Commentary | Capitalism absorbs the environment

A gradual change in values has turned “going green” into a selling point

Environmentalism has become an institution. The post-materialist values we observe in our generation have clashed with the legacy of the previous generation’s goal of seeking profit wheneverpossible. This article aims to shed light on this clash of valuesby applying the theory proposed by Ronald Inglehart in his book Globalization and PostmodernValues to the environmental movementand the debate it inspires.

 

Inglehart claims that the impetus of economic development stems from our desire to increase levels of general societal happiness. Citing the direct positive correlation between the increase in development and levels of happiness, Inglehart questions what happens in “developed” nations when development stagnates after a constant increase begins to level. At this point of diminishing returns, economic development stops, leading to a fundamental shift in the basic values and goals of people in advanced industrial societies. Accordingly, as increases in levels of happiness begin to stagnate, societies begin to seek development in other areas, and to emphasize quality of life concerns such as environmental  lifestyle issues. Though economic growth is still valued, an increasing portion of the public is willing to give environmental protection priority over economic growth when the two conflict.

 

Inglehart supplants this with two hypotheses regarding scarcity and socialization. The scarcity hypothesis claims that an individual’s priorities reflect their socioeconomic environment; one places the greatest subjective value on those things that are inrelatively short supply. The socialization hypothesis claims that the former relationship does not immediately calibrate – a substantial time lag is involved for one’s basic values to reflect the conditions that prevailed during their pre-adult years.

 

Prolonged periods of prosperity tend to encourage the spread of post-materialist values. These new values reflect conditions of economic security. If one grows up feeling that survival can be taken for granted, instead of the feeling that survival is uncertain, it influences almost every aspect of one’s worldview. The outlook of modern industrial society has primarily emphasized economic growth and economic achievement. Postmodern values, on the other hand, give priority to environmental protection and cultural issues, even when these goals conflict with maximizing economic growth.

 

Thus the clash begins. The infrastructure created by our parents’ generation was (and is) heavily influenced by conditions that no longer prevail in the general social psyche. The debate stirred up by youth in an attempt to increase corporate responsibility, increase environmental sustainability, and decrease harmful behaviour has been absorbed by the moneymaking, development driven, and profit-inducing infrastructure of our predecessors. The former frame of mind is engraved into existing companies to such an extent that they cannot calibrate themselves with the level of changeour generation is trying to induce.

 

“Green” becomes a selling pitch; “environmentally friendly” moves from being an adjective to a marketing tactic to get people to buy into a product. Environmentalism has become an institution much in the same way that development has become an institution; although some means may have changed,the profit-driven end has yet to disappear. Evidence for this claim is abundant: Take a look at the packaging of products while walking down grocery store aisles – bleaches, cleaning products, wasteful products are “green-washed,” in an attempt to convince consumers that their products really aren’t that bad. Such examples can be found at greenwashingindex.com/ads.php, a website put out by the University of Oregon.

 

This issue is particularly resonant in the context of urban environmental development. As environmental awareness and action becomes a top priority, governments are faced withthe opposing necessities of increasing the budget for “real” social issues, while needing to satisfy demands for environmental sustainability programs, caused by pressure from events such as the Climate Summit in Copenhagen last December. As such, governments begrudgingly increase their environmental resources andawareness. But actions definitely speak louder than words. The “Montreal Community Sustainability Development Plan” is an example of this. Taking a look at their sensationalized “Action Plan” demonstrates this perfectly. Montreal is taking the necessary steps to convince peoplethat they are in fact implementing an environmental sustainability policy, but what can we see as a result of this? One look at the article written by Sariné Willis-O’Connor indicates the contrary.

 

Our change-driven generation cannot claim that we have not been heard; rather, we have beenabsorbed and morphed into anideal that is more profitable than it is beneficial. Nothing more than unfettered idealism and faith in our generational capacity for change  will break this legacy. As we “move on up” in this world and begin to seriously influence the aforementioned infrastructure, we can reimprint it with our “for the better of humanity” nature.

Morgan UraHyde ParkMorgan Ura is a U3 Political Scienceand Philosophy student. She canbe reached at morgan.ura@mail.mcgill.ca.


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