The pursuit of good money

A couple of weeks ago, a premier English news channel ran something known as a ‘Greenathon’. It’s a well orchestrated drama of a show with 24 hours of live television dedicated to the environment with celebrities, most of them film stars and some of them running in green colored designer shorts and dark cooling glasses, proclaiming their love for the environment, some of them saying inane things like ‘after all, this is the only planet we have’. Then there is this old actress of yesteryears, all grace and charm, flashing her innocent smile telling us that she hasn’t used plastic for ten years making me feel apologetic for my LCD television, my car which still runs on petrol, my beautiful Bose speakers, my mobile phone and pretty much everything that I own or use. The advertised mission is a noble one that is to light a billion lights using solar power.

Then there is this renewed enthusiasm about saving the planet at the workplace. Many people felt obliged to put footers in emails telling me how evil it is to take print outs – after all every document not printed out, could save trees. How could I as a citizen of the only planet we have, let trees be felled for something innocuous as a print out? Then, they talked about the merits of car pooling and coming to office by bus. I am pretty cynical about things that don’t seem very practical, but I could more or less see their point. A little bit of restraint is not necessarily a bad thing and probably considering the rapid industrialization in the last few decades, it may make sense to practice it a bit. What I do not necessarily agree is that it is a ‘win win’ scenario all the time. Let me explain why.

Consider the latest initiative by a large company which was till sometime ago the most profitable cell phone maker in the world. For every unused cell phone that you return to them, they promise to plant a tree and recycle the phone. So, effectively if a million phones are returned, they will plant a million trees and recycle them. The problem I have with this type of campaign is twofold; the first is accountability – how do you make sure that they keep their promise, the second is more direct – considering recycling is profitable and win win for everyone, why won’t it pay me a few hundred rupees for the phone I return. As a naïve citizen of the world, conscious and guilty at the same time, I feel these guys are just pouncing on my gullibility.

It probably cannot be denied that global warming is a real phenomenon and climate change is indeed caused by humans as pointed out by environmentalists and nongovernmental groups. But bringing in an alarmism to the debate and consistently talking of doomsday scenario also makes sound economic sense for the advocates. For the television channel, it provides for good advertising money along with a high moral ground to stand on; for my office, it means cutting more cost; for the cell phone maker, it means better business at zero accountability and for the environmentalists, it provides more funding and reason for existence. Everyone seems to benefit from this rage about saving the planet, except the ordinary citizen, who is obliged to use paper bags instead of plastic, forego individual driving pleasure for the relative discomfort of a bus and make sacrifices to feed collective guilt. It is debatable, if the alarmism marketed by the corporate and the environmentalists alike is actually good for the environment because all it does is treat the issue in a naïve manner and proceeds to make money out of environment; often referred as green capitalism.

We all need to work for a more sustainable ecosystem. It would be naïve to argue against it but we should refrain from mere tokenism. We should definitely and unequivocally take part in greenathons, use buses and participate in recycling campaigns; but we should also push the government, companies and the environmentalists to make harder choices, ones more than mere tokenism and ones that should also make economic sense for the common man. Will it not be easy to embrace green electricity that is cheaper than conventional electricity? Will it not be easy to take the office bus if it is free? Will it not be easy to drive a hybrid car if it was cheaper? Will it not be easy to use less plastic if better and cheaper alternatives are made available?

I would rather believe in guilt free consumerism with restraint – one that will let me enjoy the luxuries of modern life and help drive the engine for economic growth, that is so necessary for developing countries like ours and at the same time, restrain myself from absurd wastage that I think I can contain. It would be absolutely great if the new custodians of green, be it the government, the environmentalists or the capitalists focus on the smaller things rather than dramatize the cause, the first among those would be focusing on environmental research –efficient cars, efficient production of energy, degradable materials and so on. Another important step would be appropriate regulation – how about a regulation that mandates all companies with more than 500 employees provide free buses?

And yes, I didn’t print out my presentation today.

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