Essay:Sunday school environmentalism

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"Pollution is bad, let's stop it!" If only things were that simple...
Some may mistakenly believe that extensive research helps an author discuss the complex and nuanced issue of environmentalism, they're not. If there is one thing that Hollywood has shown us is that being knowledgeable on the issue is completely optional and often counterproductive. ... However, the biggest pitfall to avoid is actually offering any viable solution to the problem of environmental destruction. If one must give an alternative just tell the audience to recycle more, something. After all, preaching about environmentalism is not about saving the environment, it's all about making the audience feel good about themselves, and also stroking the author's massive ego.
—ENVIRONMENTALISM - Terrible writing advice,[1] J.P Beaubien

Sunday school environmentalism refers to ideas that, on the face of it, look very "green" or "environmentally friendly" but in reality are at best reductionist and of minor importance, often merely useless, and at worst more harmful to the environment. Certain people (who shall remain nameless) promote such ideas in order to make people feel good and think they are doing something to "save the planet", but often as a marketing tactic.

This half-arsed environmentalism tends to look at things that are dramatic and convenient, while ignoring true tests of "environmental friendliness" such as the hierarchy of waste management and life-cycle assessment.

Sunday school environmentalism is related to "greenwashing", which is when corporations attempt to put on an appearance of environmental awareness, but fail to actually make an impact at all.

Sunday school environmentalism is often directed at children. Anthropomorphic animals voice environmental pieties in children's entertainments, and furry animals are exploited to sell the cause to children. Superhero cartoons such as Captain Planet, with its strawman villains befouling the Earth for sheer love of gunk, have also sought to enlist children for environmental causes with simple morality tales. It gives them something to scold their parents about; that doesn't hurt.[2]

Common examples[edit]


One of the most common "environmentally friendly" options is recycling. To recycle something means to take its raw materials and convert it to something else. It is a very dramatic intervention, but in fact only works in a few situations. The aim of recycling is two-fold; first, it saves resources by reusing them, and secondly, it saves energy by removing the need to extract and process those resources. However, if you recycle product A into product B, you still need to use resources to make A when more of it is needed — for example, when converting drink cartons to handbags,[3] you still need to produce drink cartons. If the energy expended in the recycling process is greater than manufacturing something from scratch (e.g., it takes a greater amount of energy to convert A into B than to produce B from scratch), then it is most certainly not an environmentally friendly option. Such things can cause far more damage to the environment.

Recycling is popular because it is a very visual and dramatic example of waste reduction. Seeing old milk cartons being cleared up off the street and converted to chairs just looks good.[4] People fail to take in the multitude of other factors, such as the fuel expended driving around the countryside picking up the old bottles, the energy used in the hot water cleaning them (plus detergent chemicals used), then the energy in shredding them and heating them up to several hundred degrees to melt them down; all for a product that will probably snap in half as soon as you look at it. When compared to buying a chair that is made from scratch (from either plastic or wood), recycling works out as not only more expensive, but much less environmentally friendly.[citation needed]

The economist Steven Landsburg has claimed that environmentalism has become more of a religion than a science. As an example, he points out that self-proclaimed environmentalists can 'quote reams of statistics on the importance of trees and then jump to the conclusion that recycling paper is a good idea'.[5] He argues that the opposite conclusion is equally plausible, as reducing demand for 'new' paper reduces demand for trees, giving paper companies less of an incentive to plant trees. Indeed, if you thought that Goji berries were spiritually very important and wanted more of them in the world, you would go out and buy as many as possible and encourage everyone else to do the same. Greater demand leads to greater supply. What you wouldn't do is buy one Goji berry and reuse it over and over again. (Don't think about how that would work. Not that it would. Although the taste wouldn't be all that different.)

There's a reason why "reduce, reuse, recycle" has recycle third.

All is not totally lost, though. Recycling metals, particularly aluminum (as it is very expensive in energy to process and purify from the raw material),[6] is not only viable and environmentally friendly, but also highly profitable. Environmental friendliness and profitability often go hand-in-hand in this way, because if it is more efficient to recycle than to produce a good from scratch, then money can be made from doing it.

Carbon offsetting[edit]

North Korea remain all-time champions of Earth Hour!

Possibly one of the most shamefully vile purported methods for controlling climate change has been "carbon offsetting". In this scheme, rich people basically pay a small amount on their air fares (or whatever produces pollution) which in theory goes to cutting the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere in developing countries. I.e., their pollution is "offset" by a reduction elsewhere.

Even in principle, this is total bollocks. The idea is that the increased cost will make people think about doing polluting activities and even if they do, at least there will be some benefit. In reality, however, the idea of carbon offsetting is more about offsetting the guilt for people rich enough to fly on long distance flights regularly. Carbon offset schemes have made little to no impact on people's behavior and attitudes towards the energy they use, and the money raised for "carbon reduction" schemes in developing countries is minimal at best.[7]

Degradable bags[edit]

The number of polyethylene carrier bags used worldwide is in the billions, and they usually only get used once before being thrown away. The greenwashing and Sunday School solution to this is to make the bags degradable[8] or to replace them with paper ones, as paper is viewed as much more degradable in landfill. The problem with landfills, in the US and to varying degrees elsewhere, is that as of 2011, only 34% of landfills captured methane for energy capture, and due to flaws in regulation, landfills accept materials that degrade quickly into greenhouse gases even before their gas recapture systems are in place. It is noteworthy here that materials that degrade relatively quickly, like food waste, may have more of a negative environmental impact in terms of greenhouse gases (methane and CO2) than materials that degrade more slowly, like paper, so not all biodegradable materials are made equal.[9]

Paper bags are far less reusable; you can test this by trying to tear a paper bag and then trying to tear a polyethylene bag (these things are practically indestructible). This has not stopped certain cities in Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties in California from imposing a ban on plastic grocery bags given out by supermarkets in 2012. The only good point of replacing plastic with paper comes from a wildlife management point of view: marine animals, notably turtles, can get choked on those bags when they mistake them for jellyfishes and try to eat them.

One of the first ways of producing degradable polyethylene bags was with "photo-degradable" and "oxy-degradable" bags. These are simply normal polyethylene bags with added catalysts that break down the polymers so that they decay better.[citation needed] Except for one, quite major problem: these require light and oxygen respectively, and as most bags end up in a landfill, they will not degrade.[citation needed] Other degradable bags adversely affect their longevity and performance; biodegradable bags made from "natural" polymers tend to have a much lower strength than their polyethylene counterparts.[citation needed] Although the technology for biodegradable bags is improving, with less effect on performance, they're still not excellent or well used and most still use the plasticizers and additives of conventional bags which can leach out of the plastic as an additional, and arguably far more important, pollutant.[citation needed]

The best option over plastic bags by a long shot is to just not use them. Get a decent, long-lasting canvas bag (or set of bags) that can be used for years on end, and for many different things, or at least take your old plastic bags shopping with you, to reuse. At best, you're reducing the strain on the petroleum resources used to produce them; at worst, you don't end up arse-deep in low-density plastic because you keep accumulating carrier bags on a daily basis![note 1] Alternatively, if you drove to the supermarket but forgot to bring bags into the store, you can just leave them loose in the shopping cart and unload them piece by piece rather than bag by bag.

Supermarkets in Western Europe now routinely sell (for a few pence or Euro cents) thick plastic shopping bags intended to be reused, to minimise the quantities of thin plastic bags they give out.[note 2] (The Asda supermarket chain tried withdrawing the thin plastic bags entirely, but customers wouldn't put up with it. On the other hand, many French supermarkets have managed to completely stop giving them out.) Many supermarkets in the US and Europe also sell various forms of rugged canvas or mesh bags, for quite a reasonable price, even for people who constantly forget to bring them back and end up buying new ones almost weekly.

In the United States, many grocery stores give a five-cent[note 3] discount for each reusable bag that you bring in and utilize during a shopping trip. While this rarely amounts to as much as a dollar per shopping trip, in aggregate, it will make a difference in both savings and plastic/paper bags not being used. Some grocery stores also allow the discount to be donated to a local charity.

In Scotland, all retailers must charge a minimum of five pence for a single-use carrier bag.[10]


Incineration is one of the last resort steps for dealing with waste and certainly isn't the best option; however, it is much better than sending something to a landfill. Not only do you not need to take up as much space as landfill (which isn't that great anyway), but you can also get energy from it! However, the Sunday School of environmentalism would actively oppose all incineration based on the fact that it pollutes the atmosphere. This is undeniably true, but burning waste to power generators means that you're not burning oil or coal — you pollute the atmosphere just as much for roughly the same amount of energy.[citation needed] The added advantage is that incineration for power generation recovers some of the energy put into making products in the first place. Still, incineration isn't ideal, but it is higher up the hierarchy of waste management than sending waste to a landfill site.[citation needed] Of course, power plants that burn trash need special filters to avoid dumping poisonous gases like dioxins into the air.

Nuclear power[edit]

One of the more controversial aspects of the environmentalism debate is the role that nuclear energy should play, if it should be used at all. A few people who seem concerned about the environment do point to nuclear energy as a solution, citing the low carbon emissions of the process (compared to fossil fuels). On the other hand, the average Greenpeace protester will cite nuclear waste (ignoring all the radiation that coal power, for example, puts directly into the air), accidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima, and the supposedly imminent issue of peak uranium (or uranium depletion) as reasons to avoid nuclear energy.

Among the dumber reasons to oppose nuclear power is the association with nuclear weapons and the fear that nuclear plants can explode as nuclear bombs do. This carries over into pop culture quite frequently, with plants depicted as exploding when undergoing "meltdown" – in reality, a meltdown is just melting of the nuclear materials under extreme heat; from the outside, a plant would look perfectly normal.[citation needed] This appears in games such as SimCity 4, where nuclear plants explode upon meltdown, complete with mushroom clouds (this was later changed in SimCity 2013 so a plant just releases radiation and turns into a generic ruined building). The idea that even the smallest dose of radiation is fatal or will cause advanced mutations is also pervasive among those paranoid about the environment (see Radiation hormesis). While there are good reasons against (and indeed, for) nuclear power, these are not among them.

Socially responsible investing[edit]

Socially responsible investing (SRI) is a growing field of mutual funds, most of which frame themselves as "green" and provide investors with a feel-good way of thinking they are doing something for the planet. The earliest of these funds date back to the Vietnam War, the first being Pax World Funds, and were more typically aimed at Christian, especially Christian pacifist, investors. Almost all of these funds, reflecting the Christian origins of the movement, use screening to exclude investing in companies involved in alcohol, tobacco, gambling, guns, and military contracts; a few with a Roman Catholic origin also exclude companies involved in abortion and birth control. The "green" framing of these funds appears to be a more recent innovation, and these days they also exclude companies with poor environmental records.

In practice, they invest in companies that would hardly qualify as green. For example, one of the most popular of these funds, the Parnassus Fund (as of 2010), has investments in big box stores like Lowe's and Target, and Wells Fargo bank.[11] Pax World Growth's holdings tilt heavily toward tech stocks like Google, Cisco, and IBM.[12] These funds may exclude the worst environmental offenders (ExxonMobil, for example), but otherwise their portfolios look identical to any other mutual fund.

Stocks in small, truly-green upstarts specializing in solar panels, organic food, and the like are missing entirely from most of these funds. From an investment perspective, this is understandable. Small green upstarts are purely speculative investments, and many of them are "pink sheet" or "penny stocks" that don't trade on any exchange.[note 4] Any mutual fund that did invest in those kinds of micro-cap companies would either be a poor performer or a highly volatile performer, something most people looking to put their retirement money into would not favor.

There is also the question of what different investors look for in a socially responsible fund. Somebody may not want to invest in the worst environmental offenders or in military contractors, but not really view alcohol or gambling as bad. Most of these funds still seem to be hung up on the old "sin" screens, but not on more recent (and probably more pressing) issues such as privacy, sweatshops, offshoring, or financial shenanigans.[note 5] The problem is, if any of these funds did take up these issues as investment screens, they would have to dump most of their portfolio. It's easy to exclude a few tobacco and alcohol stocks and claim this makes a mutual fund "green". It's much harder when it comes to things that are systemic in business to begin with.

Green consumerism[edit]

Saving the planet by going shopping took off around the time of the 20th Earth Day, 1990, largely on the popularity of a booklet first issued circa 1988-1989 by the Council on Economic Priorities called Shopping for a Better World. The booklet was in a handy-dandy pocket format to take to the supermarket and check brand names against the manufacturer's environmental record. Their ratings were rather arbitrary and based on who was most recently in the news for an environmental infraction; you could buy "green" gasoline from Amoco, BP, and Philips 66, while Exxon, Citgo, Texaco, and Marathon rated poorly, Exxon due to the Valdez, Alaska oil spill.[note 6] (Speaking of which, it's not pronounced "valdeez". Where'd you people get that idea from?)

This, of course, soon led to companies specializing in packaging their products to make the consumer feel like they were saving the planet by buying them. The Body Shop was an early example, putting "against animal testing" on all their labels, radical-sounding slogans on their shopping bags, and giving some of their products names like "Activist". Whole lines of cleaning products like Ecover and Seventh Generation were introduced with packaging hitting all the right green buttons.[citation needed] Amway started touting their products as good for the planet, tuna companies started putting "dolphin safe" on their cans, McDonald's switched from styrofoam to paper packaging,[note 7] and a brand of "green" cigarettes (American Spirit) hit the market.[citation needed]

This trend went viral and is still popular today. A more recent variation on the Shopping for a Better World approach is reference cards listing different seafood, and which are okay for you to eat versus which are bad for the planet. Exxon is still bad, but Citgo has now become the gasoline of choice in some circles (because they are state-owned by the Venezuelan government), while BP is no longer "green" and has surpassed Exxon as the epitome of uncaring ecological irresponsibility.[citation needed] Singling out BP or Exxon for boycotts misses the point — those disasters could have happened to any oil company.

Green consumerism involves some truth with a lot of woo mixed in. It is true that consumer choices do help direct company behavior, and consumer pressure on tuna companies to stop selling tuna caught with fishing methods harmful to dolphins were steps in the right direction. Very small steps. Not using detergent containing phosphates or disposable batteries containing mercury are better choices if you were going to buy detergent and disposable batteries anyway. The thing to keep in mind here is you aren't helping save the planet by buying these things, you are only causing slightly less damage to it. Green consumerism becomes counterproductive and actively bad for the environment when someone goes on a shopping spree buying every "green" product they see when they wouldn't otherwise have bought those things at all. In this sense, it is largely a feel-good approach with a negligible real effect. It also provides numerous examples of how consumers can be manipulated by advertising and packaging to think they are actively doing good.

At its worst, woo-based junk like the Shoo!Tag, magnetic water treatment, ultrasonic mosquito repellers, and laundry balls are marketed as "green".

Put litter in its place[edit]

Keep America Beautiful's ads are one of the enduring images of the 1970s (in the United States), depicting a Native American Italian-American in redface shedding a tear while somebody drives by throwing litter out a car window. Other popular environmental campaigns popular in the wake of the first 1970 Earth Day focused on similar issues, including replacing the detachable beer can pull tab with one that stays on the can, and trying to pass "bottle bills" banning no-deposit, no-return bottles. On the last example, Keep America Beautiful, which was funded by the beverage industry, actually opposed those bills, but the point here is that both sides in that debate were putting their effort into an issue of relatively minor importance. "Ecology" for a while had become synonymous with "don't litter", so presumably it was okay to pave over the wilderness so long as you didn't throw your beer cans out the window onto the new expressway.[note 8]

Fuel-efficient cars[edit]

While a more fuel-efficient car may reduce pollution compared to a less fuel-efficient one, even the most efficient cars are quite inefficient when compared with public transportation, which benefits from economies of scale where and when available, and incredibly inefficient compared to walking or cycling. Furthermore, increases in fuel efficiency create a Jevons paradox, tempting drivers to use the money saved on gas to drive more, and further than one normally would. This can be readily seen in how urban development patterns in the US, where gasoline was relatively cheap until the mid-late 2000s, are far more sprawling and automobile-intensive than in Europe and Japan, which have never had cheap gas on the scale that the US historically had.[note 9]

If somebody needs to own a car, then a more fuel-efficient one is certainly preferable. However, if a person has the ability to travel by other means, driving such a car is only "greener" by a matter of degrees.

Electric cars do not themselves emit significant pollution (in operation at any rate; their batteries are a different story if they are not recycled at the end of their lifetime[citation needed]). This has advantages (for example, large-scale adoption of electric cars would greatly reduce air pollution in cities). But the electrical power has to be produced somewhere, and the production of that electrical power produces pollution of some kind. Some proportion of the absent tailpipe emissions is not eliminated, but merely transferred to smokestack emissions (or nuclear waste in the case of nuclear power, or the environmental costs of manufacturing solar cells, and so on), though the size of that proportion is debatable and depends on the sources of power for the local electrical grid. Because the emissions generated to power the car are made remote and invisible, the environmental costs of driving an electric vehicle are frequently dismissed, as are the economic and environmental costs common to all automobiles (construction and maintenance of roads and highways, etc.).

Local food[edit]

Some people believe that food sourced within a certain number of miles or kilometres is always better for the environment than food sourced from further away. However, counter-intuitively, food sourced from further away often requires less fuel than that sourced from nearby. This is because of economies of scale; the bigger the truck, the less fuel it will need relative to the amount of cargo that it carries. A train uses much less than even the biggest trucks, and a container ship uses even less. Grocery suppliers design their distribution network with this in mind.

Also, even ignoring the advantages of bulk in transporting food, if the climate and soil in another location is better suited for growing a particular crop or raising a certain animal, it may well override any increase in fuel used to transport it. For instance, one study found that in the United Kingdom, tomatoes imported from Spain had a lower carbon footprint than domestic tomatoes, as the latter often need to be grown in heated greenhouses.[13]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. On the other hand, if you forget to bring your reusable bags and instead just keep buying new reusable ones, you are just creating more waste. On average, a canvas bag needs to be re-used 10 times before the increased materials and energy required for its production are offset by the number of bags taken out of circulation.
  2. Often branded as "bags for life". Which is odd, because we're also repeatedly told that carrier bags won't degrade for thousands of years, so really, these are already "bags for life" and almost as durable.
  3. in areas with a high cost of living, this is sometimes increased to ten cents. Depending on the quality of the disposable bags used, this can actually work in the store's favor, since high-quality paper grocery bags can cost them anywhere from 15-25 cents each.
  4. For example, Annie's Homegrown, the "Be Green" macaroni and cheese company, issued stock in the late 1990s; it remained unlisted and no secondary market ever developed for it, and they wound up buying back all their stock at the same price they sold it to investors.
  5. None of which are environmentally unsound issues to begin with; there's nothing inherent in a privacy-invading offshore sweatshop that would prevent it from being environmentally friendly.
  6. As of their 1989 and 1990 editions, that is. Their ratings have changed from year to year.
  7. When they did this in Australia, they pointed out the paper had more environmental costs in its production, but were changing owing to pressure anyway.
  8. Environmentalist Edward Abbey wrote in his book, The Journey Home, "Of course I litter the public highway. Every chance I get. After all, it's not the beer cans that are ugly; it's the highway that is ugly."
  9. There was actually an episode of The Lone Gunmen, "Like Water for Octane", that was about this. It's initially suspected that the disappearance of a revolutionary water-powered car had something to do with Big Oil. However, it was actually hidden away in a barn by its own inventor, who feared that ending the world's dependence on gasoline would mean more cars, more suburbs, and more consumption of other resources, accelerating environmental destruction rather than stopping it. It wouldn't even stop petroleum consumption, as cars would still use lubricant oil, would still require petroleum to produce tires and plastic parts, and would still drive on roads paved with petroleum-based asphalt. The oil company after the car actually wanted its technology in order to prepare for peak oil.