I grew up watching Captain Planet cartoons. These cartoons helped make me aware of environmentalism by showing me ordinary kids transforming into superheroes who were saving the planet week after week. However, you can’t have superheroes without super villains. Week after week, the planeteers battled against villains like Looten Plunder, Sly Sludge, Doctor Blight, Duke Nukem, and Hoggish Greedly. Again and again, the message was that somehow making money came at the expense of the environment. When it came to the environment, Captain Planet repeatedly reinforced the idea that capitalism, business, and corporations were the bad guys.
Unfortunately, many people’s ideas of environmentalism are quite literally cartoonish. We have been taught to assume that an environmentalist must lean politically left even though hunting organizations like Ducks Unlimited are some of the biggest preservers of the environment in the United States. And we have been taught to think that environmentalism requires levels of self-denial where we don’t shave our armpits, or eat meat and only shower once a week.
Frankly, this way of thinking about environmentalism is a turn off and it is self-defeating. For too many, environmentalism has been turned into something very similar to Medieval Christianity. There is a constant fear of a looming environmental apocalypse. Money is the root of all environmental evil. And every little choice from eating meat to using a plastic straw comes weighted down with guilt and shame for not behaving as virtuously as we should. This environmentalism is self-defeating because it alienates most people. Having a handful of people with zero carbon footprint doesn’t do the planet much good if billions of people think environmentalism isn’t for them.
After completing over 27,000 home energy assessments, the team at Eco Consulting, the company I founded, has learned that environmentalism needs a major rebranding. When I or any one of my specialists goes into a home, we don’t talk about what energy efficiency can do for the environment. We talk about what it can do for the homeowner. Weatherizing your home and installing the right HVAC system will make your home more comfortable, healthy and more affordable. The fact that it also will help the environment is a feel-good bonus for a percentage of the population. If environmentalists want to help the environment, we need to change how we talk about the environment. And, especially, we need to change how we talk about corporations. Casting business as the environmental bad guy every single time made for a great cartoon for kids but it makes for terrible environmental policy. Corporations are powerful and, in spite of what the media would have you believe, many of them are firmly on the side of the planet, employees and communities. By supporting the corporations doing the right thing, we can change the world. Patagonia uses recycled content in their products and they design their products to last a lifetime. CEO’s and investors are now beginning to understand that shareholders are not the end all when it comes to corporate responsibility.