With Earth Day just around the bend, Natalie Zmuda has a great column in AdvertisingAge charting the strange evolution of the holiday. Back when Earth Day first kicked off in the 1970s, many enviros were focused on persuading people to decrease their personal consumption. But three decades later, Earth Day has mainly become an opportunity for companies to market themselves as eco-friendly while foisting "green" products of dubious hues on the public for mass consumption. So we get Earth Day promotions like Fairmont Hotel teaming up with Toyota to offer "Lexus Hybrid Living Suites," featuring organic sheets and—oh yes—"local biodynamic wines" in the minibar. Or Macy's "Turn Over a New Leaf" shopping extravaganza: You load up on goods; they kick over a few bucks to some forest somewhere.
Sure, it's just another example of corporations appropriating countercultural trends for their own uses. And, yes, many of these companies are just engaged in unabashed greenwashing. But it's also interesting to note that mainstream environmentalism has evolved along somewhat similar thematic lines. The other day, John Quiggin wrote a smart essay arguing that, contrary to the claims of both conservatives and "Deep Greens"—i.e., those enviros who argue that capitalism itself is ecologically unsustainable—it's perfectly possible to decarbonize the global economy while maintaining a rapid growth in living standards (albeit with a few tweaks: rein in an exurb here, junkyard an SUV there...). The idea that environmentalism can co-exist with robust GDP growth and consumerism is a fairly common tenet among major green groups nowadays, and one that seemed to be a lot more controversial 30 years ago.