: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Coming up, our panels of moms weighs in on the mom from Wasilla.

Ms. LESLIE MORGAN STEINER (Author; Blogger): I like her more now, having read the book.

MARTIN: We review Sarah Palin's memoir, "Going Rogue." That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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