Wednesday, February 10, 2010

With Bits

Those of you who have small children will appreciate the "bits or no bits" dilemma. For my seven-year-old, a yoghurt is either a delicious snack (smooth, no bits) or anathema ("fruit on the bottom" or, God forbid, strawberry or kiwi fruit seeds.)

Those of you who are communications managers, will appreciate the "bits or no bits" dilemma when it comes to sustainable paper. It used to be that recycled paper invariably came with bits in it—bits of re-used fiber, that is—although now, with options such as Rolland Enviro and Mohawk Options, even 100% post-consumer waste recycled paper looks like, um, the "real thing!"

The dilemma is about perception and changing values and behavior. To go back to seven-year-olds and yoghurt, the "no bits" lines of heavily fruited yoghurt (in England the cartons proudly carry "No Bits" labels) help parents get "icky" fruit inside our kids, with the hope that one day they too will have that quotidian joy of finding "fruit on the bottom."

But what worries me about a desire for "no bits" green consumer products--smooth white paper, vinyl substitutes for furniture, high performance electric cars—is that a false consciousness is created: "we can wean ourselves off oil and halt climate change with no real sacrifice." That's not really true. Tom Friedman puts it another way in Hot, Flat, and Crowded when he scoffs at any magazine article or ad that touts "10 Easy Ways to Go Green."

This is not to say that going green is all that hard these days. After all, I know it's easy to create a slick communications product using 100% PCW paper that looks as good as if I used virgin paper. It's just that if my paper had bits in it, wouldn't that be a constant reminder that we are in a new age, where every scrap of paper must be saved and used again? It would be a kind of London Blitz mentality than asks for sacrifice from everyone and creates a rallying point at the same time.

One of the expensive car ads during the recent Superbowl was for a Dodge Charger. Americans, it appears, still crave over-sized performance in their vehicles. Yet green cars will be on the whole smaller with less horsepower and reduced engine size. A lot of time and money is being spent on more powerful green cars, but I think that trying to build electric and hybrid cars that compete with muscle cars simply adds to the false consciousness that super-sized power is desirable, achievable, and appropriate.

—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

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