What does Green Mean?


The social command and activist mantra “Be Green” is loaded with deceptive connotations. I believe that the establishment of a truly just and sustainable society will require each and every one of us to change our habits and our preferences. On the other hand, creating a sustainable society will require far more from each of us than just buying organic and recycled products. Too many people think that making environmentally sensitive choices in their private lives suffices to advance sustainability. I believe that creating a society where no one bears excessive environmental burdens requires the promotion of public policies that make more sustainable and efficient industrial processes an economic necessity, rather than a liability. To truly “be green,” one must pursue building a sustainable society as not simply a personal moral imperative,but a social and political imperative as well.

photo of a smiling young woman wearing a backpack Meleah Houseknecht

While placing personal fulfillment over material consumption, and supporting socially and environmentally responsible companies can have profound social and environmental benefits, relying solely on individual consumer choices to advance a green agenda has critical limitations. First, it doesn’t address the fact that individual consumption accounts for only a small part of environmental damage. Second, there are many people who will never voluntarily change their habits to make society more sustainable. Third, the Live Green/Buy Green approach fails to recognize that the people living in the communities most affected by environmental destruction are usually the very people who are least able to afford the products that lessen that damage. A focus on green consumerism leaves the people with the greatest stake in solving environmental problems disengaged and unable to participate in that solution.

Ending the current cycle of environmental injustice requires that we fundamentally change the ways in which we produce and consume, which, in turn, will require a major shift in the way we structure our economies and societies. The concept of “being green,” rather than the practice of just consuming green, must include promoting a broader vision of a society that rewards more sustainable production and consumption habits.

Realizing this vision will involve codifying new public policies that encourage and even require all sectors of the economy to dramatically reduce consumption by conserving resources through reuse and recycling. It will require all products to be designed to use more renewable materials, be easily recycled, and be more durable, reversing the trend towards a “disposable society.” It will involve the public sector setting an example for all institutions and helping to drive more sustainable industries by leveraging municipal, state, and federal purchasing power, and by subsidizing new highly efficient, low-waste industries such as small-scale recyclers, rather than agribusiness and Big Oil. And, for all of this to come to fruition, it will involve people thinking green, organizing green, acting green, and voting green.

I believe that to “be green,” each of us must work on two fronts. We must make more sustainable choices as consumers, while also actively working to support local, state, national, and global policies that will bring our consumption patterns into better harmony with the ecological limits of the planet and with the social value of a healthy environment for all people. It is important to write to elected officials. It is important to become an active member of local and national environmental organizations that can use your membership to speak with a powerful collective voice. As for myself, I plan to use my graduate degree in environmental management to work in the areas of policy development and implementation, research, and advocacy. I plan to put into practice my belief that being green goes beyond supporting sustainability with my dollars, to include transforming society with my civic activities and with my vote.

— Meleah Houseknecht is a candidate for a Masters in Environmental Management at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

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