Can 'green chic' save the planet?

Green, it seems, has gone mainstream. Magazines like Elle, Fortune, and Vanity Fair have published "green issues" in the past year, and the Academy Awards were carbon neutral. The Vatican recently announced plans to offset its 2007 emissions, while Costa Rica pledged to arrive at "net zero" by 2021.

Green has also gone trendy. Last week, Whole Foods Market released a limited edition, $15 cotton bag with "I'm not a plastic bag" emblazoned on its side. When the bag went on sale at outlets in Taiwan, a stampede followed. In Hong Kong, throngs shut down a shopping mall. In New York City last week, lines formed at dawn. Later that day, bags were offered on Craigslist for between $200 and $500. "These bags are walking billboards," says Isabel Spearman, a spokeswoman for the bag's designer, Anya Hindmarch. "You do have to make something trendy, and it becomes a habit. That's the whole point."

Savvy marketers have clearly tapped into something. But the green craze has many asking how, if at all, it addresses what many characterize as an impending climate catastrophe.

In what it implies about changing consumer awareness, some see "green-lightenment" as heartening. And since it creates demand for more environmentally friendly products, many think it's moving in the right direction. Yet, as one professor put it, "We're basically rushing toward a cliff, full speed ahead." Can a fad save us? Experts' replies run the gamut from "it's a mockery," to it's the beginning of – and maybe a catalyst for – greater changes to come. But no one thinks that green consumption alone can get humanity out of its climate predicament. As Alex Steffen, cofounder of worldchanging.com, an environmental- commentary website, writes: "There is no combination of purchasing decisions which will make the current affluent American lifestyle sustainable. You can't shop your way to sustainability."

The problem, say experts, is the magnitude of the problem. According to the World Wildlife Foundation's Living Planet report, as of 2003, the demands of humanity as a whole exceeded Earth's capacity by 25%. Americans, the biggest consumers, consume at a rate that's twice what the planet can sustain.

Saving the planet requires nothing short of overhauling civilization's energy infrastructure, say many. This would include a multipronged effort to increase energy efficiency and advance renewable technologies, while also rethinking cities, agriculture, and public transportation, among other things.

Some compare the effort needed to achieve this to that of World War II, when, in the face of a clear and substantial threat, American society mobilized – and sacrificed – toward a common goal. (The analogy breaks down when you recall that Americans intended to return to "normalcy" after the war. But as Dale Jamieson, director of Environmental Studies at New York University points out, getting off carbon implies a permanent shift.) Others compare it to Teddy Roosevelt's Progressive Era, a time when corporations and other private interests had accumulated much power at the expense of public institutions and society at large.

But the most apt comparison may be to the founding of the United States, when, with history as their guide, the framers of the Constitution attempted to establish a socially and politically "sustainable society."

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