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The publicity stunt of greenwashing the climate crisis

Develop good habits, not social media posts
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JULIEN BALBONTIN/THE VARSITY
JULIEN BALBONTIN/THE VARSITY

Greenwashing sounds like the name of an expensive celery juice or HGTV renovation show, but it actually refers to people who jump on the climate crisis bandwagon, hoping to benefit from the environmental movement without any intention of protecting the environment.

I’m sure that earlier this year many people saw social media posts about the Amazon Rainforest fires, expressing astonishment and calling it unacceptable. Perhaps you even posted something yourself. However, this outcry didn’t accurately reflect the sacrifices people made in response to the fires.

How many people donated to non-profit organizations that helped manage the outbreak and support Indigenous populations? How many stopped eating beef because our carnivorous desires fuel the pressure for ranchers to clear the Amazon? How many have kept up with the fires’ status, or the status of forests in Indonesia and Bolivia?

This is greenwashing — when the pigment of our green hands washes off in the privacy of our own economic, social, and political decisions. And it exists just as much on the individual level as the corporate. 

The issue here is appearance versus reality. Is the underlying reason that people and companies are compelled to act in an environmentally friendly way because they seek to mitigate the climate crisis — or do they simply seek to benefit from appearing eco-conscious? Greenwashing seems to encompass the latter sphere.

However, greenwashing operates on a level deeper than plain pretending. People internalize a picture of sustainable living that fits within the comfortable framework of their lives. This allows them to disregard how that lifestyle cannot effectively prevent climate destruction, and this is incredibly dangerous because it perpetuates a cycle of climate inaction.

We greenwash ourselves because it feels good. It bolsters our sense of moral worth without harming our destructive habits. To that end, we want the validation associated with helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions with none of the costs. To be part of a movement. To seem inscrutable. But this is a false altruism that cannot create concrete results.    

As much as I believe that greenwashing is rotten, I, too, like to remain where I feel comfortable, and often justify unsustainable practices by telling myself that I do other things for the environment. I bring reusable bags to the grocery store and take shorter showers, and apparently that’s enough.

I always receive some moral feeling — a heaviness, a disappointment, a guilt — when I do something hypocritical. I just know that I’m not being authentic. And that moral feeling guides me to a better path.

Previously, this feeling has always led me to actions that were more meaningful and satisfying. They were objectively right for me. But the thing about greenwashing is that it erases the moral weight of my actions. I could exchange one large, life-altering change for little actions of inconsequential support toward the planet.

When this is extended to society at-large, it means that we will have a sense of fulfillment, despite objectively not doing enough to tackle the climate crisis and re-shape our relationship with the environment.

It’s important that we recognize how we trick ourselves into not addressing climate change through greenwashing, since it’s the only way that we can take a step back and evaluate how greenwashing is another manifestation of our self-interested behaviour.

The climate crisis is essentially a challenge to the idea of an all-powerful human will. We affected the Earth with our growth and technology, and the Earth is responding with a series of catastrophic effects that will overpower humanity. But, in that context, we ultimately get to define ourselves. We are an aggregate of the decisions that we make, values that we hold, and attitudes that we display; we must will ourselves to be different.

There is room to be self-defining, and authentic, while combatting the climate crisis. If greenwashing is a choice, then we have the choice to stop it. It’s high time we learn to nurture our nature.