Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Ingredient of the Month: What Does It Mean To Be Green?

Young men standing in a field of green tomatoes in Africa. Photos: Larry Plesent

Young men standing in a field of green tomatoes in Africa. Photos: Larry Plesent

By Larry Plesent

Everybody wants to be “green.” But what does it mean? For some, “natural” is about atoms and molecules. Where did those atoms come from? What was their last incarnation? Carbon for example is an element and as such lasts basically forever, endlessly changing form. Do you support plant-based carbon (“new” carbon) or petrochemical (“old” carbon)? Either way those carbon molecules have existed since the solar system was formed 4.6 billion years ago. I am a plant-based carbon man myself, but everyone is entitled to an opinion as to where they think their atoms came from.

For others, green is about exploitation. Is there blood on my soap? No thank you. In this context green is about compassion. They call these folks compassionate consumers. Unfortunately, nothing is simple and definitions tend to blur as ones perspective takes in the global view. Compassion green screens can be tough to quantify as we lay our societal expectations and conditioning onto other cultures with very different ecosystems, cultural structures and expectations. For example, pretty much nobody likes the idea of child labor unless its getting our teenage kids to do their chores. But what about a country with a 45-year life span where at nine years old, a child is expected to go to school, work, or to help the parents and family every day. That ten-year-old boy working in an incense factory might seem a victim of unfair and exploitative businesses to us. If that job ends, will his eleven-year old sister be put out onto the street or sold for her dowry ($200 is the normal dowry in much of West Africa) in order to feed a family which does not have access to birth control or even functional health care?


African village girl with baby, laundry and dishes.

African village girl with baby, laundry and dishes.

And what about Fairly Traded schemes? Surely Fair Trade is a terrific idea! Well, yes and no. In most West African villages local shea butter sells for about $1/kilo. If I pay the womens co-op $4 per kilo (fair trade) what does that do to the local markets? Quadrupling the cost of shea butter only destroys the local market that cannot afford to pay that much. And if one American buyer pays four times more than the others do, why bother to make and sell it at the lower local price at all? Better to wait around and see if there is another cushy foreign order to fill coming in. And there goes the neighborhood.

For others, green is about pesticides, herbicides and chemical agriculture. Given that organic agriculture techniques yield higher harvests over the long term, build rather than destroy soil, sequesters carbon, has a higher nutritional content to help us fight the unexpected consequences of civilized living, and accomplish its food-raising goals without using persistent poisons; I am shocked and surprised at big businesses’ insistence on continuing with agricultural exploitative farming techniques. It is not sustainable to poison the field that feeds you, the workers that make it happen and the end users of the products that you grow. In fact this is exactly the opposite of a sustainable (viable into the future) economy. And yet here we are.

It is important to understand that green is a process, not a result. There is no Greenland in the sky with diamonds, unless you count the one in the far North Atlantic. The best we can do is to be mindful mindful to minimize the poisoning of our bodies and the Earth, mindful to minimize exploitative business practices and mindful of the interconnected web of modern human life that links that small child on the other side of the world to our beauty care products.

This is the Soapman reminding everyone to live well while trying to eat up the planet as little as possible.

Remember, Life is too short to use bad soap.

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