Earth Day 2024: Greenwashing is the order of the day

| 16 Apr 2024 | 04:35

    Ever since the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” chemical polluters have evolved novel ways to cloak polluting activities past an increasingly uncritical, unconcerned and pathologically distracted public, oftentimes garnering popular support for toxic activities through carefully crafted rebranding. In the 21st century, we’re being groomed to see massive pesticide use and selective slaughter of wildlife as ecological steps forward, with critical thinking now rebranded as conspiracy mindset... and climate change as our planet’s clear threat.

    “Greenwashing,” a term that I’d coined in 1986, isn’t new, but its constantly evolving forms increase to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Here at the dawn of AI and its capacity for exponential dissemination of information, it may be a good time to better understand greenwashing’s many new forms. Here’s a short list:

    1. Distractivism: This “Wizard of Oz” alternate activism keeps erstwhile activists, and critical funding, focused on other, typically more benign issues... essentially passing out sunscreen in the middle of a live battlefield. A potent examples is “invasive species” hype, wherein exotic organisms are redefined as harbingers of a purported ecological apocalypse, and management efforts keep environmentalists’ valuable focus away from more immediately critical issues such as habitat loss and meteoric decline of endangered species populations.

    In many cases, the same chemical giants responsible for manufacture of the synthetic pesticides causing species decline find themselves as the new heroes of “invasive species management” efforts by providing pesticides to “control” “invasive” organisms. We’ve seen this locally, in Warwick and Chester and beyond.

    2. Biophobia / (Ecoxenophobia): The promotion of fear (and loathing) of other life forms, biophobia also expends attention, time and funding toward “management” of less desirable species, (typically with an attendant mania) away from more immediate ecological concerns. The average New Yorker sees “evil” spotted lanternflies in every butterfly that visits their garden, or “harmful algae blooms” whenever vibrant and benign green algae (touted, not long ago, for their great nutritional value and “hot thin soup” Genesis symbolism) blossom in any waterbody. Virtually everyone has heard of spotted lanternflies, but draw a blank when asked to name an actual endangered species.

    As a global field ecologist, I find it alarming to see fresh new “environmentalists” obsessing over spotted lanternflies, in the same breath posting graphics about protecting our native pollinators by allowing our weeds to grow, with pictures of honeybees and dandelions, both exotic Eurasian species, themselves, brought here by European settlers. Honeybees, dandelions and edible red apples (“As American as Apple Pie”) are all species alien to the Americas... but their ancestors arrived long ago, so they’re accepted. One expects to hear arguments that honeybees at least “learned English” after flying in through Ellis Island, perhaps even pausing for a moment on Liberty’s own copper-clad torch. This exploding distractivism of “managing” “invasive species” as a shortcut from protecting declining species and habitats is one of the greatest threats to the biodiversity of a growing number of regions, markedly-so here in NY’s Hudson Valley.

    3. Transactional Ecology: Basing protection of at-risk species or habitats on that focal species’ or habitats’ usefulness to us. Calling for wetland protection because wetlands mitigate storm runoff, for instance, or calling for protection of pollinating insects because without them we’d (purportedly) lose our food supply. While often employed as a useful tool to engage an otherwise unconcerned populace, transactional ecology has become a sort of obligation to prove the value of an organism or habitat’s usefulness to us in order to garner support for its protection or existence. Worse, a sort of second-tier form of transactional ecology now has climate activists suggesting that we save forests and plant trees “because” this will help to ameliorate climate change, itself, causing fewer to consider the importance of diverse forest composition, instead seeing any monocultural stand of hastily planted trees as being of equal ecological value... because it fights “climate change.”

    4. Climate transference: Increasingly, we see the terms “climate” and “climate change” replacing “environment,” as well as the long-exhausted term “sustainability” replacing “conservation.” Along with this semantic change, we see both public interest, and again critical funding now being funneled toward climate concerns, as if our planet’s collapsing biodiversity, increased pollution, and habitat loss had all recently been resolved, overnight.

    The obvious ecological danger of funding loss and attention deficit are enhanced by the actual damage wrought to our environment by many “climate forward” activities, all rebranded with quaint green names: land-raping solar “farms,” toxic gas explosive battery “farms” and lithium “extraction” sites. I’ve seen, firsthand, the effects of Green extractivism on our planet’s global south. More subtly, local and global governments promote this paradigm by using celebrations such as “Earth Day” to celebrate only climate-related issues... with increasing exclusivity every year. This isn’t to say that our very clear and present climate crisis isn’t real, or that it presents little threat; climate change is an issue of enormous import... but then, so is skin cancer, but an active battlefield under bombardment isn’t an appropriate site to hand out sunscreen lotion... and our planet’s biodiversity crisis is an active battlefield. Species loss is occurring daily, and cannot be reversed... which brings us to term #5:

    5. Ecotriage, or rather the avoidance of it, involves the failure to prioritize and respond to ecological threats according to their exigency. While this failure to prioritize may be accidental in some cases, it typically manifests itself in some ecological concerns being greatly over-stated, while others are swept under the global rug, as enormous corporate polluters and developers divert attention away from their own actions by outwardly supporting other, less critical ecological solutions. A standard example might be a huge copper mining corporation supporting an unrelated “green initiative” (“We’re donating $100,000 to promote plastics recycling!”) as some sort of populist eco-mitigation. Locally, here in New York, we see municipalities (Warwick, NY, is a perfect example) that embrace “sustainability” NGOs, allowing these private NGOs to guide municipal policy, while the town has allowed its municipal Conservation Advisory Committee to slowly dwindle away, at the same time, thus robbing any real oversight from the myriad development projects coming before Warwick’s planning board.

    In neighboring Chester, the approach has been even more “in-your-face:” Chester never previously had a municipal conservation advisory board, despite having been home to several preservation and conservation NGOs for decades. So, Brandon Holdridge, Chester’s supervisor-apparent, selected a few of his close friends (none of whom had done previous ecological work) to create an ad hoc “climate advisory” org. and he then directed the town board to appoint this huddle of his cronies as the official municipal “Conservation Advisory Council.” The Supervisor actually admitted to having created this overnight “CAC” in order to receive grant monies for pet projects (making the town hall more energy efficient, for example) that don’t actually act in the capacity for which CACs were designed in NYS, which was to oversee incoming development projects and investigate their effect on the natural environment. Among Chester’s CAC founders are members of Warwick’s sustainability org., mentioned earlier. This is a good point at which to mention that the private NGO “Sustainable Warwick” earns monetary referral bonuses for some of their solar initiatives, and they enabled Warwick to become New York State’s only municipality, outside of NYC itself, to join an initiative that “streamlines” toxic battery farms, etc. from having to undergo ecological assessments. This is what Chester now has in store for its future. To recap: Chester has just made a new municipal Conservation Advisory Board that was co-founded by the NGO that allows Warwick to sidestep ecological regulations for solar projects. This is greenwashing, by its most toxic definition.

    On Earth Day, 2024, we see ecological preservation having morphed away from the exigency of actual protection of our planet, its declining species and their habitat to instead identifying and “managing” “undesirable” species and making public buildings more energy-efficient.

    Remember the parable of the man searching for something, on his hands and knees, beneath a streetlight, late at night. Another man walking by, asks him, “What did you lose? maybe I can help.” “Sure,” the first man beneath the streetlight says, “I lost my ring about a block up the sidewalk.” “Why aren’t you looking up there?” asks the second man. The first man replies: “The lighting is better here”

    Jay Westerveld, Founder

    New York Natural History Council

    Jay Westerveld has been researching natural and cultural history for over 40 years. His coining of “Greenwashing” has been cited by such publications as The Harvard Business Review, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and others.