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Photo Credit: Christina Cotter

Could I define sustainability if I had to? Does my Goyard Matellier Depuis recyclable canvas bag from Barneys ($1,065 retail, plus $310 with gold-painted recycling logo) say that I’m doing the right thing? What do shrinking icecaps have to do with the price of chai? How far should I live from work? It’s all a green blur, and it’s only speeding up. If you’ve got an old soft spot for this earth we call home, plug in, pedal on, peel off – ponder the notion of being one slogan away from oblivion…

We all want to do things to help the planet; the great value of doing so is the marker of the present era. Its reward is not so much monetary, though that possibility is a crucial element of its allure. “Being green,” a locution without analogue in modern or ancient times, has become a mantra. “Green” has seized our imaginations and is bleeding halfway out the other side. Never before has our way of life become so defamed as to bear the responsibility of its very short-sightedness.

A collision of double entendre has caught us in the crossfire of capitalism and self-preservation. We need to sort it out. But our closest hold on what to do is a vague reference we mostly associate with money. Is it just a buying guide? What does “green” actually mean?

A color, an R.E.M. record, the signal to “go,” money, envy, inexperience, eco-friendliness – “green” is all of these things. But today, the word is tied by all its previous definitions into a singular juggernaut, a marketing vortex urging us to keep doing what we’re doing, to change what we’re doing slightly and keep it all going, better than before. We have to go back to second grade and ask which of these does not belong?

The present era is, of course, largely defined by material things. It is how we define our happiness and we have, many of us by this substitution, reduced our existence to the pursuit of things. But as the present era flirts with jeopardy – we are able to connect its peril to many of our favorite pursuits.

After dispatching most of what got us here – farming, manufacturing and actual, top-notch education – we are heavy-laden with much of what’s left. It’s hard to scotch together lotteries and casinos with corporate farming and big box retailing and call it culture. The same goes for the greening that is being alluded to in everything from car commercials to designer handbags. We’re exhorting each other to change but otherwise flipping channels. The cognitive dissonance itself might begin to shake people out of their stupors, but we can count on that as much as we might Exxon-Mobil to get us out of our cars.

The tie that binds in all this is sustainability. Its faint echo of that quintessential American trait of self-sufficiency appeals to something inside of us, even breaks through the corporate misdirection. It may even pull us through. But as it was on the frontier, the first step is to realize that pulling through is in no way inevitable. The institutional memory of our country – not the Indian-killing part, but the pioneering spirit – still ties us to the land in a way that defies reality at present. In fact,

.0001 percent of the population has ever plowed an acre, much less cleaned a rabbit. Yet we intuit a connection to the land that, with the right nudging and redemptive carrots, may supersede our thirst for plenty and put us on a path where less actually does equal more.

It is time to visualize a dialed-back existence. But only in advertising-land does walking, conservation, recycling, biking and living close to work equal a lesser existence (and even there, things seem negotiable). There will be no instant gratification from embracing these options, except that you might immediately begin to feel better! Contrary to reports, we actually have a great deal of power to throw around – it’s called better living through thinking.

The paradigm shift to turn our opportunism toward the planet arrives conveniently enough at the beginning of the end of our supply of fossil fuels. So, in a way, we’re putting a happy advertising face on a cold truth. Re-deploying the progress that put us in these very straits hints at a suspicious contradiction, an altruistic selfishness, that the two are incompatible. Perhaps we should think about them differently, release ourselves from the urge to volunteer only what we’re willing do, throw back a shot of that frontier ingenuity and realize what we must do. Can our habits be efficiently re-purposed? Some of them, maybe. Self-preservation hasn’t resisted incarnation as a marketing tool, yet the very savvy on which it depends tests our ability to hold conflicting thoughts in our heads. We’ve placed ourselves in sufficient danger, which is usually the hard part. The trick now is to become better informed and unpack what we mean by “green” before another innocent word slides into meaningless sloganry.


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