It's Not Easy Being Green When You're In The Red

By George Grattan, Earthwatch Institute. NOTE: The opinions expressed here are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Earthwatch.

"Honey, can we afford the environment this month?"

Okay, that's not exactly how I phrased it. But when my wife and I sat down for one of those bill-paying/family budget review sessions that I'm sure you love as much as we do, that was the gist of my question: how much could we afford to spend on organic food and/or restocking some green cleaning supplies before the next payday?

The answer was that we couldn't afford those particular aspects of our environmentalism—or at least not as much of them—this time around. While we've been relatively insulated from the economic meltdown (if you set aside the fact that I almost mistook our 401K statements for bills), we're definitely feeling the need to do some hemp-belt tightening. I suspect more than a few Treehuggers are feeling the same.Our unease is mostly due to the higher overall food costs of the past few months and the start of heating season in New England. Even though we're on a budgeted payment plan for the natural gas that heats our apartment and our water, our utility will recalibrate that rate every four months. In this case, it's going to pay—both financially and environmentally—to keep our usage down, so we're investing in a reflective blanket cover for the hot water heater and in repairs to the weather sealing around some of the older windows. But we're still leery of the potential wintery hit, and foodstuffs and other pricey green goods aren't investments in the same immediate sense.

Over the long term, it surely pays to be green: you use less gas or heating oil and you leave more money in your pocket; you grow your own food and reduce your expenses (over time) as well as your diet's carbon footprint; you reduce, reuse, and recycle and you get far, far more bang for your buck while putting less waste into the production and distribution streams. In many ways, going green does tend to put more green back into the household coffers.

But what about the short term?

Geez, have you seen the prices of organic food lately? Or even of some locally-grown foods, whether organic or not? With months of record-high petroleum prices only now receding, it's been increasingly tough for us to justify making certain environment-friendly purchases. Too often, the existing systems of production, distribution, and consumption in the US mean that—for now—green is costlier up front, out of pocket for individuals.

So, while my commitment to these issues hasn't changed, my ability to pay for my participation in this aspect of them has.

Granted, buying our way to a sustainable future is a highly suspect idea to start with, but I've always seen our previous willingness to shop at the place we lovingly call "Whole Paycheck" as a small part of the solution: the better those types of products and production systems do, the argument goes, the more of them the market will bring to the fore, thereby slowly changing the overall climate—in all senses of that word. Buying green is generally a smart choice, and an important way to put money into the modes of production one wishes more companies would emulate.

But that's often meant subsidizing, being willing to pay a bit more for that ethical "value add." At a time when I'm looking to pay a bit less for everything, I'm left wondering what's going to win out each time I'm confronted with that consumer's choice.

On one hand we consumers have to exercise the ethical value of our purchases: forgive the admittedly heretical paraphrasing, but we need to buy the change we want to see in the world. On the other hand, the reality of our worldwide environmental crisis is now being joined by the reality of a worldwide economic crisis. On the personal level, it's going to be hard, some pay periods, to do the right thing regarding both calamities.

On the institutional level, the good news seems to be that major corporations that have already invested millions in greening their practices—and have started to see benefits to their bottom lines—aren't going to bail on those efforts now; some may even double-down on green as part of their strategy to get back in the black. What's less clear is how governmental green spending and investment—to say nothing of philanthropic green giving—are going to be re-prioritized. Governments, in particular, aren't known for focusing overmuch on long-term benefits in the face of short-term costs.

Clearly, various aspects of the environmental movement (including my own employer, of course) are aware that individuals, foundations, and governments alike may be looking to the green market as a place to cut back. And, quite rightly, the movement's pushing back against that potential with useful reminders about the relative scope and scale and longevity of what we're dealing with in economic and environmental terms.
As Jean-Christophe Vie, Deputy Head of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature put it in reference to their recent "red list" report on threatened mammal species, "The financial crisis is nothing compared with the environmental crisis. It's going to affect a few people, whereas the biodiversity crisis is going to affect the entire world. There is a risk that because of the financial crisis, people are going to say 'yeah, the environment is not that urgent'; it is really urgent."

Though I've got to roll my eyes a bit at Monsieur Vie's own sense of the scale of the current economic woes—the crisis is affecting and is going to affect millions more than "a few people"—his larger point that the environmental crisis and its global implications cannot be allowed to take a backseat to the economic one in global agendas is valid.

But my household budget isn't a global agenda. It's not even a neighborhood one, except for the fact that we're going to tick off the paperboy with a smaller tip. (Kidding. Of course I read my papers in tree-safe online mode.) It's all well and good for us to keep the pressure on major institutions to keep funding environmental research and remediation, but, um, I'm personally a little strapped for cash.

I can excuse and console myself (a bit) with the knowledge that I'm working for an NGO www.earthwatch.org that in its own way helps people around the world create sustainable economies where they don't have to choose as starkly as they've had to in the past between having livelihoods or healthy ecosystems. Whether through our research projects like Costa Rica's Sustainable Coffee (working with local farmers to develop and refine coffee growing techniques that are good for the environment and the local economy),or Macaws of the Peruvian Amazon (seeking data to protect endangered birds and habitats as well as promote responsible eco-tourism practices in the region), to name just two, we try to make sure that emerging and developing local economies don't continue along the unsustainable path we've perfected in the US.

And I can feel okay about continuing to drive our 4-year-old, 50,000 mile hybrid 26 miles a day round trip (car pooling at least one day a week) while my wife uses public transit. We're committed to driving that car for at least 150,000 miles, and I'm committed to getting in good enough shape again by spring to do at least one of my daily commutes by bike. None of that stuff—nor the recycling, the attempts at growing herbs and peppers in the yard, or our refusal to buy bottled water—is going to cost us any more money.

But buying some of the pricier organic and/or local foods? Digging a little deeper for the green cleaners and personal grooming products? Those things will take too much of a cut, at current prices. For the time being, those and some other green activities are likely going to need to take up a smaller portion of the family budget.

How about you? How much environment can you afford this paycheck? And how are you making these decisions around your no-doubt-made-from-sustainably-harvested-wood kitchen table?

Image credits:TerraChoice, Money Tree, and Earthwatch


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