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Greening the Faith: Worshippers of Consumption, Take Note!

Taking a bold stride in a new and praiseworthy direction, forty-four Southern Baptist leaders have backed a declaration calling for major action on global warming. Entitled "A Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change," the resolution challenges individuals to consider the environmental impact of their actions and emphasizes the biblical mandate to care for and respect the earth as God's creation.

And in that vein, here's another (albeit tongue-in-cheek) "faith-based" environmentalist effort:

Greed In the Name Of Green
To Worshipers of Consumption: Spending Won't Save the Earth

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 5, 2008; C01

Congregation of the Church of the Holy Organic, let us buy.

Let us buy Anna Sova Luxury Organics Turkish towels, 900 grams per
square meter, $58 apiece. Let us buy the eco-friendly 600-thread-count
bed sheets, milled in Switzerland with U.S. cotton, $570 for queen-
size.

Let us purge our closets of those sinful synthetics, purify ourselves
in the flame of the soy candle at the altar of the immaculate Earth
Weave rug, and let us buy, buy, buy until we are whipped into a
beatific froth of free-range fulfillment.

And let us never consider the other organic option -- not buying --
because the new green consumer wants to consume, to be more celadon
than emerald, in the right color family but muted, without all the
hand-me-down baby clothes and out-of-date carpet.

* * *

There was a time, and it was pre-Al Gore, when buying organic meant
eggs and tomatoes, Whole Foods and farmer's markets. But in the past
two years, the word has seeped out of the supermarket and into the
home store, into the vacation industry, into the Wal-Mart. Almost
three-quarters of the U.S. population buys organic products at least
occasionally; between 2005 and 2006 the sale of organic non-food items
increased 26 percent, from $744 million to $938 million, according to
the Organic Trade Association.

Green is the new black, carbon is the new kryptonite, blah blah blah.
The privileged eco-friendly American realized long ago that SUVs were
Death Stars; now we see that our gas-only Lexus is one, too. Best
replace it with a 2008 LS 600 hybrid for $104,000 (it actually gets
fewer miles per gallon than some traditional makes, but, see, it is a
hybrid). Accessorize the interior with an organic Sherpa car seat
cover for only $119.99.

Consuming until you're squeaky green. It feels so good. It looks so
good. It feels so good to look so good, which is why conspicuousness
is key.

T hese countertops are pressed paper.

Have I shown you my recycled platinum engagement ring?

In the past two weeks, our inbox has runneth over with giddily organic
products: There's the 100 percent Organic Solana Swaddle Wrap,
designed to replace baby blankets we did not even know were evil.
There's the Valentine's pitch, "Forget Red -- The color of love this
season is Green!" It is advertising a water filter. There are the all-
natural wasabi-covered goji berries, $30 for a snack six-pack,
representing "a rare feat for wasabi."

There is the rebirth of Organic Style magazine, now only online but
still as fashionable as ever, with a shopping section devoted to
organic jewelry, organic pet bedding, organic garden decor, which
apparently means more than "flowers" and "dirt."

When renowned environmentalist Paul Hawken is asked to comment on the
new green consumer, he says, dryly, "The phrase itself is an
oxymoron."

Oh ho?

"The good thing is people are waking up to the fact that we have a
real [environmental] issue," says Hawken, who co-founded Smith &
Hawken but left in 1992, before the $8,000 lawn became de rigueur.
"But many of them are coming to the issue from being consumers. They
buy a lot. They drive a lot."

They subscribe, in other words, to a destiny laid out by economist
Victor Lebow, writing in 1955: "Our enormously productive economy
demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the
buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual
satisfaction . . . in consumption. . . . We need things consumed,
burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate."

The culture of obsolescence has become so deeply ingrained that it's
practically reflexive. Holey sweaters get pitched, not mended. Laptops
and cellphones get slimmer and shinier and smaller. We trade up every
six months, and to make up for that, we buy and buy and hope we're
buying the right other things, though sometimes we're not sure: When
the Hartman Group, a market research firm, asked a group of devout
green consumers what the USDA "organic" seal meant when placed on a
product, 43 percent did not know. (The seal means that the product is
at least 95 percent organic -- no pesticides, no synthetic hormones,
no sewage sludge, no irradiation, no cloning.)

Which is why, when wannabe environmentalists try to change purchasing
habits without also altering their consumer mind-set, something gets
lost in translation.

Polyester = bad. Solution? Throw out the old wardrobe and replace with
natural fibers!

Linoleum = bad. Solution? Rip up the old floor and replace with cork!

Out with the old, in with the green.

It's done with the best of intentions, but all that replacing is
problematic. That "bad" vinyl flooring? It was probably less
destructive in your kitchens than in a landfill (unless, of course, it
was a health hazard). Ditto for the older, but still wearable,
clothes.

And that's not even getting into the carbon footprint left by a nice
duvet's 5,000-mile flight from Switzerland. (Oh, all right: a one-way
ticket from Zurich to Washington produces about 1,500 pounds of carbon
dioxide.)

Really going green, Hawken says, "means having less. It does mean
less. Everyone is saying, 'You don't have to change your lifestyle.'
Well, yes, actually, you do."

But, but, but -- buying green feels so guilt less, akin to the
mentality that results in eating 14 of Whole Foods' two-bite cupcakes.
Their first ingredient is cane sugar, but in a land of high-fructose
panic, that's practically a health food, right? Have another.

"There's a certain thrill, that you get to go out and replace
everything," says Leslie Garrett, author of "The Virtuous Consumer," a
green shopping guide. "New bamboo T-shirts, new hemp curtains."

Garrett describes the conflicting feelings she and her husband
experienced when trying to decide whether to toss an old living room
sofa: "Our dog had chewed on it -- there were only so many positions
we could put it in" without the teeth marks showing. But it still
fulfilled its basic role as a sofa: "We could still sit on it without
falling through."

They could still make do. They could still, in this recession-wary
economy, where everyone tries to cut back, subscribe to the crazy
notion that conservation was about . . . conserving. Says Garrett,
"The greenest products are the ones you don't buy."

There are exceptions. "Certain environmental issues trump other
issues," Garrett says. "Preserving fossil fuels is more critical than
landfill issues." If your furnace or fridge is functioning but
inefficient, you can replace it guilt-free.

Ultimately, Garrett and her husband did buy a new sofa (from Ikea --
Garrett appreciated the company's ban on carcinogens). But they made
the purchase only after finding another home for their old couch -- a
college student on Craigslist was happy to take it off their hands.

The sofa example is what Josh Dorfman, host of the Seattle radio show
"The Lazy Environmentalist," considers to be a best-case scenario for
the modern consumer. "Buying stuff is intrinsically wrapped up in our
identities," Dorfman says. "You can't change that behavior. It's
better to say, 'You're a crazy shopaholic. You're not going to stop
being a crazy shopaholic. But if you're going to buy 50 pairs of
jeans, buy them from this better place.' "

Then again, his show is called "The Lazy Environmentalist."

Chip Giller, editor of enviro-blog Grist.org, has a less fatalistic
view. He loves that Wal-Mart has developed an organic line. He
applauds the efforts of the green consumer. "Two years ago, who would
have thought we'd be in a place where terms like locavore and carbon
footprint were household terms?" he says, viewing green consumption as
a "gateway" to get more people involved in environmental issues. The
important thing is for people to keep walking through the gate, toward
the land of reduced air travel, energy-efficient homes and much less
stuff: "We're not going to buy our way out of this."

* * *

Congregation of the Church of the Holy Organic, let us scrub our sins
away with Seventh Generation cleaning products. Let us go ahead and
bite into the locally grown apple, and let us replace our incandescent
light bulbs with those dreadfully expensive fluorescents.

But yea, though we walk through the valley of the luxury organic, let
us purchase no imported Sherpa car seat covers. Let us use the old
one, even though it is ugly, because our toddler will spill Pom juice
on the organic one just as quickly as on the hand-me-down.

Amen.

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