The work of Heather Rogers first entered my consciousness at a conference in New York 7 years ago. It was an early screening of her documentary film Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage. She would go on to write a book of the same title (New Press: 2005), which traced the history and politics of household rubbish in the United States. The Brooklyn-based author and journalist began that project by literally following the route of the garbage she produced. Rogers entered the dark underworld of landfills, trash incinerators, and inadequate recycling centers. She placed her discoveries in the historical context of "built-in obsolescence," the evolution of disposable consumer culture, and the looming ecological crisis.
Her latest book, Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy Is Undermining the Environmental Revolution (Scribner: 2010), shifts focus onto the drastic limitations of so-called green capitalism. Rogers explains that it was during talks she gave for Gone Tomorrow, in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., that the inspiration for the new book was born. "Almost everywhere I spoke…at least one person in the audience would say he or she thought we could cure our environmental ills by consuming the right products. I began this project because I wasn’t sure the answer was so straightforward."
What Rogers finds in her exhaustive global study is that the production of these "green" goods is actually contributing to the escalation of environmental ills. From Paraguay to Borneo, London to Detroit, and a number of other spots along the way, she brilliantly documents the consistent failure of market-based solutions to the problems facing the Earth and its inhabitants.
The book is divided into the three sections–Food, Shelter, and Transportation–in order to "address the basic aspects of what we need and use in daily life." In each, Rogers interrogates the efficacy of what is offered to consumers by the Green Marketplace: organic and fair-trade foods, eco-architecture, bio-fuels, hybrid automobiles, and carbon offsets. Going beyond the soundbytes and slogans of corporate greenwashing and inconvenient half-truths, Green Gone Wrong paints a vivid and disturbing reality of environmentalism in the 21st Century. This critique is complimented by highlighting viable solutions that do address the structural roots of our social and ecological crises.
Rogers believes that small farmers that use "unconventional" or "beyond organic" agricultural practices should be able to make a living wage and not have to rely on off-farm sources for the majority of their income. Based on her observations and conversations with such farmers (a dwindling breed) in Upstate New York, Rogers shares their struggles against watered-down USDA organic regulations and keeping their farms with a limited customer-base of people who can afford $14 cartons of eggs. All the while, organic food is becoming more popular and profitable as corporations like Walmart and General Mills cash in. Keeping up with this demand, she discovers, has translated into deforestation in places like Paraguay where stretches of rainforest are turned into organic monocrop like sugarcane.
As far as shelter goes, Rogers believes that 40 percent of all CO2 gas in the United States should not come from buildings, as it currently does. She points out eco-architecture here is limited to the wealthy, while in Europe it is catching on and becoming more affordable. In London she discovers its severe limitations, leading her to Freiburg, Germany where eco-villages utilizing solar power have been sustaining themselves since the 1970’s, producing more energy than they use.
A number of Rogers’ talks leading up to the publishing of Green Gone Wrong focused largely on biofuels and the clear-cutting of rainforest in Indonesian Borneo to make way for the cultivation of palm oil. This process of deforestation is threatening one of the only habitats for the endangered orangutan, creating social upheaval amongst the indigenous Dyak communities, and has helped make Indonesia the 3rd largest emitter of CO2 gas in the world, behind the U.S. and China. Additionally, "crop-based biofuels wreck food supplies," as the global riots, in response to the price of corn and other crops rising 80 percent or more, between 2007 and 2008 illustrate.
"As some readers will note, all this flying and driving made no small contribution to greenhouse gas emissions," Rogers admits. "I regret the resulting environmental impacts, but not the journeys themselves. In an effort to shrink my swollen carbon footprint, which became double what it normally is, I could simply pay a CO2 offset company to ‘neutralize’ my greenhouse gases. But after the research I’ve done I don’t have the confidence that this would have the intended impact." In India she found carbon offset ventures that were doing more harm than good. Carbon offset money discourages certain countries from investing in wind or solar power and continues their reliance on fossil fuels.
Rogers’ larger point is that the choices that we make are not ours, they were created by a socioeconomic system that disregards environmental concerns for profit and growth. "Green Gone Wrong is an appeal to the reader to take the evolving environmental crisis as an opportunity," and "arises from the belief that we have the capacity to find solutions that are not simply products to buy, but ways of engaging with how we live and what we want our world to be."
While Gone Tomorrow drew on the past–the history of garbage in the U.S.–to move forward in the present, Green Gone Wrong is placed firmly in the current moment, through the lenses of a more ecologically sound future. Both books are fierce and articulate indictments of consumer capitalism. Radical in the best sense of the word, Rogers has no illusions about the root causes of the world’s many problems. Her latest book is a refreshing antidote to corporatization of Earth Day and tepid climate change reforms being introduced by the Obama administration. I also found the urgency of her prose extremely effective as she narrates from the remotest corners of the globe in present tense.
During a presentation given at the Socialism 2009 Conference in Chicago while she was still working on the book, Rogers described the dilemma of the Dyaks in Borneo; the forests they’ve known for centuries being cut down with chainsaws, and how surreal the blighted moonscape that now stands in its place is. There’s a general sense that even though the rainforest is being actively decimated that it will always be there.
"After I got back to the U.S. I realized that we sort of operate the same way. We wake up every morning, the birds are chirping, the sun is out, there are still trees around, we can drink water from the tap–and we can’t imagine that it could be gone. And yet we continue polluting. We continue allowing the political leaders and the captains of industry to carry on manufacturing things that pollute the atmosphere, that destroy the environment, undermine biodiversity. And lots of people say, ‘Oh, this is so depressing.’ But do you want hope, or do you want false hope? There’s a difference…I think a big part of it is that it still remains so abstract. Part of that is because there’s all of these commodities out there that tell us that we’re fixing it. You buy the right things and you’re contributing to helping the planet."
Matt Dineen is a writer and activist based in Philadelphia. He is a publicist for Aid & Abet, a cooperative booking agency that works with radical activists and artists. Contact him at: email@example.com