An Interview with Kendra Pierre-Louis

The message was seemingly clear.  If we would only swap Mr. Clean for Seventh Generation, switch from old light bulbs to compact fluorescents, and start schlepping our organic groceries in reusable bags, we could reverse the damage we’ve caused the Earth and heal our ailing planet.  But according to sustainability expert Kendra Pierre-Louis, our commitment to shopping “green” is only a small first step toward righting our environmental wrongs.  In her eye-opening new book Green Washed: Why We Can’t Buy Our Way to a Green Planet, the New York-based environmentalist thoroughly examines the rise of organic food, green housing and clothing, solar power, and the hybrid car before persuasively concluding that the true path to helping the Earth is not buying “green” but buying much, much less.  Pointing to America’s growth economy as the main culprit behind our unchecked consumption, Pierre-Louis ultimately advocates for adopting an alternative system that doesn’t pit “our short-term well-being against our long term survival.”  In honor of Earth Day, we recently spoke to Ms. Pierre-Louis via email about nature in New York City, the “IKEA effect,” alternative economies, the importance of community engagement, and how she plans to celebrate today.

Evanston Public Library:  Can you tell us about your background as an environmentalist?  What first sparked your commitment to protecting and preserving our planet, and how did growing up in an urban area like New York City shape your relationship with nature?

Kendra Pierre-Louis:  I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics from Cornell University and a Master’s Degree in Sustainable Development from the SIT Graduate Institute.  I’ve worked for the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History, the Convention on Biological Diversity at the United Nations Environmental Programme, the New York Botanical Gardens and with the sustainable design consultancy Terrapin Bright Green.

Kendra Pierre-Louis

I don’t think any single event sparked my interest as an environmentalist; as a child of the ’80s who spent way too much time watching Captain Planet and Toxic Avengercartoons, there was always this background understanding that the planet was in peril.  As a kid, though, I tended to think of it as single issue problems – recycling will save everything, or saving the dolphins will fix things, or getting rid of toxic waste.  Through that lens of awareness I think a lot of little things sort of coalesced into forming my environmentalism – going to college in a relatively rural area, childhood summers spent in the countryside, and interestingly enough studying economics.  Economics, especially introductory economics, has this very simplistic framework that is really compelling but the more you study it the more you realize that what makes sense on paper doesn’t always make sense in practice.  And I had the great fortune not to be studying economics in this economics vacuum but alongside classes in rural sociology and classes on naturalism.  I realized that the issues with our planet aren’t discrete problems like “save the dolphins”, “save the ozone” but were connected and were the result of larger social and economic systems.  The planet was just collateral damage.  My senior year I took this class on sustainable development that was cross listed with Cornell’s agricultural school and its business school, and my final paper was this fifty-paged document just eviscerating the business school professor’s central thesis which was this very economic idea of how infinite growth could continue on a finite planet which makes absolutely no sense to anyone who has spent fifteen minutes hiking in the woods.

You’d also be surprised at how many home grown environmentalists New York City has.  Despite New York’s image as a concrete jungle it actually has an incredibly rich diversity if you know where to look.  A new species of centipede was found in Central Park in 2002, and a new species of frog was found this year in Staten Island.  Growing up we collected leaves and ladybugs, chased lightning bugs, and I remember waking up to the sounds of cicadas.  So even in New York nature exists.  If anything I think growing up in an urban area shifted my perspective from the straight conservationist who wants to protect large swathes of land somewhere that only a handful of people ever get to see, to saying, yes we should protect that land, but in order to do that we have to fundamentally reorient not just how we think of wilderness areas but also how humans interact with and think of the environments that we live in.  How do we make cities more habitable?

EPL:  In Green Washed you present extensive and compelling evidence that simply buying “green” won’t be enough to save the planet and achieve true sustainability.  Could you discuss your research process and its challenges?  Were you surprised by any of the data you uncovered?  Have you changed any personal habits based on the discoveries you made?

KP-L:  Green Washed is not an extremely long book, but it is an extremely well researched book.  There are more than 300 sources referenced, and this is in part because my research process was to read, read some more, and then to read contradicting evidence to make sure that my suppositions were correct.  And I think for the most part they are correct.  I also picked the brains of people who I know work in the field to act as a double and triple backstop.  In terms of difficulty this was hard because I was reading a large number of peer reviewed journals from a wide range of disciplines, and I had to continually double check that what I thought the article was saying was indeed what the researchers were saying.  I didn’t want to make false points.

In terms of surprise, I was definitely surprised that sodium lauryl sulfate was actually not toxic – just abrasive – since so many main stream companies have phased it out in products.  I had already mostly phased it out because it I found it personally irritating (especially in toothpaste) but finding out that there were far more toxic products used as a matter of course that were not getting anywhere near the public attention was unsettling.  I was also shocked to find out how many resources we devote to road building.  I started investigating roads because I already knew that roads fragment ecosystems but seeing the amount of materials and carbon emissions associated with road building shocked me.  I think they both point to the limits of the “informed” consumer because we as consumers mostly aren’t informed and it’s extremely difficult to be informed.

In terms of behaviors, the book hasn’t changed too much how I behave.  I’m constantly trying to lower my consumption, but the flip side of writing the book is the act of promoting the book is increasing my consumption in other ways (mostly travel).  On the other hand, as a New Yorker who avoids buying stuff, I live in a tiny home and don’t drive much which helps.

EPL:  Thinking beyond hybrid cars and reusable shopping bags you write, “[I]ncreasingly, the evidence suggests that the traditional American way of life is the one that is out of step.  If we want to save the planet, if we want to save ourselves, many of us have to consume much, much less.”  Could you discuss Jevons Paradox and the “IKEA effect” as they relate to our consumption habits and the environmental crisis?

KP-L:  Jevons Paradox is this economic concept that argues that increasing the efficiency of how a resource is used ironically increases – instead of decreases – the amount of the resource that we use.  You would think that if your car now got 40 miles to the gallon instead of 20 miles to the gallon your gas use would cut in half.  Jevons Paradox argues that we don’t actually decrease our consumption either because we decide to drive more, we buy a second car, or now that cars require less gas we decide to start powering our homes with it too.  If you look at the United States that’s pretty much what’s happened.  We’ve moved further away from work (having to drive more) and purchased more cars.

What I call the “IKEA effect” is this idea that we’re now treating goods we used to think of as durable as disposable.  Furniture used to be viewed as this long lasting durable good that you maybe even passed down to your children.  Cheap furniture used to be really obviously cheap and ugly – you didn’t buy it if you had any other choice.  IKEA comes along and makes furniture that is arguably stylish but also pretty cheap.  And now suddenly furniture is this thing that we dispose of somewhat seasonally because it’s no longer trendy, or because it’s fallen apart (it really is cheap), or because we’re moving.  We certainly don’t view it as an investment anymore or as a long-term good.  And maybe our total financial expenditure averages out – we might not be spending anymore dollar wise on furniture – but our consumption has gone way up.

EPL:  In Green Washed you point to the demands of our growth economy as being at the heart of our environmental problems and advocate for “dropping out of the normal economic system” and creating “a shadow, or parallel, economy.”  Could you discuss how this might be accomplished?  What are “Ithaca Hours,” and how do Transition Town initiatives work?

Ithaca Hours

KP-L:  So the answer to that is really complicated. On the one hand some of those parallel systems already exist – when you join a CSA, for example, you’re cutting out many of the supporting structures of agribusiness and you’re in effect saying that you don’t want to do business as normal. When Bob’s Red Mill decides to sell his company to his employees instead of selling to a publicly traded company that’s another example of dropping out of the “normal” economic system. In terms of what this means on a wide scale broad basis is less clear. Nobody really knows. Nobody has really tried a bottom-up shifting of our social and economic systems in this way before. It’s all experimental and – this is really important – it’s hyper local. What makes sense in New York City I can almost guarantee doesn’t make sense in Brattleboro, Vermont.

That said, a lot of people are doing really great work around these topics, and rather than repeat here what other people are saying, I’m going to direct you to their work. You can check out the Transition Towns Initiative at www.transitionnetwork.org, find more information about Ithaca Hours at www.ithacahours.com, and check out Slow Money movements at www.slowmoney.org.  The idea throughout is not that all business is “bad” or that all economies are problematic, but that OUR economy has become separated from our economic, social, and environmental systems. It’s gotten shifted off track, and we have to find a way to get it back on track.  These are mechanisms to do so that allow for immediate action without necessitating an act of Congress.

EPL:  What advice can you give readers who might feel overwhelmed by this new understanding of the scope and complexity of our environmental problems?  What do you do if you’re already living in a large, modern home and commuting to work from a car-based community?

KP-L:  Move.

I’m only kidding, but the reality is that where we live and who we choose to surround ourselves with has a huge impact on not only our environmental problems but on how we see and engage with the world.  When I lived in Vermont in some ways it was easier to live a lower-consumptive life because the people I was around weren’t super into “stuff” which drastically reduced the pressure to buy a shiny bauble.  In New York it’s harder – stuff seems to be a much bigger part of the conversation not just explicitly but implicitly.  So for example, I have made a conscious decision not to buy tablet computers or an e-reader because electronic waste is pretty awful, and they tend to be additive – that is we still own mp3 players, cell phones, and regular computers so throw in an e-reader or a tablet and you’re consuming more stuff not less.  That said, my resolve is tested regularly because so many people use them on the subway and they do  sometimes feel far more convenient that schlepping to the library yet again to check out books.  But then I take a step back and remember that using the library doesn’t just reduce my environmental footprint, but it also connects me to a much broader community of people in a way that e-readers do not.

This word “community” brings me to my central point which is our need to really invest in and create a community. In the book, I mention Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone quite frequently because I think that part of what drives our consumption is this feeling of disconnect and the need to express who we are via our possessions.  I also mention community because the McMansion trend could have been halted if more people had been engaged and had been like, “Wait a minute.  Do we want this to be what our community looks like?”  Because once you get a few very big buildings into a community it alters what a community looks like and it normalizes “big” and unsustainability.  A big issue where I live is people paving over their green spaces because it looks “neater.”  That’s an arguable position (and one I vehemently disagree with), but it has huge effects on the larger community from storm water runoff issues to making the street feel warmer, and that’s ignoring the biophilia implications.  Whether that should be an individual decision or a community one I’m not so sure, but what usually happens is 1000 people in a town have to do it before it raises enough ire to be brought to a community board, before a zoning change is made, and by then it’s usually too late.  With stronger communities a lot of these discussions can be had early, and discussions about how to shift a community (like turning your large house into a two family house, or getting transit lines to your town so you can take a train instead of driving) can be formed.

EPL:  Can you suggest additional books or resources for those interested in learning more about proactive solutions to our consumption and environmental challenges?

KP-L:  Absolutely.

I love Earth Odyssey by Mark Hertsgaard.  It’s a fantastically written book that puts our environmental problems in a global context.  It was written in 1999 but still holds up.  Then there are of the classic, new-wave environmental books: Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, The End of Nature by Bill McKibben, and if you’re into it from an economic perspective, Beyond Growth by Herman Daly.

When we think about environmentalism, we tend to frame it as “saving the planet”, or if we make the connection at all to “saving humanity,” it’s in reference to the planet as a strict resource base.  Of course we need trees or we won’t have paper.  But Teaching the Trees by Joan Maloof, Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv, and Biophilia by E.O. Wilson all point out that segregating ourselves from nature more stressed, depressed, and overall less healthy.  They illustrate that we’re not just harming the planet or using up our resources but also depriving ourselves of the things we need to be healthy and happy.

You should also absolutely watch the video the Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard if you haven’t already. The website features many great resources.

In terms of organizations and groups, the New Economics Foundation is doing some fantastic work around getting the economy to be more people centered (and less stuff centered) as is Slow Money. Ioby (short for In Our Backyard) highlights small-scale environmental projects that local people can get involved with (their motto is “Block by block”).  If there’s a project in your community that you feel you should be created, ioby gives people the platform to create those projects. The group started in New York City, but they’re moving to go national.

EPL:  Do you have any new projects in the works?  Will you continue to write about the environment?

KP-L:  I’m working with the White Roof Project. We work to get building owners to paint their roofs with reflective surfaces to reduce building energy use as well as a bunch of other environmental co-benefits.  We’re just beginning to ramp up our season as spring and summer are painting season.  I will continue to write about the environment.

EPL:  Finally, how do you plan to celebrate Earth Day?

KP-L:  I normally hideaway during Earth Day because ironically Earth Day has gotten really commercialized and tends to focus very heavily on “stuff.”  This year I’ll be speaking on a panel at the Los Angeles Festival of Books entitled “Disposable Nation: Trash & Consequences.”

Interview by Russell J.

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