It’s not just the palpable frustration with Greenpeace solicitors on Broadway this summer — according to an article in the most recent New York Times Sunday Styles section, people are too overwhelmed by the command to be “green” to do much about it anymore.
The piece explored an emerging syndrome caused by “green noise.” It found that the barrage of (often contradictory) messages about what is “sustainable” and what is not — endlessly splayed across the media — have not caused more eco-awareness, but rather a vast sense of consumer helplessness and inactivity:
A study by the Shelton Group, an advertising agency and market research company based in Knoxville, Tenn., that focuses on environmental products, showed that consumers surveyed in 2007 were between 22 and 55 percent less likely to buy a wide range of green products than in 2006. The slipping economy had an effect, but message overload appeared to be a major factor as well, said Suzanne C. Shelton, the company’s president.
“What we’ve been seeing in focus groups is a real green backlash,” Ms. Shelton said. Over the last six months, she added, when the agency screened environmentally themed advertisements, “we see over half the room roll their eyes: ‘Not another green message.’”
The article aptly observes that attempts to decrease one’s environmental footprint often leave consumers walking in circles. The reporter, Alex Williams, cites a number of familiar scenarios, such as shoppers who replace disposable plastic water bottles with reusable Nalgene bottles, only to read soon after of the potential dangers of carcinogens and growth hormones contained within their chic containers:
An environmentally conscientious consumer is left to wonder: are low-energy compact fluorescent bulbs better than standard incandescents, even if they contain traces of mercury? Which salad is more earth-friendly, the one made with organic mixed greens trucked from thousands of miles away, or the one with lettuce raised on nearby industrial farms? Should they support nuclear power as a clean alternative to coal?
A long article in the February issue of San Francisco, headlined “Green With Worry,” was one of the first pieces to notice the extreme reaches of the “eco-anxiety” trend, painting vignettes of neurotic soccer moms ransacking their neighbors’ trashcans for recyclables and unburdening their anxious, guilt-ridden minds in weekly eco-therapy sessions:
More and more of us are becoming high-strung eco-worriers for whom a new study in the New York Times or a Yahoo! headline are triggers that can easily cascade into a swirling mass of anxiety about, well, almost everything What happens after an eco-worrier has changed all the light bulbs? Burnout.
The San Francisco piece was preceded by an MSNBC article from July 2007 described a rash of eco-terrorism (think anti-fur protestors, but instead of throwing red paint at socialites, they’re slashing the tires of Hummers); a Time article from last November delivered a first-person account of the author’s struggles with the paradoxical paradigms of eco-consciousness and eco-anxiety; and from across the Atlantic, an article from late January in The Scotsman welcomed readers to “the world of green fatigue,” noting that “sticking our heads in the ever-warming sand is the newest way to deal with the often conflicting information that assails us about what’s happening to our environment.”
The San Francisco magazine article seemed to make the biggest media splash, however, provoking a number of responses from popular environmental blogs. It also seemed to spark lots of analogous coverage from mainstream outlets piggybacking on the interest in “ecopsychology:”
• “Eco-anxiety replaces dishpan hands for ‘green moms’” (International Herald Tribune, February 15)
• “Well, Doctor, I Have This Recycling Problem” (The New York Times, February 16)
• “Worried? You’re not alone ” (The Independent, March 20)
• “Guilt over failure to achieve eco-ideal” (Toronto Star, April 28)
In the time that elapsed between San Francisco’s feature and the Times’s article about green noise last Sunday, the definition, or at least the repercussions, of “eco-anxiety” shifted from over-exertion to apathy. That change is evident in the characters upon which each story is based.