“Green Fatigue” and “Eco Anxiety”

The press switches from environmental exigency to exhaustion

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.

San Francisco tells of a stay-at-home mom who reuses each plastic bag and whose desk is “a mess, with piles of things I would like to put on a bulletin board, but the glues in regular bulletin boards are too toxic.” Another woman washes herself in her daughter’s used bath water and complains of a markedly decreased sex life as a result of her environmental concerns. In the Times piece, however, sex and bulletin boards seem to return to their rightful places in the American home as exasperation overpowers optimism. Far from feeling obliged to sort out new strategies for eco-friendliness, one source says that she has simply given up: “To say that you are confused and a little fed up with the often contradictory messages out there on how to live lightly on the earth is definitely not cool. But, heck, I’ll come out and say it. I’m a little overwhelmed.”

The discrepancy in tone between the two articles is indicative of a progressive national burnout. On the other hand, businesses are simultaneously maintaining and even intensifying their green advertising campaigns in a quest to attract the more ambivalent consumers. That approach was in evidence at Advertising Age magazine’s Green Conference last week; the first sentence of AdAge’s own report on the conference reads, “Perfection is not attainable, let alone necessary, when it comes to being green.”

Companies that participated, including McDonalds, Wal-Mart, and Patagonia, have sustainability guidelines that range from abysmal to commendable to excellent. They all, however, appear to be increasing the presence of eco-friendly motifs and imagery in their advertising strategies. Amit Mizan, the conference’s program manager, says that the event illuminated the predominance of “light green consumers…who drive their SUV to Whole Foods” and shop organic when the prices are comparable, mainly because “there’s a positive sort of feeling when you buy organic, even if you turn the label around and you may not even fully realize what it is to be organic.”

Undulating reports on the environmental advantages and disadvantages of everything from organic foods to hybrid cars could be to blame. “Get Ready to Rethink What It Means to Be Green,” advises the June cover story from Wired. Yet after several years of leaving readers with unsettled evidence and plenty of displaced anxiety, the uncertain effectiveness of even the most earnest eco-efforts seems to have undermined individuals’ motivation.

While new data and updated understandings should be reported, the capricious conclusions making headlines often have little to do with new information. When that happens, readers are bound to get frustrated, which is unfortunate, because there are many pressing environmental problems (from pollution to deforestation) in the world today. Journalists should stick to those and do their best avoid the flimflammery of “green consumerism” (itself, an oxymoron) unless there is a truly useful discovery or breakthrough to report. Perhaps that would assuage some of the eco-anxiety out there, and allow readers to think about more meaningful ways to help their planet.

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Elizabeth Tuttle is an intern at CJR.