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The Bigger Picture is the Key to Moving Forward

Kendra Pierre-Louis spoke to the DC Ecowomen Book Club in September about her new book Green Washed: Why We Can’t Buy Our Way to a Green Planet.  We asked her to write a little bit about her experience talking with our ecowomen.  Below are her thoughts.

Kendra, left, talks to the group of Ecowomen at Teaism

There is never a shortage of things in life to complain about – the painful elegance that are high heels, arsenic in our rice, and you know, global climate change. Fortunately, getting to speak to a room full of smart, engaged women who have just read your book is not one of them. I can sincerely say, I thoroughly enjoyed the two hours that I spent discussing my book Green Washed: Why We Can’t Buy Our Way to a Green Planet with the wonderful women of the DC EcoWomen book club.

I wrote Green Washed in response to our misplaced focus on getting individuals to buy green products. Yes, I’d prefer it if you bought a shampoo that didn’t contain neurotoxins or hormone disrupters that are harmful to you and to sea life. But how effective is this at “saving” the environment? And, perhaps more importantly, why are these awful products even a choice? Why are they on our shelves? Why do we have to expend tremendous personal effort avoiding these products?

Writing is a generally solitary pursuit, a path wrought between you and the demons in your head, but surrounded by these women I felt for the first time in a really long time as though I wasn’t alone in being tired of the guilt that surrounds even the simplest purchase these days. I think it was Naomi Wolf in the Beauty Myth who pointed out that women spend so much time and energy on attaining unattainable beauty standards that this is time we are not spending on being scientists, teachers, writers, nurses, painters or pushing for true equality.

I think the same can be said for buying green.

Buying green doesn’t free us from the cultural drumbeat keeping us fixated on shopping; in fact, in many ways it keeps us tied to the same consumer systems that cause so much environmental destruction. Case in point: a curious pattern emerged during my talk despite the fact that every single person in the room clearly understood and felt connected to Green Washed’s core message on the limits of green consumption to bring about sustainable change. Almost compulsively, the topic of how to structure our purchases, how to master the art of buying green, continually came up. It’s a tough message to fully internalize as generations of women raised on the importance of consumption, of voting with our dollars. Unfortunately, it’s also a world view that can shift our eyes from the prize – true social and environmental sustainability.

So here is my confession: I haven’t mastered buying green.

What I have done is my eco-version of the serenity prayer. I have changed the environmental habits (avoiding driving, choosing less toxic cleaning products, consuming less overall) I can easily change, accepted the things I cannot as an individual change, and used the energy I once devoted to fretting over these tiny choices to help force change on a larger scale.

Kendra, center, sits in on the discussion

As great as it can feel to do the “green” thing, on the face many of these choices are little more than symbolic actions dwarfed by the actions of our economic and governance systems. Strapping a solar panel on one’s roof is not a substitute for a national, comprehensive, renewable energy policy. Composting in your basement is no substitute for a decent waste management system, nor is toting a water bottle an effective water use reduction system. It’s not that I don’t want you doing these things – I mean I’m a certified master composter – go ahead and do these things, but please, please, please take the energy you’re currently expending worrying about which brand of deodorant to buy to instead lobby Congress against mountaintop coal removal, or comprehensive chemical reform, or requiring more stringent metrics around GMOs, or hell educating your neighbors on the awesomeness of composting. These are the issues that when resolved on a bigger scale will free you from having to worry on a micro level about whether or not the shower curtain you pick up is poisoning the Mississippi and maybe also giving you a brain tumor.

We need everyone who is caring and committing working together, not worrying alone.


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