Faced with climate change, many counsel “going green,” encouraging us to buy organic food or a “clean” car, for example. But can we rely on consumerism to provide a solution to the very problems it has helped cause? Heather Rogers travels from Paraguay to Indonesia, via the Hudson Valley, Detroit, and Germany’s Black Forest, to investigate green capitalism, and argues for solutions that are not mere palliatives or distractions, but ways of engaging with how we live and the kind of world we want to live in.
A new afterword considers various ways in which national development might be freed from its dependence on economic growth, allowing for a decent standard of living without exhausting the planet’s resources.
Current events have been doing a sterling job of keeping up to date with Heather Rogers’s Green Gone Wrong, out this January in paperback from Verso. The First World’s misguided push toward biofuels, the effects of which Rogers travelled the globe to document, continues to take food from the tables of the world’s neediest. Earlier this month, the New York Times followed our author’s lead with a report on the plight of Guatemala’s poor, now struggling to deal with another spike in corn prices prompted by the biofuel boom.
Indeed, Green Gone Wrong is at times eerily prescient. It’s as if the climate has been taking notes since the book's hardback publication. “I’m expecting a climate 9/11 event,” says a Professor Weber, a former adviser to Obama’s energy secretary who has a cameo role in Chapter 3. “Just think about a hurricane that goes through Manhattan.” Think about it? You can watch it on YouTube if you happened to miss Hurricane Sandy's stopover in the Tri-State Area last October.
So, Heather Rogers is clearly one of our more reliable Cassandras. But what escaped a number of reviewers’ notice is that Green Gone Wrong contains a welcome dose of green gone right, too. Sure, the beleaguered organic farmers she visits in upstate New York lead a tenuous existence, with 85 to 95 percent of small farms dependent on “off-farm” income. Fair Trade goods are often nothing of the sort, since smallholders end up dependent on capricious suppliers for access to the Western market. But in Germany, Rogers finds remarkable glimmerings of sanity from a world that sometimes seems determined to wreck its hull on the nearest reef.
In Freiberg, Rogers visits a state-of-the-art, affordable eco-apartment that uses only one-fifteenth of the energy consumed in the average home. That’s no mean feat when you consider that the United States produces 40 percent of its carbon emissions from powering and heating residential and commercial space, a figure that increases to 50 percent in the UK. Germany’s solar programme also gets an appropriately glowing write-up. And so it should. Since the hardback edition was published, Germany succeeded one day last May in producing half its power during peak hours from solar panels.
The success of solar power in fog-bound, Wagnerian Germany is not entirely a matter of Teutonic efficiency and the nation’s fabled technical expertise. There’s more to it than that, and Rogers has the skinny on the story. Back in 2006 and 2008, Russia cut the gas supply to Europe, claiming that the Ukraine was syphoning supplies. Germany needed energy independence fast, and a vocal, effective anti-nuclear movement had long ago closed down that avenue to energy production. Now the country is en route to producing all its energy from safe renewable sources come 2050.
The German experience is evidence that the climate crisis can be solved; it’s a matter of political will. If a hurricane bowling down the streets of Manhattan isn’t enough to make governments feel the pinch of necessity, it’s up to us to put the squeeze on our representatives.