Now You Can Finally Understand Your Environmental Activist Friends

Published September 26, 2011

Review of Eco-Fads: How the Rise of Trendy Environmentalism Is Harming the Environment, by Todd Myers (Washington Policy Center, 2011), 240 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0615486147

Eco-Fads: How the Rise of Trendy Environmentalism Is Harming the Environment, will likely be the best psychology book you’ve ever read. For people with logical, analytical minds, green extremism can be quite exasperating. Myers helps those of us who value facts and reason understand what motivates environmental extremists.  

Myers spent many years working as an environmentalist in state government. Along the way he kept his eyes and mind open to the conflicts between maintaining a healthy environment and how so many varied interests use the environment to further their own selfish interests. As a result, Myers understands these issues better than anyone I have encountered in a half-century of work on environmental battlefields.

Green Building Myths Exposed

In his introductory chapter, he takes on myths about green buildings. A prime goal of environmental activists is to force builders to incorporate green designs and maximize energy efficiency. The activists claim the upfront costs of building green more than pay for themselves in the long run. Myers, however, cuts through the fuzzy math to show how green buildings are almost always prohibitively costly and are often (and ironically) bad for the environment. 

As an example, environmental activists claim green buildings provide more fresh air, which reduces the potential for “sick buildings” and cuts down on sick days and absenteeism. The reduction in lost worker time more than pays for the additional upfront construction costs, the activists say. Myers persuasively shows none of this is true. 

Much Money, Few Benefits

Wasting money on efforts that produce no tangible environmental benefit should be condemned. Increasingly, however, the opposite is happening. Myers notes that “rather than judging policies based on their results, eco-fads grow in popularity based on their ability to confer a green image to those who embrace them.”

True environmentalism, Myers says, should not be aimed at projecting a carefully crafted and appealing image that simply feels environmentally progressive. Yet green buildings, reusable grocery bags, biofuels, and solar panels do little more than that. These eco-fads signal to our peers that we are not only thrifty and intelligent but also profoundly moral.

What adherence to these eco-fads really signals is that a great many people are ignorant of science and profoundly gullible. 

Explaining the Lure of Eco-Fads

Eco-Fads explains why we fall for such schemes when we should know better. Who doesn’t want to be green? That natural desire can cloud our better judgment.

It shouldn’t be surprising that some companies see business opportunities in the growth of eco-fads. Products that claim to be greener not only offer differentiation from similar products made by competitors but also cater to consumers with greater disposable income.

The average person who wishes to be environmentally responsible is bombarded by conflicting messages encouraging him or her to embrace fads that offer solutions to environmental threats. Few people have the time, interest, or expertise to test the claims they hear. In the midst of a busy life there is little incentive to ask, “Do biofuels really reduce carbon emissions? Are polar bears really threatened by global warming? Are hybrid poplars really a solution to intensive forestry and clear-cutting?”

This confusion is compounded by the natural desire of individuals to believe they are doing good without engaging in much sacrifice. Myers explains brilliantly how eco-fads are emotionally satisfying because they offer easy solutions that cut through confusion while allowing individuals to derive the emotional satisfaction of protecting the planet.

Power of Peer Pressure

Add the peer pressure to carry green shopping bags, install compact fluorescent bulbs, and drive hybrid vehicles, and we have what appears to be an almost irresistible force.

Environmental activists understand social pressure is a powerful force. They enlist movie actors to narrate ads, and fashion magazines make greenness a fashion statement.

The result of these influences is that eco-fads, once established, are difficult to dislodge. Who wants to admit their actions to save the planet do not actually promote the values they have publicly embraced?

Unintended Environmental Damage

This faddism is actually bad for the environment. Myers shows conclusively that with increasing frequency eco-fads are counterproductive, doing more damage to the environment than they prevent and drawing energy and resources away from real solutions. However, people mentally filter out information that may call into question the effectiveness of environmental policies or purchases; instead, they exaggerate the perceived benefits. 

Recognizing these influences can help us be more alert to the potential flaws in green policies and causes. It also helps us understand the frustrating tendency of environmental discussions to become highly emotional and personal. Eco-fads endure because they appeal to some important human characteristics such as the desire to feel good about the decisions we are making and our need for acceptance by our peers.

With what you will learn from this book, you will be better able to shake off the hypnotic spell of green mythology and return to sound environmental thinking. Buy this book for every reasonable person on your Christmas list. And if I have failed to convince you of this yet, I may try again in the next issue of Environment & Climate News.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director of The Heartland Institute.