This is my weekly newspaper column in The National (UAE) published today, in a special Green Issue of the paper.
The concept of being green is like the concept of being religious: nobody is quite sure exactly what the definition is, but you are either a believer or you’re not.
Once, everything was couched in religious terms; today everything is green. We’ve had religious buildings for centuries; fashionable religious gear has been around for years, and Malaysia’s Proton automaker has an “Islamic” car. Now we have green buildings, green fashion, green cars.
Like religion, the green movement has its own jargon, one that is part of our day-to-day lexicon. Green vocabulary trips off our tongues with words like renewable, recycling, carbon offsetting, pollution, eco-friendly, organic.
Being a believer in green doesn’t necessarily mean you will actually do anything about it. Like lazy religionists, it could mean you are apathetic or even agnostic, you think it’s too hard, or you’re a procrastinator. You think you’ll eventually get around to it – when it becomes really urgent. Mainly, you hope you won’t be dying before you actually do something.
Then there’s guilt. We’re familiar with cultural notions like “Catholic guilt”, but green guilt is rife, too; if you’re not recycling properly, or if you drive a gas-guzzling car, then you probably feel constant twinges of guilt. I admit that I’m a sufferer of this ailment.
But unlike religion, green belief focuses on material things. It’s about stuff: how much we use, where it comes from, what happens to it afterwards, and what the effect of our consumption and output on the physical world around us is.
But what if “being green” and being concerned about what we take from the world and what we return to it was a concept that also included the relationships we have with people? What if it encompassed emotions, spirits and feelings?
After all, if being green is a mindset that is respectful of the environment, then we should be respectful of the people in the environment. No point generating friendships and then throwing them away. Why not build them to be sustainable? No point allowing bad feelings to fester and spiral out of control. Why pollute the human environment with recriminations?
We could extend “greenness” to be a more holistic concept so that we treat the people around us in ways that are respectful and sustainable. For eco-friendly, read “good tempered”; for carbon offsetting, read “forgiving”; for organic, read “sharing”.
Of course “green” does have an ethos, a concern for something other than self. In this case the concern is for the environment. And one of its persuasive arguments is to be worried for the legacy we leave our children.
It also hints at related ideas about other people: that workers should be paid fairly, that their resources should not be abused, that countries should not be exploited, that wars should not be fought nor people killed for oil. These need to be made more explicit, and embody the ideas of sustaining the human environment, not just the physical one. We need to elevate the importance of the human atmosphere as something to be improved, protected and maintained.
Going green, we normally ask ourselves: how hard is this going to be and how much is it going to cost me?
To be green in a human environment costs nothing financially. All it takes is a ready supply of smiles, a reserve of tolerance and an abundance of faith in the ultimate goodness of humanity.