Is Grand Rapids Becoming Green: Part II

Grand Rapids Greenwashing

“Industrial civilization is incompatible with life. It is systematically destroying life on this planet, undercutting its very basis. This culture is, to put it bluntly, murdering the earth. Unless it’s stopped – whether we intentionally stop it or the natural world does, through ecological collapse or other means – it will kill every living being. We need to stop it.”

– From What We Leave Behind, by Derrick Jensen & Aric McBay

So, last year in my Earth Day-edition of this monthly column I raised some questions about whether or not Grand Rapids was really becoming a “Green City.” I discussed the notion of corporate green-washing and how the current fashion of calling something green was mostly a PR scam to get us to either buy more stuff we don’t need or to lull us into thinking that all we needed to do to avoid ecological catastrophe was to make some minor adjustments to the system.

I mentioned how in 2006 there was a Step It Up Campaign with the goal of reducing our levels of carbon humanity produces 80% by 2050. If we don’t reduce it that might much 2050 we might not be able to reverse the disastrous consequences of climate catastrophe. Well, it is a year later and I want to again raise questions about whether or not there are any serious efforts to structurally change how we live in West Michigan that would truly promote sustainability.

First, it seems like we simply have to stop consuming more and significantly reduce our levels of consumption. I have been to hearings in recent months in Holland over the proposed coal power plant and I rarely heard anyone talking about reducing the community’s electricity needs. There was some discussion of creating alternative and renewable energy, but not much was said about the need to reduce how much energy was being consumed and how much our system is built around “growth.”

The idea that you can have sustainability with growth generally seems to be accepted even though I have yet to come across any solid arguments on how this is possible. But it’s as if that doesn’t matter. What matters is that we call whatever we do green and all is well.

I read a story in the Grand Rapids Press in late February with the headline, “Green cell phones.” I thought this was probably going to be a PR created article touting some new solar powered cell phones, which are problematic in and of themselves. What the story was really about was that one company was now offering a new program on the cell phone, which would allow you to track your own carbon footprint. So, while you are stuck in traffic you can figure out how much of an impact you are personally having on the planet. How nice.

What is troubling about this green marketing scheme is that it not only doesn’t do anything to address the severity of the current ecological crisis we face, it takes our attention away from the corporations that produce this stuff and what these systems of communication are doing to us and the planet. It means you don’t have to discuss how the minerals are extracted from the earth that are used to make the phones, how far these materials are transported, and what pollution is produced in the process. It means you don’t have to think about the amount of water and chemicals that are used in the process of treating the electronic components used manufacturing the phones. It means you don’t have to think about the millions of cell phone towers that are erected all over the planet so that you can talk to people anytime you want. Cell phone towers mean that trees will come down and we don’t fully know what the consequences will be on our health from the electronic waves that cell phone towers and cell phone emit. This is what is dangerous about the production of “green products.”

In March, there was an announcement in the Grand Rapids Press about a joint business venture with a company from Spain and Rockford Construction Company to manufacture wind turbines for electricity production. Again, the story is presented as a wonderful thing, because after all don’t we need viable alternative energy sources? We do, but the problem with this uncritical approach is that it again avoids any discussion on how energy is currently being consumed and how it would be distributed.

Part of the problem of energy consumption is not just that the current system uses too much, but the production and distribution of energy is not done democratically. The power companies are private entities so you and I have no say in how energy is produced, distributed, nor what they charge for it. If energy sources in West Michigan were public utilities, then the public could have a say in how energy is produced and distributed. We could also have a say in creating community standards so that the current big consumers of energy, industry, could not continue to pollute at the current levels. It means that we would all have to become invested in the process, but it also means that there is some mechanism for accountability.

These are not the kind of questions that are being raised about our future, even from the organizations that claim to be leaders on issues of sustainability. In March, Congressman Ehlers and Hoekstra responded negatively to the Obama administration’s energy proposal, which in part promotes the idea of carbon trading. The Press interviewed the director of a local environmental organization who supported the idea of carbon trading. The story is framed to make you believe that the Republican Congressmen are not environmentally down with the government plan, but the eco-organization is. What are omitted are any third voices that might be critical of the idea of carbon credits because they don’t believe that the market should play a role in averting climate catastrophe. This is the basic critique of Indian activist and author Vandana Shiva’s latest book, Soil, Not Oil: Environmental Justice in the Age of Climate Crisis.

At the end of April, the Grand Rapids-based group Local First is hosting a conference called “Designing Sustainable Communities Through Business.” In looking at the website I can’t find anything about what Local First means by sustainability other than the green business mantra of the “Triple Bottom Line,” which means economic growth, social responsibility and sustainable environmental practices. However, there are no standards or guidelines for the triple bottom line.

The lack of clear standards about being a sustainable business is reflected in which businesses are members of Local First. With a quick look at some of the names I was confused as to how a company that sells RVs, a Lincoln car dealership, the Whitecaps Baseball Team Corporation, an asphalt company, Monte’s Bar, advertising agencies, The Grand Rapids Business Journal, real estate companies, and a fur company in East Grand Rapids practice sustainability.

These are questions that need to be asked and we just can’t give organizations and businesses a free pass because they put a green or local label on themselves. And since we can’t rely on the corporate media to ask these kinds of questions, we are going to have to figure out ways to ask them so that there is a more honest forum for confronting the challenges that we face in creating a more sustainable world.

Jeff Smith does media education work with the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy. jsmith AT


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