Against Green

GreenWorksWalk into any Whole Foods. The codified ecocorrect corporate mandate as exemplified in the stores' design could not be clearer. You nearly expect to see Al Gore strumming an acoustic guitar singing ecoballads, akin to some sort of crusading Raffi, while floating leprechauns spew mouthwash into the air like verdant cherubs. It's the Green movement as most Americans can understand it - through buying more stuff they don't need. It's the anti-materialist socialist activist wearing the matching Che Guevara hat and T-shirt to the mall.

Green came to universally symbolize the environmental movement because of its connotations of growth and representational evocation of nature, but initial associations were largely political. In the late 1970s in Germany, the political party the Greens, or die Grünen, became one of the first truly powerful movements with a significant environmental platform to adopt the color as its identity. Eco-activist group Greenpeace is also another famous usage of the color in name and design for identity. Recycling programs, the earliest mainstream embracing of environmental issues, most often used those ubiquitous green arrows to get the point across.

Words have power. But they can also lose it. When "green" is slapped on every product, magazine cover and campaign that doesn't involve clubbing baby seals, dumping toxic sludge into the ocean or bloodying the fingers of child-laborers in Cambodia it has clearly lost its meaning. Through overuse (find me an Earth Day press release that avoids the G-word) the original intention is lost.

The commodification of dissent has seldom been clearer. A movement predicated on doing more with the less - the "buy less, live more" slogan - has been co-opted by chain stores, chemical companies, fast food restaurants and shopping magazines with eco-themed issues ("Buy more, guilt less"). Nature has been cleaned up, repackaged and shrink-wrapped in emerald cellophane. In Against Happiness, Eric G. Wilson writes, "From an early age we are taught to translate the creatures around us - whether they be toads that glisten or mica shining at noon - into clean surfaces on which we can project our dreams of total happiness. In this American capitalistic view the world is a kind of vast playground, with each object serving its purpose for pleasure. Who cares if what we normally call reality is forsaken?" We watch the Planet Earth series in Hi-Def and think we are communing with nature in our hermetically sealed living rooms while reaching out toward the 50-inch flat screen ("Hey man, I can touch the leaves").

The release of Green Works by Clorox and that company's subsequent purchase of an unprecedented Sierra Club endorsement really broke the camel's back. Green Works is to legitimate natural cleaners what a Big Mac is to a hamburger. Sure, there are a bunch of similar things in there, but in the end they aren't the same. The "Green" tag is unregulated. The all-natural ingredients include a chemical found in paint strippers and cleaning agents common to standard-issue household brands with poor safety ratings from the National Library of Medicine's Household Products Hazardous Substances Database. Clorox did not stop at the name to show how natural the product line is; no, it came up with a Penzoil-shade for the liquid and packaged it in clear bottles. Now that looks safe and nontoxic, we think as we throw it in the green plastic Whole Foods shopping basket alongside our Vanity Fair "Green" issue printed on virgin stock and $8 plastic packet of organic granola.

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