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CORRESPONDENCE: The Allure of Green

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger argue forcefully that green consciousness is a luxury good that emerges at a certain stage of economic development and which ebbs and flows in strength with the business cycle (and the price of oil). Yet, in today’s society, a green orientation goes beyond the luxury of enjoying clean air and swimmable waterways. In good times and bad, ecologically-sensitive consumption serves a particular moral role for today’s affluent Americans who find themselves at the vortex of the most unequal economy in the developing world, and who work in some of the most abstract sectors of production.

Allow me to elaborate:

One of the most important trends to emerge simultaneously with the modern environmental movement has been rising inequality. Each year since the birth year of modern environmentalism, 1969, measures of economic inequality have risen. In fact, by 2007 (the last year for which complete data are available), the income share for the top one-percent had reached its previous 100 year peak: 1929, un-coincidentally.

This latest bout of inequality is not of the “rich-get-richer and the poor-get-poorer” variety. It has been the rich getting richer, period. When we break out the income distribution into two halves--the relative income shares for the middle on down has been fairly steady over this period, but the top half has stretched out like (organic) taffy.

This fundamental economic shift intersects with the changing nature of how white collar Americans make their money: The ever-connected harried professional class (which I call the Elsewhere Class) works farther and farther from the actual physical production of goods, while at the same time becoming increasingly removed from the satisfaction of basic human needs at the bottom of Maslow’s famous pyramid of human needs. Think finance. Think law. Think business consulting. Think socio-economic research or higher education (my field).

The good news about the shift of the elite economy to knowledge-based services is that a growing class of Americans is able to tap into the cultural vein of the Protestant ethic in order to derive meaning (and even their primary identity) from their vocation. And work is a lot more fun for these folks, assuming they are able to hold onto their jobs, clients, or customers these days. Yet, these same professionals who are enjoying their work more than ever before are paradoxically more alienated (to use a Marxian term) from the product of their labor, since, err, there really isn’t one to speak of.

The combination of increasingly stratified rewards and economic alienation is an epidemic of fraud anxiety and socio-economic guilt among the upper classes. To make matters worse, the good old Protestant ethic told us to work hard (check) and spend little (oops). The Elsewhere Class has taken up the first tenet with relish (driven in part by their fraud anxiety in addition to the pleasure of work): Extreme work hours have been increasing steadily for the upper quintile while they have been declining for low-wage workers. But somewhere along the way, we forgot to be thrifty and live ascetically as Ben Franklin (the poster boy for the Protestant Ethic) instructed us. Though this class works in a wireless, weightless economy on the production side, it consumes an increasing amount of stuff, as economist Juliet Schorr documents in her forthcoming book The Social Death of Things.

The consequence of runaway consumption is not only a worldwide financial crisis brought on by too much debt; it is also a social crisis of meaning. Enter the green movement, with such oxymoronic offerings as Robert Kennedy, Jr.'s "Keeper Springs" bottled water that donates profits to help the environment. Green is a way to resolve the ethical guilt of making more than others (while not being able to point to anything tangible), as well as of consuming more than ever.

The economic downturn may dampen the upward trend in inequality for now. This could be good news for those of us who have tried in vain to keep up with the folks just ahead of us. But lower rates of inequality combined with increased job insecurity may just mean that relative status anxiety comes to be replaced by a “fear of falling”--losing what we’ve got in absolute terms. This fear of being outsourced or made irrelevant by technology is only going to heighten as more and more of us work in abstract fields. What this means for the green movement remains to be seen: Hopefully, Ben Franklin will carry the day, and we will become more frugal in our consumption. It is equally plausible, however, that we will continue to assuage our guilt and anxiety with ever more unnecessary products that do little to address real environmental challenges. Anyone need a ride in my new hybrid SUV?

Dalton Conley is University Professor and Dean for the Social Sciences at NYU. He’s author of, most recently, Elsewhere, USA: How We Got from the Company Man, Family Dinners and the Affluent Society to Home Offices, BlackBerry Moms and Economic Anxiety.

By Dalton Conley