Thursday, July 2, 2009

Green vs. Greener

It's a bit of a pet peeve of mine when I hear talk about this or that product or technology being "green" or "clean."

That Prius might use 1/3 - 1/2 less fuel than my Jetta for fulfilling the same transportation need, but it isn't green by any stretch. It's still two tons of highly-refined materials (steel, nickel, copper, magnets, rubber), shipped from all over the world, driving on roads made of concrete and asphalt, and still burning a frighten amount of gasoline.

And clean? As in clean coal? No such thing. Even if things like carbon capture and sequestration come to pass, burning coal for heat and electricity still won't be clean. There's plenty more dirty about coal than just what goes up the stack: fly ash is pretty darned toxic stuff, and the techniques for mining coal leave tremendous and permanent scars on the land.

My problem with these two terms, aside from the diluted sense in which they are used (greenwashing), is that they are absolute terms. This is green, that is not; this is clean, that is not. Something of such complexity as an energy source can't be described in such clearcut terms. It is much like how I get squeamish when pundits and politicians (of all people!) start talking about what is right and wrong, or the devout go on and on about how their's is the one true faith.

Perhaps I'm some crazy hippy for not putting much stock in absolute terms. Still, I would much rather prefer if folks started using comparative forms. Instead of "green" use "greener"; instead of "clean," "cleaner."

What good would that do? Doesn't that lead to the equally nasty trap, opposite of absolutism, or making everything relative? Perhaps, but I am only focusing on these two words and the way that they are used to describe a thing's impact on the world. In that form, clean coal would become cleaner coal. The marketing guys would love it! Now we're not just clean, we're cleaner. However, once you get over the shallowness of such a marketing claim, the audience is left with the seed of a question: Cleaner than what? Cleaner than what we've got. Still...not clean in an intrinsic sense. Plus, the term implies that there could yet be something even cleaner. Just like with temperature: you might think it's cold in Minnesota in January, but it could always be colder. What seems hot for a human is barely a tiny fluctuation the vast range of temperatures we can access. I would hope that building the comparative into the debate would urge us to strive for continual improvement, to always seek for better.

As an American, I take great pride in our system of government, and marvel at the wisdom of those that instituted it. But perhaps their greatest wisdom in creating the new government was the realization that they weren't omniscient or infinitely wise - that they would need to build in some flexibility. The preamble to the Constitution speaks of forming a more perfect union, and for good reason. The founding fathers didn't go around claiming they'd come across the perfect form of government. No, they just tried to set up a framework that worked reasonably well for the day, but would allow the nation to seek to become more perfect. So, too, should we seek to do when addressing the need to do more with less.

1 comment:

Kate said...

This is pretty much the way I feel about use of the words "healthy" or "nutritious." How exactly do you define such concepts in a way that allows for the advertising claims we hear? What's 'healthy' for one person might not be for another... ooh, don't get me started...