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Green Oxymorons – Coming to Grips with Being Green

America is rife with confusion and contradictions about climate change. Contrary to what some may be thinking, a green oxymoron is not a colorful appellation for climate change deniers. An oxymoron is a figure of speech that combines normally contradictory terms. A green oxymoron is a figure of speech that combines normally contradictory terms in an environmental context.

Although world leaders agree about the importance of emissions reductions, recent COP15 negotiations exposed the conflicting agendas of wealthier and developing nations. US opinion is now divided on the veracity of climate change science, due in large part to some minor climate data discrepancies and the alleged contradictions unearthed in the hacked emails of a few climate scientists.

Republicans are betting that global warming skepticism will prove politically expedient. It wasn’t long ago that some of the new breed of Republicans supported climate change legislation, people like Marco Rubio and Tim Pawlenty. Now the Republicans are unanimous in their efforts to undermine Obama’s environmental agenda, even John McCain has reversed his support for emissions limits. Of the early contenders for the Republican nomination, five deny or question climate science.

Environmental hypocrisy is not solely a Republican trait; even those who have bought into efficiency are sometimes guilty of inconsistencies. Those who own more efficient appliances tend to run them longer and those who have more efficient lighting tend to leave them on longer. This is known as the SnackWell effect, a name derived from the cookies with low fat and sugar content, which often leads dieters to eat more of them.

Studies indicate that people who install more energy efficient lights lose 5% to 12% of the expected savings by leaving them on longer. A 2007 report by the UK Energy Research Centre estimated that globally, this rebound effect could reduce the savings from energy efficiency by 10% or more.

Even some owners of the Toyota’s Prius, one of the most successful green products in the US, buy the car for what is being called “conspicuous conservation.” The term is derived from conspicuous consumption, which is defined as an extravagant and ostentatious expenditure meant to gratify the psychological craving for status or esteem. Conspicuous conservation reflects the importance of being perceived as environmentally aware, rather than a preoccupation with benefiting the planet.

Support for alternative energy production in the US comes with its own apparent paradox. Americans may be willing to pay for alternative energy, but there is a pricing perception gap, meaning they may not be prepared to pay the full cost.

Similarly, while green marketing may be booming, consumers are not always willing to pay more for a given product or service just because it is more environmentally friendly. Greenwashing is at epidemic proportions and marketing communications are awash with conflicting interests.

To further confuse the issue, one of the pillars of sustainability, know as the triple bottom line (TBL) is under assault from academics. This concept was introduced by two pioneering sustainability consulting firms in the early 1990’s. Although many have adopted the notion of TBL, others are criticizing the absence of precise definitions and methodologies that lack financial rigor.

It is undeniably onerous to be an environmentally sensitive business owner or consumer. Contradictions abound where you may least expect them. Whole Foods may seem like a great company because they sell organic and vegan food. However, they are also expensive and a union breaking company. The contradictions also work in reverse; companies with questionable environmental records sell green products. Wal-Mart sells CFL light bulbs and McDonald’s uses milk that has no genetically engineered hormones.

Environmental concerns like clean air and healthy food are now mainstream issues. It would be incorrect to assume that contradictions signal the decline of the environmental movement. With so many vested interests at play, contradictions are to be expected. There will always be some who fear change and no one should expect entrenched interests like big oil to fade away quietly.

The environmental crisis is forcing us to radically and fundamentally change our ways, and while contradictions may seem like an intractable paradox, such inconsistencies are a normal part of green’s emergence as the salient economic driver of our times. Green oxymorons do not signal an end to environmentalism, they are a normal part of the transition to a new economic paradigm.
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Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, sustainable investor and writer. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources for news, information and tools on sustainability. He is also the author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, green investing, enviro-politics and eco-economics.

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