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It's priceless being green

By Alanta Colley - posted Tuesday, 2 December 2008

I was leafing through a copy of the Sydney Morning Herald over breakfast recently when I read the front cover of one of the supplements. “Eco-Driving”; the title read and showed a luscious scene of a silver car weaving its way along a road through an old growth forest. The article inside described how your family trip along the Great Ocean Road could be “good for the world”. I was hooked. As a non-car owner, I wanted to know how I could improve the state of the planet by getting on my bicycle and popping down to the nearest car dealership.

The article went on to explain this great new concept called “eco-driving”, which apparently is all the rage in Europe. Essentially it described a strategy where if you break less harshly and accelerate more slowly when you're driving, you can save a whopping 5 per cent of your petrol consumption. Well woopdedoo, you might be so bold as to think.

Now the article didn't want to ruffle any feathers. It proudly announced that nine out of ten Australian households had a car, and noted that per capita, Australians own more cars than any country in the world save the US. And rightly so, we're told, for car ownership “is an Australian way of life”. It even went on to declare the importance of the vehicle industry to Australia's prosperity, and reminded us to think of the 66,000 families who are directly supported through the automotive industry, which puts $5 billion going back into the economy.


I was flummoxed. The pictures; the heading, heck, even the colour of the font had lured me into the impression I was about to learn a secret into the way to protect the environment, but had come away feeling slightly guilty for having reached the age of 26 and never shown my support for our struggling Aussie Battlers by buying a car.

At this point I investigated further and discovered that I was reading a special advertising supplement sponsored by Holden. While that should have been the point, I dismissed it, but as I disposed of the paper in the recycling it got me thinking.

Environmentalism is the word on the street nowadays. The Rudd Government came to power on a strong platform of climate ghange mitigation. Supermarkets are making a fortune selling green synthetic bags with happy pictures of a smiling earth on the side. “Old School” factories are trading carbon credits like it’s nobody's business. Even on Facebook you can add an application which apparently reduces your CO2 emissions. It's magical. Yep, we're all down and funky with the green revolution. Global warming ain’t cool man!

But where does critical analysis come into it? How does someone get away with claiming a 5 per cent reduction in fuel use is going to save the planet in the same breath as celebrating record levels of car production? Why does every solution for saving the environment also seem to guarantee someone along the line sells more stuff and makes more money?

We're now seeing the emergence of a new group in society, which I like to call the Non-Practicing Environmentalist. Similar to the Non-Practicing Christian; the NPE can talk the talk, and even walks the walk, if the walk is to the garage and into the car. The NPE pats himself on the back for throwing out all the old light globes and installing energy saver globes. That way one can feel good about leaving the lights on during the day. The NPE has long showers confident in the knowledge that he's got a water-saver shower head. The NPE religiously recycles, placidly ignoring the “reduce and reuse” part of the slogan. The NPE feels superior using T2 lane when he's got someone in the car; but wouldn't be seen dead catching a bus to work. The NPE has done everything humanly possible to save the environment, that is, without changing his lifestyle or consumption habits at all.

The thing is, it’s not the NPE's fault, strictly speaking. Private industry recognised early on that people will pay more for products if they can assuage the consumerist's guilt with a cheerful declaration that purchasing this product will save the environment.


Unfortunately the annoying truth about reducing our ecological footprint is that there is no handy pre-packaged solution that we can pick up from the supermarket. The solution is to use less. Much less. And you can be assured that no manufacturing company is going to tell you that. It's not a sexy truth.

The NPE isn't the only one to kick and scream when it comes to actual change. Industry is just as bad. One frequent claim is that we must continue to protect and support an industry even when their activities are having tremendously negative impacts on the environment. If we don't, people WILL LOSE THEIR JOBS.

This claim, used in such circumstances as Holden's infomercial, the woodchip pulp mill in Tasmania and by logging companies, has always perplexed me. If we go back to fundamentals, and examine the purpose of industry, surely it is to produce services or goods which benefit the rest of society. Now if the activities of that industry have deviated from this role, and create more detriment than good; and its only redeeming feature is the income it generates for its workers, then surely that company has become outmoded?

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About the Author

Alanta has worked for the past 7 years in community development in Africa, South East Asia and with Aboriginal communities in Australia. Her training is in Public Health and disease prevention, and is particularly focused on gender equality through health. She's dug latrines, inspected mosquito nets, and surprised men's meetings with family planning education. She is simultaneously easily disgruntled and incurably optimistic.

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