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Spreading Manure over Astroturf: Why Ad Men Hate Brown

Sharon Astyk is one of those “loony tunes” who shows her concern for the planet by depriving her children of central heat and baseball, or at least that’s how she’s portrayed in the New York Times article by writer Joanne Kaufman. Is she a “role model,” a “colorful eccentric with admirable intentions who has arrived at a way of life close to zealotry,” or instead an “energy anorexic, obsessing over personal carbon emissions to an unhealthy degree?” Kaufman asks.

The photo of her kids is labeled “Potential Energy”—little bodies offered up– much like the hero in the Matrix offers up his life-force– for the good of the “child collective.”

Their four sons, Kaufman writes, “often sleep huddled together to pool body heat.”

Going Nuts Over Climate Change
The article is littered with words like “unplugged,” “fruitcake” “energy anorexic,” “zealous,” “nuts,” “impracticality,” “compulsions,” “pulling stunts”, and even “ordure”- a rare term which can apply to animal manure, or the alternative meaning: “an example of obscene or immoral behavior.”

Questions like: Normal? How normal? are asked repeatedly, and answered by the writer. “Crazy” is a term thrown around about people who wash out plastic bags for soiled diaper reuse, or who cycle to work in all kinds of Seattle weather. “Not everyone thinks that Ms. Lavine and her ilk are crazy,” Kaufman tells us, but such “extremes,” she confides, can end intimate relationships and can “suggest mental illness.” Not discouraged by the fact that “[T]here is no recognized syndrome in mental health related to the compulsion toward living a green life,” she coins one: “Carborexic.”

Carborexia” she warns, “might raise a red flag” about anyone’s sanity.

“Carborexia” and Polluting for Sanity
What exactly IS a “carborexic?” Someone consuming a bit too little carbon? And how do you tell if your goal of “living small” is a mental disorder?

Turning to mental health professionals, she recites a series of standard “self-help” questions that can easily be applied to anyone with a passion for sports or preoccupation with the stock market: “Is it getting in the way of your ability to do a good job at work? Is it taking precedence over everything else in your relationships?”

Ms. Kaufman notes that Sharon claims to indulge her heat-generating children in common pleasures such as Cheerios, popsicles, TV or a new toy, but never falters in reminding her reader of Astyk’s true proclivities: “Her family is living out a sort of futuristic experiment,” she says “like a party game” quoting Astyk.

Freezing children who are deprived of the opportunity to become the next star Yankee’s pitcher? Tisk, tisk. ‘Party,’ indeed.

This article is part of a new media genre that takes the serious worries of almost two-thirds of Americans, and creates a special brand of pathology designed to stigmatize, pathologize, trivialize, and marginalize their concerns. In some articles, they call such activism “eco-anxiety” and seek out therapists who “treat” the “disorder.” In this article, she’s coined a new name for the ‘disease,’ calling it “carborexia,” and apparently it is a disease that is spreading.

Environmental Goldilocks and the Corporate Advertising Bears
Like an environmental Goldilocks, the writer says these activists are “too hot,” but doing nothing is “too cold.” Exactly how far should a person be allowed to take their concerns about harming the planet before they’ve gone ‘over the edge.’ This is a new wrinkle in what has become a rash of stories all focused on trotting out the most colorful examples of people who are having a nervous breakdown in their struggle to go “green.” Those stories allege that such “obsessions” make us miserable. In this article, Kaufman goes one step further, to convince her readers that you can be so crazy about going green, that you’ve stopped realizing it. Child abuse and social alienation is the result. Be forewarned.

So what’s motivating the mainstream media to warn us that “if you must go green, don’t go crazy about it”?


The Business of Green

For one thing, “going green” has become big business. Porter Novelli, the global public relations firm mentioned by the NY Times article says, “even the tardiest marketers are scrambling to make green attributes and launch new products and services positioned as more responsible alternatives.” If Porter Novelli is the final word in environmental sanity, the direction is definitely away from the Astyks of the world, and onto a Madison Avenue style of green consumerism.

Folks like Astyk are just too hard a sell. She’s convinced that you create the least amount of pollution by consuming less of everything. Such a common-sense approach is hard to argue with, and one that about a third of all participants in Porter Novelli study agree with and implement in their own lives. The stronger you agree with statements such as climate change is a “very serious problem,” that “threatens future generations’ well-being and safety,” and is a ‘threat to all life on the planet,” (choices in the Porter Novelli study) the more likely you are to want to do something about it.

And it turns out that fear, in fact, does act as a powerful motivator to action, according to their research. However, while the question of whether climate change is “real” was a pressing concern just a few short years ago, that question has been answered by the vast majority of this extensive 12,000-person survey. It’s real. The remaining issue is the puzzle over what can an individual do about it. This is not by accident. While corporate America has lost the argument about the existence of global climate change (only 14% of the study participants thought climate change was “not a problem,”) they are deeply invested in winning the debate about what are considered sane, constructive actions to solve it.

A Greener, Caring Corporation

Winning over the worried consumer has become big business, and while Astyk and her ilk are concerned about keeping something worth preserving for future generations, international advertising firms like Porter Novelli are invested in helping to portray the interests of corporations as coinciding with the greater public interest. And this means appearing as “environmentally responsible” as possible.

Let me quote Sharon Beder’s article extensively to demonstrate just how far they’ve taken this deception:

There exists an army of artificially created grassroots coalitions or “front groups” referred to in the industry as ‘astroturf’ (after a synthetic grass product). Astroturf is a “grassroots program that involves the instant manufacturing of public support for a point of view in which either uninformed activists are recruited or means of deception are used to recruit them.” According to Consumer Reports magazine, those engaging in this sort of work can earn up to $500 “for every citizen they mobilize for a corporate client’s cause.”

Mario Cooper, senior vice president of public relations firm Porter/Novelli, says that the challenge for a grassroots specialist is to create the impression that millions of people support their client’s view of a particular issue…Database management companies can provide you with incredibly detailed mailing lists segmented by almost any factor you can imagine.” Once identified, potential supporters have to be persuaded to agree to endorse the corporate view being promoted. Using specially tailored mailing lists, field officers, telephone banks and the latest in information technology, these firms are able to generate hundreds of telephone calls and/or thousands of pieces of mail to key politicians, creating the impression of wide public support for their client’s position.

This sort of operation almost unheard of ten years ago, “has become “one of the hottest trends in politics” and an $800 million industry. It is now a part of normal business for corporations and trade associations to employ one of the dozens of companies that specialize in these strategies to run grassroots campaigns for them. Firms and associations utilizing such services include Philip Morris, Georgia Pacific, the Chemical Manufacturers Association, General Electric, American Forest & Paper Association, Chevron, Union Carbide, Procter & Gamble, American Chemical Society, American Plastics Association, Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association, WMX Technologies, Browning Ferris Industries and the Nuclear Energy Institute.


Easiest Way to Green: Buying to Save the Planet

Porter Novelli, then, helps international corporations figure out how to turn consumers’ climate fears into increased corporate profitability through “green” purchases. They do this by defining what is “green,” and how “green” someone is:

    To determine this, they asked people whether they thought any of these actions were important to protect the environment and whether participants actually acted on any of these actions: (1) buying energy-efficient appliances, (2) buying environmentally-friendly products, (3) buying products made from recycled paper or plastics, (4) using cloth bags to put what you buy into, or (5) buying products that use less packaging. One choice involves “not buying” as a way of punishing companies with bad environmental records, while another option was “recycling–” what’s already been “bought.” Two other choices include “not buying stuff, or at least buying a lot less” and using “less energy at home.”

You can be “light green” by doing just one of these, according to PN, and doing six will qualify you as “medium green.” Doing all of them labels you “dark green.” But can you really qualify as “being green” at all, in the corporate sense, if you spend only $1000 a year buying anything, and use only 10% of the energy that an average American uses, as Sharon does? My answer is no.

Browns: The Embarrassing Investment in Earthly Riches

Folks like Sharon Astyk are not “green.” Sharon, and others like her, belong to a small but influential group of writers and political activists Edson Freeman call the ‘browns.” Not only is the corporate world aware of browns, they are terrified of them. So terrified, in fact, that Kaufman and “style” writers like her had to invent a pathological category to make sure fashion-minded greenies keep their distance.

Browns as a group often share a set of beliefs that are catching on, much to the chagrin of global marketers. Browns take a moral or ethical stance toward these issues, and are often rooted in beliefs that are radically decentralized, local, and emphasize self-sufficiency. They don’t keep their houses cold and grow their own food as a publicity stunt. They are ambivalent, at best, about using mainstream media outlets to explain what they are doing, and why. They’d cringe at the frame of this as some sort of “mass movement,” and, if it were, they’d be surprised that anyone would actually want to “join. ” “Popular” is not an adjective they’d use to describe the uncomfortable changes they are committed to in their lives. They are devoted to de-mystifying a simpler lifestyle, but it’s a surprise to them that anyone would wants to do the same.

It is clear from articles like Kaufman, that their fears of ridiculing publicity are well-grounded, but their convictions that they stand alone, are not.

The Future: Today’s Moral and Ethical Choices
What articles like this one avoid exploring are the deep philosophical underpinnings of these life choices, and the real limitations of “purchasing” our way out of the huge environmental challenges we face. What effect does ridiculing those who are actually taking actions have on the eighty-one percent of those respondents surveyed who believed that using less energy at home is important? What purpose does it serve to pathologize those who actually turn down (or turn off) their thermostat?

Marginalizing sends the implicit message “they aren’t like us.” “Us” just have to fill our green recycle buckets, or turn down the heat when we leave home, and all will be fine with the world. Buying “green” is a fashionable lifestyle, a way of being hip and stylish, and surely not anything that should threaten one’s consumer lifestyle, or newspaper advertisers.

It takes a lot to convince someone, deeply fearful of their children’s future, that all will be well if they buy a few “Earth-Friendly” products. Articles like these tell us that the risk of social ostracism and ridicule—perhaps even accusations of child abuse—are real and should be taken seriously. It is not a point that escapes the browns like Astyk, who often question their own sanity or defensively reaffirm their normality. They have done their research, and read their books, and have determined that the risks of such self-doubts and social alienation is worse than the dangers of doing nothing. And as they began to sound the alarm, the worries they spoke of resonated with larger and larger circles of people.

They have become “networked influencers,” a group Porter Novelli defines as having “ten or more friends” who are “asked for advice by their peers almost every day,” and use internet blogging to get their message out. Astyk’s book: “Depletion and Abundance” ranks #5 in Amazon’s Renewable Energy subcategory, and her website has a Google Page Rank of 5, but neither her book nor her blog were mentioned in this piece.

The type of buzz that Porter Novelli hopes their brand of activists will circulate–such as the healthiest baby sunscreen to use—is increasingly being transformed by stubborn brown messages. The shorthand of such a message is terrifying to corporate advertisers:

“Just Say No to Buying Stuff.”

And it’s a message so fitting for our time, when many have lost 40% of their retirement funds. Cutting back spending, as a targeted goal itself, elegantly addresses fears of climate change, rising energy costs and a world-wide economic downturn. But what are the emotional costs in doing so? Fears of public ridicule and embarrassment are among them. Are you strong enough to bear the embarrassment of turning brown? Of wearing last year’s fashions or losing track of fashion trends altogether? Of truly not caring about “what the neighbor’s think?”

If It’s Not Easy Being Green, It’s Embarrassing Being Brown
Here are some differences between greens and browns:

• You can wear Green proudly to parties.
• You take off Brown to shower before dinner.

• If it were underwear, Green is the new Victoria’s Secret in “Moon Hugging” organic fabric.
• Brown is the stuff you don’t hang out on your line, for fear that someone will see it.

• Green is a full-body tan.
• Brown is a “farmer tan” that stops at the tee-shirt sleeve.

• If it’s sleek, stylish, worn with pride or served on special occasions, it’s green.
• If it’s old, strung together, hidden away from company or not bought at a store, it’s brown.

• Green is whatever hip store you can think of…
• Brown is yard sales and used clothing stores.

• Green is hemp shower curtains.
• Brown is showering…if at all…in warm water, if you are lucky.

• Green is wearing socks made from organically raised cotton.
• Brown is wearing socks that don’t match.

• Green is optimistic, positive, can-do, thriving.
• Brown is getting by, biting your tongue, just doing it anyway, being “good enough.”

• Green is “community building” through “neighborhood committees.”
• Brown is being neighborly, fixing the tool that broke while you were borrowing it, having people over for dinner, being a reliable friend.

• Green is prosperous, and “saves the planet” as evidence of their beneficence.
• Brown lives a life of voluntary simplicity, and lives in keeping with deep convictions about their obligations to future generations.

The Politics of Cross-Over Brown

What’s curious is that simply living more “brown” appears to cross over political lines. One third of both loyal Republicans and Democrats buy less, as an intentional goal. Almost 40 percent of swing voters do so, as well. This simple choice, of buying less, simplifying one’s lifestyle and using less energy, remains the most threatening choice to those with ’something to sell,’ while paradoxically promising to have the greatest impact on the planet.

Porter Novelli, determined that “Greenfluencers” –those folks who are driving trends and shaping purchasing decisions in the mass market, are the ones to reach. They blog like mad, comment on blogs, get active and take action, buying high-tech gadgets and cruising the internet. On the other hand, what if more and more of them transform into the Sharon Astyks of the world? The “Brownfluencers” are bad for business. And like a strong manure, they are increasingly fertilizing the internet landscape.

This large group of people willing to simplify their lifestyle in response to concerns about the planet is the real “inconvenient truth” for marketers.

It is one thing to use a cloth bag to fill with “stuff,” and then to head to the curb to drag all this stuff off to be ‘recycled.’ It is another to simply stop shopping, and consuming, and teach other people how to do it in a pragmatic, no-nonsense way, as Sharon does.

The reasons can be found in the very cultural mind-shifts that are required in order to be able to tolerate living ‘brown.’ Living “green” requires a continual investment in “keeping up with” and staying fashionably in style. They climb onto a consumeristic treadmill to keep up, and end up polluting, in a continual cycle of “tuning into the media, shopping for the next ‘new thing,’ tossing it out, and again, tuning into the media.” What’s the latest in buying more green? Voting green? Donate green? In contrast, who buys media time when Sharon Astyk speaks? What’s she selling? Who are her corporate sponsors? When we “follow the money,” we see that it stops at those individuals who are invested in “scaling down to brown,” as no larger profits are to be made by those who stubbornly refuse to spend.

Signs of Sanity
Whether unwittingly or by design, articles like these encourage readers–who are concerned about environmental issues–to distance themselves from those taking a more active role in scaling down their consumptive lifestyles. They define what’s “crazy” and what’s not, using guidelines by Al Gore and Con Edison as mental health yardsticks. Recycling is normal. Collecting one’s plastics to make a political statement is not. Taking public transportation is sane, but biking more than a mile or so is not. Who says?

If one looks to the mainstream media to define what is culturally progressive, and what is a nut-case response to fears about environmental devastation, we will learn that those who ‘opt out’ ‘disconnect,’ or ‘unplug’ are the crazies we should distance ourselves from. By contrast, those who “plug in,” “buy smart” and are “savvy shoppers” are sane and “environmentally aware.”

What makes Astyk so dangerous, and therefore so easy to mock, is that her advice is at once accessible and easy to implement. All it takes is the willingness to tolerate discomfort, both physically and emotionally. She speaks to people across the economic spectrum, and is one of the few writers on climate change and Peak Oil, who is deeply committed to reaching the economically disenfranchised. It will be increasingly expensive to maintain a consumptive lifestyle, and choices will have to be made. Astyk speaks about our power to make these choices, and how these choices are ours to make.

When serious fears about the health and viability of our planet are mocked, and activists and writers are labeled “extreme cases,” all of us are asked, implicitly, to re-examine and tone down our own commitments, in light of these types of discussions, especially those relating to the health and welfare of our children. We begin to ask questions like: “Will I be abusing my child if I turn my heat below 60 at night?” “How long a walk to school is doable for a 10 year old?” “Do I deprive my child by limiting toy purchases or my unwillingness to drive 20 minutes to extracurricular activities?”

These sorts of distractions take the focus away from the more powerfully relevant questions such as “Do I really need to consume 100 gallons of fresh, drinkable water EACH DAY, or are there ways to cut down?” (there are…) “How do I stop re-creating my weight in garbage every month?” or “Could I get by spending less than 10k every year in consumer goods like gifts, toys, music, books, gadgets, household goods, cosmetics, toiletries, and paper goods?”

Our children, the future beneficiaries of these daily choices, are overwhelmingly browner than their parents, and will be impacted dramatically by the choices adults make today.

Articles like Kaufman’s are not merely dumb and sensational; they are carefully crafted not only to avoid the opportunity to educate one of the most consumptive nations on Earth, but, more importantly, to pathologize those who won’t spend.

Porter Novelli continues their house of mirrors, as one of their publicity wonks becomes a “sustainability specialist,” in a headline in the UK Telegraph: “Psychiatrists in the United States are warning that extreme environmental awareness may be creating a generation of ‘carborexics.’” What a surprise (not) when the ad men report that: “The deepest dark greens are bordering on fanatic [and] pushing towards a lifestyle of zero consumption.” The grinding worm of public relations has turned, transforming a fashion and style writer’s silly musings, into a psychiatric diagnosis, all in one day. We are now reading about dark green “addicts” from Thaindian news.*. We’ll hear more about this “serious disorder” in the future, mark my words.

Instead of treating Astyk and her fellow shrinking foot-printers as oddballs, Kaufman could have answered the more important question of what difference it would make to our kids’ future if more of us kept a chilly house and played catch with them in the back yard, instead of worrying about how to keep up with the latest trends. But then again, what would her advertisers in the New York Times Fashion and Style Section think?

******************

* Watch the evolution of this “pathology,” as it continues to be spread around the world.
From Thaindia: “…scientists claim that there is a thin line between these behavioural traits qualifying for eco-leadership or bordering on the obsessive-compulsive.”

Editorial Notes: Sharon's posted her own response to the article on her Cauaubon's Book blog-SO

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