Thursday, 9 August 2007

Green Consumerism -- an oxymoron

I get pretty fed up with the sort of environmentalist who thinks that switching of a light bulb or two is going to save the planet. While I do agree that the individual could do a lot more to make the world a better place, unfortunately the real action has to come from higher up the food chain. Switching off a light bulb is where I started, so I will carry on. All over the world, visible from outer space, lights are illuminating the night sky. Flying anywhere in the world, from 40,000 feet above the earth, street lights are visible. Thousands of megawatts of energy are pumped into the night sky. And if we aren't worried about this enormous waste of energy, then we should worry about the impact on biodiversity.

Fifty years ago, I remember moths and other night-flying insects being a real problem if a window was left open at night in suburban London where I grew up. Insects flew around street lights, which were generally switched off around midnight.

Now there are tens of thousands more street lights, every little village seems to have them, and intercity motorways even have them, and they burn continuously throughout the hours of darkness. Why? After about midnight, in most places there are few if any pedestrians. Is it a primeval fear of darkness asserting itself in the 21st century? Is it really so dangerous to walk in darkness? Is the world so much more dangerous than it was in 1890?

There has been a huge amount published about the effects of street lighting on wildlife, and I have blogged about it before. My point here is that we should all be doing more to force government, at every level from the parish, city, borough, district, county, state, national level -- wherever appropriate -- to tackle the real issues. A 10p tax on plastic bags; realistic public transport fares, that don't simply encourage pointless journeys, penalise retailers that encourage overpackaging (why is it that organic food is among the most overpackaged, and often comes with airmiles as well?).

Then we should tackle green consumerism. An oxymoron if ever there was one.


  1. Anne (WLT Donations)13 August 2007 at 17:15

    Just re organic food being overpackaged: two things are at work here, I think. Firstly traceability standards - to sell organic food loose a shop has to be licenced and inspected by the organic bodies itself. This isn't free - so I can see why a lot stick to the prewrapped stuff. Secondly, and a lot easier to deal with,is organic food being marketed as a luxury product. Whether it is one is a whole different question, but it needn't be wrapped as such!
    The airmiles question..well the Soil Association is looking into it. The basis of the difficulty is both demand (again, we can stop demanding if we choose) and behind this the assumption that a decent standard of living for the 'Third World' can only be created through trade.....
    The whole green consumerism thing is of course based on the idea that trade does make the world go round and all we need/can do is change its direction a little. I just hope it doesn't make the world come to a grinding halt!

  2. Good points, which help clarify, even if they don't alwys make sense. I also saw bottles of wine from Argentina in our local supermarket with fair trade labels. No why can Argentina g=ahve fair trade labels, and France or Spain not? Trading Argentine wine is hardly fair on EU growers. The question about Fair Trade, is fair to whom? The label is designed to give a competetive dge, so preumably is always inherently unfair to someone else.

  3. The organic/food miles issue is an interesting one. When I heard that the Soil Association was considering changing the regulations so that imported produce with a lot of air miles could *not* be labelled organic ( I was a little surprised. The term "organic" is unfortunately named of course, but the concept, as far as I have understood it at least, encompases only the way food has been produced, not how it has been transported. If the standards change to take into account energy costs, then food miles should not be the only factor to consider, but also production costs (in terms of energy use).

    Frankly I'm getting a bit fed up with the "buy local" campaigns; wouldn't "buy seasonal" be a better option? You can sometimes buy UK produced tomatoes in winter, but they will have been grown in a heated greenhouse, so you'd need to compare the energy costs of this with the air miles of buying imported tomatoes grown outdoors - or you could choose a different product that's local *and* in season (and complement your diet with exotic imports once in a while).

    Regarding the packaging, if small green grocers can sell loose weight organic produce, then why not the supermarkets? They could certainly better afford the licence. I have a feeling they package the organic produce so that customers can't peel off the organic labels and pretend their fruit & veg are the cheaper, non-organic variety...

  4. Here’s a link to an interesting article titled, “UCS issue some global warming snake oil” posted at:

    Robert A.

  5. My reply to John's original post has got lost in the web. Like him, I have had a down on street lights ever since I walked into one. This was in the old days when they switched off at the stroke of midnight, leaving pedestrians floundering. I was caught out because my village did not have street lights but most householders left a porch light burning until they went to bed and we carried torches.
    Contrast this with the modern situation. Street lights are left on all night. A neighbouring village has got a much needed by-pass (every time the A14 get blocked, traffic is diverted through it). There are 4 roundabouts on the by-pass and each one has about two dozen street lights. In my village, many houses have one or more security lights which are on all night and still burn after daybreak. Others have "vanity lights" on their gateposts. Add to these, the all-night lights on distribution centres (aka warehouses), petrol stations and even a sewage pumping station, there is no chance of seeing the Milky Way or the glow of honey fungus. A recent report in the excellent journal British Wildlife tells of lighting affecting the foraging of bats.
    It is said (by FoE?) that there would be great savings if we turn off the standby lights on TVs etc, but think of what the savings would be if these lights were simply programmed to burn only when needed - like my security lights which come on for minute when cats and deer wander past the house.

    Regarding Helena's point about supermarkets selling loose produce. They do in France. Benefits include buying only as much as you want (eg 1 orange!) and also being able to choose the orange. You weigh your selection yourself and stick a price label on it for check-out. But I don't think organic/non-organic came into the choice.

    PS This form is set up for US spelling and there is something under it about HTML-Tags in German. Is this globalisation?