In an effort to seek out solutions to some of the questions in my earlier essays, I read the nonfiction book titles Green Gone Wrong : Dispatches from the Front Lines of Eco-capitalism by Heather Rogers. In a time where the UN has put out a major call to combat the growing climate catastrophe, this seemed prudent.
The purpose of the book was to examine critically how various “green tech” and “green practices” such as organic food actually work and if they actually do help the environment. Heather Rogers does extensive research and fieldwork — visiting the sites of various regions throughout the world that is the ground zero for these topics.
She covers the Organic Farming, Green Architecture, Biofuels, and hybrid and electric cars, and Carbon Offset companies. The analysis section summarizes her findings, and her afterword provides possible solutions, visualized on a community level.
A theme echoed throughout the book: economies that base themselves on profits alone is insufficient to fight the growing environmental catastrophe. Capitalist systems require endless growth, where capitalism is constantly seeking new sectors to sell the surplus from the growth. This requires consumers consume that surplus, and thus allow for further expansion, growth, and surplus.
However, our planet has limited resources, and this system is unsustainable for long-term survivability. In fact, many of the economic crashes recently is due to this system failing because of its short-term focus on profits and endless growth. These systems and how they are applied to our daily lives and the growing environmental crisis needs examination, and Rogers well-researched book is an excellent addition to this discussion.
Some of the green eco-capitalist solutions was to try to create an environmental-friendly system that used the typical capitalist model, to avoid changing too much of the status quo, and to push toward more ecological-friendly approaches. However, as Rogers reveals through intensive research and on-the-ground interviews and investigative journalism, this capitalist approach to environmental-friendly practices is not working as theorized.
In regards to Organic label, the goal was to push agriculture companies toward more environmental friendly practices. The systems used involved both regulations and capitalist profit-driven models, and both have their faults.
The small farmers do not earn enough and do not require the same amount of supplies and equipment that large-scale operations require, but the regulations do not differentiate between the two. Thus small locally owned (family) farms simply cannot afford the paperwork and equipment needed for an official Organic seal, despite using ecologically sound practices on their farms.
Since the regulations are written primarily for large-scale, wealthy companies, smaller farms are more vulnerable and susceptible for failure due to not having the manpower or resources to fulfill the extensive documentation and often not needing the expensive equipment the regulations may require. “To get by, the unconventional operator must instead rely on the subsides of inherited land, free and low-cost labor, and off-farm income. If alternative farmers and processors are too beaten down by the lack of resources for cultivation and distribution, inappropriate food safety rules, insurmountable debt, and inadequate pay, then no matter how much we as consumers want local, ecologically responsible food, the people who make it may well go extinct.” Of these small farmers, those in less developed countries may also be registered as Fair Trade, but may be bound to a single-buyer and so highly vulnerable to the demands of that single-buyer.
However, despite the regulations being written to curtail the use of environmental-damaging practices for large-wealthy companies, the enforcement of these regulations is dependent on the region, and many of the enforcement agencies are either non-profits that have a lack of accountability and/or transparency or are for-profit companies.
Rogers unveils the complicated capitalist structures created to turn organic into large-scale enterprises to meet the growing needs of a green approach. What is alarming is the companies that certify these large-scale enterprises are not enforcing the regulations consistently or effectively, and are sometimes easily bought off, especially in developing countries where local enforcement is rare or might not exist. Without the proper enforcement of regulations, many “certified organic” agriculture companies engage in conventional, environmental harmful practices to continue their profit-driven growth models.
Smaller farmers that form cooperative agroecological groups do exist, despite the issues outlined above. These cooperatives spread the cost of being certified over their entire group, and those in the US work to enforce the regulations through their own engagement and local accountability to create a more sustainable and eco-friendly approach to farming and livestock. This approach can also hold distribution companies accountable for trying to pressure them into harmful ecological practices by taking their business elsewhere if other locally owned distribution centers exist. However, they are vulnerable due to capitalist market pressure to conform to conventional practices for bigger profits, lack of local distribution centers, lack of investment and government support, and/or corruption in the certification process.
To further define alternatives, Rogers explores systems that do work, such as agroecological methods. “Agroecosystems are communities of plants and animals interacting with their physical and chemical environments that have been modified by people to produce food, fiber, fuel, and other products for human consumption and processing.” Agroecology sees farmland not as a homogenized sterilized site of production, but as a place where natural processed continue to occur and cultivation becomes part of larger biological cycles. By practicing farming as such, Miguel Altieri’s research has shown, productivity is markedly increased and sustains itself over time with fewer and far less toxic external inputs than are required by conventional methods. Agroecology debunks the claim that industrial farming is the only way to meet the needs of the planet’s 6 billion people. By practicing agroecological methods, Altieri says, productivity of organic crops can be doubled, making them competitive with those grown with conventional, chemical-reliant techniques.” The question then becomes can this be done on an economically sustainable way, so that the farmers have a living wage, which in some cases it is possible if there is enough support from the government, diverse distribution centers, and local communities.
Biofuels and Eco-friendly Cars
This same issue happens with biofuels, where the need for palm oil has caused massive deforestation of old-grown rainforests in Indonesia. Rogers visits with the indigenous tribes in the affected regions of Indonesia in particular and discovers that many are fighting against massive corporations, while others are being bought out with deals that the corporations never fulfill. Other instances, corporations seize indigenous lands and raze them to create mono-crops that deplete the soil and contribute to the ecological destruction of the regions. Rampant corruption is also common, where despite environmental regulations being passed in developing countries, lack of enforcement on a local level is rampant. Rogers exposè is thorough and scathing.
Related to the issue of biofuels is the hybrid and electric car technology. Much of the technology for eco-friendly cars has existed for over a century, but again capitalist structures that focus on short-term profits have pushed against the integration of eco-friendly hybrid or electric vehicles within the US markets. However, these same companies create and send these eco-friendly vehicles to other countries that have stricter regulation than the US.
Rogers also goes into the history of the auto industry in America, and how a union of the auto industry and local firms bought out mass transit systems in many cities across America. The mass transit systems were then changed to buses made by the auto firms. The price of fare was increased and the scheduling was driven to extremes, making it harder to use the transit system. Evidence compiled in Rogers’ research and the studies she cites reveal these actions pushed America toward a more car-driven culture. Mass transit systems, that had been effective before, have been run to the ground, and gas-guzzling largely inefficient SUVs and trucks are the highest selling vehicles in the US market. Again, the short-term profit view crippled the eco-friendly car and mass transit system in America.
This contrasts highly with other countries that have more efficient and accessible mass transit, less reliance on vehicles, and more eco-friendly and efficient vehicles due to stricter environmental regulations. The technology does indeed exist, but simply isn’t being implemented in the US and some developing nations. Rogers’ research and the studies she cites shows that the reasons are simply short-sighted reliance on fast-profits rather than investments toward a long-term sustainable and environmental-friendly future.
What about Eco-architecture? Rogers again travels to investigate the eco-architecture communes in London, UK, and in Germany. Here she unveils that the projects to create buildings that have a very low energy footprint, are livable and still have the typical western amenities of comfortable room temperature, kitchens, clean water, Internet, and local amenities is all possible with a renewable energy and more eco-friendly building codes that reduce the energy footprint, and make the buildings more energy-efficient.
This approach is more community based and does not rely solely on the capitalist market. Instead, communities work together with their city governments and state governments to get the funding needed to create eco-architecture that is self-sustaining. Rogers research shows that the Eco-architecture does work if it has the financing and community engagement to implement the technology effectively. However, in the cases where these communities do exist, unique factors combined to make the projects possible. Without those culminating events, the projects might not have had enough political and social momentum to take off.
Why isn’t this being done in other cities if the technology is so effective? Part of it is due to lack of political will, lack of investment, lack of community engagement, the price of retrofitting existing structures versus building new eco-friendly buildings, and ignorance of the methods and technology that is available.
The last topic researched was the Carbon Offset projects, where Rogers dug deep and discovered lack of transparency, disturbing trends of corruption, and lack of accountability. The paying money to these Carbon Offset projects to try to “lower the carbon imprint” of our activities doesn’t pay off as most projects requires years to offset the carbon imprint from the use of cars, planes, or other coal-based energy networks. Of these projects, most never make it through to completion, and in some cases are mismanaged or fail to make a sustainable and eco-friendly impact in the impoverished community.
This is by far the most scathing and intense chapter in the book as much of what Rogers uncovers shows a disturbing trend in the Carbon offsets market. The lack of enforcement and any actual regulations compounds the corruption in some cases or the failed projects due to lack of local government support. Many developing nations are pushing for energy that relies on coal and other environmental disastrous energy technology, and the projects from Carbon offsets in these nations fail to make lasting change in these sectors.
So although Rogers unveils disturbing trends caused by the pitfalls of capitalism’s endless profits/growth approach, Rogers also found some promising projects and ideas that could provide us an alternative to work toward. At the end of the book, Rogers provides a list of eco-friendly and effective projects that work toward a more sustainable and environmental friendly future that is focused on the needs of humanity and the environment rather than just profits.
This is a must read book for anyone who wants to better understand the nature of our environmental crisis. By understanding our problems, we can find a solution. The analysis Rogers provides digs into what works and what did not work in all the case studies and projects she investigated. Rogers then covers various theories on alternate approaches to our current market system, and provides visualizations of how these different approaches could affect our lives, and how they may be realized.
Her assessment challenges us to view the economy not through the lens of profit and expansion, but through the lens of our shared humanity and environment.