Newswise — A Vanderbilt professor who researched the past 40 years of the French environmental movement has found that not only France, but also many other nations, including the United States, are becoming "light-green" societies.
Most people still want to protect nature and to purchase environmentally friendly products, but they do not want to give up the "cornucopia of modern technology and what consumer capitalism offers," said Michael Bess, an associate professor of history.
"The original Greens back in the 1960s believed that to protect the environment, we needed to make sacrifices, such as purchasing fewer manufactured goods." Bess explained that although this concept has never been widely accepted by the general population, many citizens here and overseas still take seriously the idea of making tangible changes to help the environment.
"Our society has bought the green message, but it is not in the full dark-green version that the original activists of the 1960s advocated," said Bess, author of The Light-Green Society: Ecology and Technological Modernity in France, 1960-2000 (University of Chicago Press). Although Bess characterizes many nations' environmental actions as light green, that does not mean there have been only small changes in consumer purchases and habits.
One example Bess cited is automobile pollution. "We drive more cars, we drive bigger cars and we drive faster ones than in the '60s," Bess said. "However, the overall pollution that comes out of those cars now is vastly reduced, according to measures such as the types of chemicals emitted. Still, there is one area in which we're still failing dismally with automobile pollution, and that's greenhouse gas emissions, which can't be removed by catalytic converters."
Another example of consumer purchases in the light-green society is sport utility vehicles. "Most people, if they were to have an option of driving a gas-guzzling SUV or a hybrid or fuel-cell SUV that pollutes very little, would prefer to purchase the one—all other things being equal—that is environmentally friendly," Bess said. "That's the future, and smart companies like Toyota have started to move that way with great success."
Bess noted that governments in both the United States and Europe have regulations that benefit corporations that are environmentally friendly. For example, some companies receive tax incentives for operating in a green way. Also, consumers tend to look favorably on companies that persuasively demonstrate they have made substantial green alternations in the way they design and manufacture products, Bess said.
Another example is the way trash is processed now. The United States and Europe produce three times more garbage in volume per year than in the 1960s. However, the overall impact on the environment is much less now because of improved recycling and reclaiming from the trash flow. "In the 1960s, people just chucked garbage in ravines and dumps; now we have lined landfills, scrubbers on smoke stacks and other ways to reduce the environmental damage from trash," Bess said.
Thousands of changes have been made during the last 40 years to protect nature. Some are "mere green-packaging" on the same product, but others are making a significant difference, Bess said.
"I do not want to sound like some type of Pollyanna, saying everything is fine the way it is," Bess said. "We still are on track for environmental collapse over the long haul if we keep going the way we are going today, without making more green changes. But we also have good reasons for hope. There has been a real change in attitudes and behaviors since the 1960s. I believe we have a fighting chance of saving the environment over the next century if we continue the current greening trend. But it will take a continued effort. We have to keep darkening the shade of green, intensifying our commitment to a truly sustainable economy."
The American Society for Environmental History has awarded Bess's book the 2003 George Perkins Marsh Prize for the best book in environmental history.