green politics, chemistry, utopia and simplistic economics: greenwashing

Green is fashionable now, and that is great. “Green chemistry” is becoming a buzz word, and that is great, too: “green is the new nano!” Nanotechnology, as we all know, is derived from the Greek root meaning “successful grant application.”

If you asked me 10 years ago, I would have told you all about the Future when we would do away with material scarcity and people would have “enough“. I was young and naive. There is enough right now. And I’m not a communist: I don’t think the solution is taking it away from those who have in order to give to those who have not. The solution is not try to make more stuff, but to try to live a happy life. The solution is not to satisfy more wants, but to want good things. The solution is not for the rich to have less, but for people to see each others’ needs instead of their own desires. A happy culture is one that values service over material prosperity.

Where does Green fit into this? It’s hubris to think that we can grab the world by the carbon and shake the prosperity out of it. “Better living through chemistry,” is only half of the issue. We can make more stuff (e.g. chemicals, beef, plastic, homes, anything), but it has to be directed by a culture of service or it is just that: stuff. For it to be wealth, it has to represent substantive connections between people. Green can be just more stuff, or it can start to recognize the interdependent nature of the scientific game we are all playing. Our research means better living not through chemistry, but through the contribution we make to a safer, cleaner world – a goal that is only definable in terms of our connectedness to it and to each other.

The big upshot is that green is good, but look out for “greenwashing.” Greenwashing is where an organization cashes in on the Public Relations benefits of going green without making changes that reflect the rhetoric. It’s the same with the term ‘organic.’ It’s fine, but be careful that it represents what you think it represents. As Mark Bittman tells us in his TED talk while chilean farmed salmon fed organic chicken bones flown on ice in a huge freight plane from south america to your doorstep may be technically organic, it doesn’t represent the ideals. It’s elitist and unsustainable and the green sticker doesn’t change that.