Third Wave Green: A Cold Hard Look at 10 Sacred Cows

The Third Wave Green concept we’ve introduced at EcoSalon means taking a hard look at the environmental movement’s sacred truths and considering whether or not they exclude diversity of thought and, most important, hold up to scrutiny. Not always an easy or comfortable task.

Deconstruction – or probing an argument’s veracity by exposing even its most counterintuitive contradictions – allows ideas to evolve and survive over time. This approach is invaluable to creating a “sustainable” Green movement – one that can withstand the most savage attacks by short-term-focused corporate interests (and their legislative, cultural and media puppets), as well as the defeating apathy of a green-weary populace. We’re starting with 10 common green assumptions many of us subscribe to, and asking: should we?

1. Assumption: Vegetarianism and veganism are pro-planet

Reality? There’s a monocrop where that rainforest used to be

It’s true that consuming less meat is a sound way to help lessen your carbon footprint; but like most assumptions, the underlying truth is more complex. A hamburger may be worse than a Hummer (or so the oft-repeated refrain goes), but the mock-meat-processed-from-a-monocrop-in-Myanmar style of vegetarianism is no golden nugget of eco goodness. Better to eat ethically-produced meat on rare occasions as flexitarians do than abstain from the steak but make heavily processed (and unhealthy) faux meats a cornerstone of your diet. Further complicating things, there are numerous studies showing that what’s really sustainable is efficiency, and in some cases, that means meat production over other types of product manufacture – even vegetables. And then of course, there’s the fact that even a truck driving, Big Mac chomping “Average Joe” has a lighter carbon footprint, on balance, than a green-leaning parent raising American offspring.

2. Assumption: Vegan fashion is good; fur is murder

Reality? Dressing up the truth and let’s talk leather

A world without fur makes sense to many. But is wearing leather any different? How many advocates for banning fur eat meat or don leather shoes or coats? Is killing an animal for its hide ever okay? If so, when? Can someone who does still be Green? Fur is viscerally offensive to many – but by that same token, shouldn’t we recoil at all the boots made for walking? Further, how exactly did vegan get lumped in with green fashion when many vegan products are made of toxic synthetics derived from fossil fuels? If a plastic (vegan) jacket is really better for the planet than a wool one, let’s ask if it’s because it is truly more sustainable in terms of the resources required to make it. Or is it just more efficient today, in our current context of an ultimately unsustainable, but temporarily efficient and cheap, system?

3. Assumption: Environmental protection is the key to our survival

Reality? Go GINK (Green Inclinations, No Kids) or go home

Or: It’s not the hamburgers and Hummers, stupid, it’s the kids. While the Green movement focuses on wildlife habitats, pollution and greenhouse gas reductions, and other ways to save the planet, are its efforts moot if it fails on the population challenge? It’s easy to create a epic battle in our minds that pits us against our helpless environment. But might the real battle not involve the environment at all? Perhaps George Carlin was right when he said that if we get to be too irritating, “the planet will shake us off like a bad case of fleas.” Might our existence be merely a tick on the planet’s back and if we don’t tread a lot more lightly – i.e., multiply ourselves in a sustainable way – we don’t stand a chance with our to-date agreeable host, environmentalism or no environmentalism.

4. Assumption: Globalization hurts the little guy

Reality? Globalization helps the little guy

Those bandanna-masked guys on the street breaking the windows of Starbucks and Nike shops got their stories straight, right? If they’re anti-The Man, they must be green. Consider for moment what proponents of free trade and globalization are saying: global economic growth, job creation, lowers prices for consumers, capital and technology infusion into poor countries, giving them development opportunity. How about a more transparent global business infrastructure that could promote human rights? Sound like some pretty green motivations? Maybe throwing stones first and asking questions later isn’t such a great idea.

5. Assumption: Locavore, Locavore, Locavore

Reality? Eat global.

Green food comes from where it comes from. If a “place” is highly specialized to make a food in an efficient, healthy and earth-friendly way, might it be better to buy from that source rather than buying the local resource-intensive butter from down the street? We tend to assume that environmentally friendly is somehow akin to being homespun or even quaint, but might our journey here be contingent on creating our own efficiencies, using our ubiquitousness to lessen the load on Spaceship Earth?

6. Assumption: Recycling. Of course.

Reality? Follow the money – and the resource suck

Companies profiting from the practice won’t tell you, and few will acknowledge that recycling is expensive, generates pollutants and is in itself a resource drain. Are there better ways to think about what we do with our used goods and trash – like worrying less about what we do with what we consume and more about simply consuming less? After all, there’s an answer to the taking out the trash problem: Stop making so much trash. This possible truth says forget the red herring cry of “recycle” and tell all who would listen: reduce!

7. Assumption: Organic. Always. Period.

Reality? Caution: Mad Men at work

In some grocery store aisles it’s common now see more “official” organic foods than the evil and bad “non-organics” that we’ve consumed since the invention of, well, the invention. As one stands gazing at organic pop tarts, one might well ask two simple questions: First, what does organic mean? Second, even if I do get a functional answer to question 1, can I believe what I’m reading on the box? Then, as one leaves the store with a couple hundred dollars’ worth of organic stuff, a really big question should loom large: Has this facet of the Green movement been hopelessly co-opted by broad definitions, false advertising and “greenwashing.” Also part of this Organic deconstruction: What about the war on pesticides? How well does that fit in with global health and nutrition efforts? Would the elimination of such chemicals, called for some organic adherents, make us healthier – or cause global famine?

8. Assumption: The green stuff is the good stuff!

Reality? All stuff is stuff

From high-tech to the gadgets designed to make you life more ecologically friendly, we’re bombarded with claims – many truthful – that the stuff we buy, from mining to manufacturing to fulfillment processes, is Green as grass. But what does that mean? More stuff is just that, and even the “greenest” of it requires raw materials, transportation and other resources dedicated to get that product into your hands – before it’s dumped when you’re done with it. Does buying Green help as much as not buying at all?

Of course, others have taken on some of environmentalism’s “sacred cows,” as Wired magazine did when it took a look a issues specific to global warming, including:

9. Assumption: No nukes is good nukes

Reality? An inevitable option

A surprising number of the ecologically friendly are advocating what they say is clean, green, safe and inevitable. Is the Green tent big enough for these folks who say this fossil fuel alternative is the right way to go?

10: Assumption: Made in China, made by the devil

Reality? A big green ally

The Russians were coming. So were the Japanese. And now, enter the Chinese bogeyman. The fact is there are green-reputable manufacturers in China, and many expect the massive global player to be a leader in green tech and practices going forward. Could the new evil empire be a source of progress rather than just soot?

Some controversy for your environmentally focused brain? This is good. We pose such “alternate realities” not to come down on one side or another of any of these important issues, but rather to point to the eyes-wide-open self examination that must be absorbed into the movement at large if it is to escape the margins and permeate our thinking on a truly meaningful level.

Third Wave Green means not being afraid to question the norms and approach environmentalism from a variety of viewpoints. What are yours?

Special thanks to Sara Ost for contributing to this article.

Images: squacco, gfpeck, Tomorrow Never Knows

Scott Adelson

Scott Adelson is EcoSalon's Senior Editor of HyperKulture, a monthly column that explores opening cultural doors to initiate personal change. He is also the author of InPRINT, which reviews and discusses books, new and old. You can reach him at