What happens if you greenwash greenwash?
It's hard to go lower than net zero....
Greenwashing began, as it name implies, as a gentle, barely perceptible rain of fibs. Back at the start, it was mostly pictures; it was pretty easy to gauge how much environmental damage a company did by the number of penguin photographs it felt it needed to include in its annual report.
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By 2022, however, greenwashing is the fulltime business of huge numbers of people, desperately trying to defend indefensible industries as the planet’s temperature climbs inexorably higher and as more and more consumers demand action. Most of that work now boils down to different ways of saying: we’re not planning to change the fundamental trajectory of our business any time soon, so can we distract you with some combination of action around the edges and promises about the distant future? Forget gentle shower—we’re talking Category 5, Katrina-scale greendousing.
So, for instance, big gas companies like pipeline giant Enbridge are taking about ‘blending’ hydrogen into the gas they send to your cooktop and your furnace in order to ‘cut emissions.’ But as Julia Levin points out, the most hydrogen they can blend in is about 20%, and that will cut emissions six percent. (Oh, and it’s four times more likely to explode in your house). The real sin, though, is that the only reason they’re doing it is to head off pressure to electrify home heating and cooking, with air source heat pumps and induction cooktops. If we installed those instead, and ran them off renewable energy, than emissions would drop, hmm, 100 percent. Oh, and your kids would not have a 42% higher chance of developing asthma.
Where once one looked for pictures of penguins, the easy new way to figure out who’s greenwashing is to search for the phrase “net zero.” Consider the big banks, for instance, who have joined in a ‘net zero’ alliance, promising great things by 2050. But since they are eager to keep lending vast sums to the fossil fuel industry they too have decided that the best defense is a good offense. A regional vice-president from Bank of America, writing in a Nevada newspaper last week, explained how the financial giant was working to “achieve its goal of net zero emissions in its financing activities, operations and supply chain before 2050.” BofA, he explained, would be reducing its water and paper use over the next three decades, and transitioning to electric vehicles. But he didn’t mention what is by far the biggest source of carbon emissions: all the fossil fuel projects it has lent hundreds of billions dollars for since the Paris accords were signed. Yes, the big banks are lending to solar and wind because there’s money to be made, but as long as they keep lending to oil and gas the climate books never balance. No one cares if someone at Bank of America is making too many copies in the Xerox room; it’s those pesky LNG ports and tarsands pipelines they keep helping to build.
Many person-years of work by scientists and of climate advocates will necessarily be spent debunking these moves as the shams they are—and that’s the point. The fossil fuel industry and its allies (which, remember, continue to spend tens of billions of dollars exploring for and developing new oil fields, even as the International Energy Agency declared that new infrastructure investment needed to stop last year if we were to meet the Paris climate targets) is perfectly happy to have everyone engage in a rhetorical battle for years to come, because it keeps them from having to actually change their business model. Confusion is their game plan. If you got away with thirty years of climate denial, why not try to get away with thirty years of playing pretend? (This week campaigners for divesting the Church of England’s massive investments accused the denomination of “faithwashing” the fossil fuel industry, an excellent neologism.)
Most farcical of all—the world’s biggest pr agency, Edelman, found itself this week figuring out how to greenwash its greenwashing. Pushed by organizers in groups like Clean Creatives to stop working for the oil industry, the agency announced that it had completed a 54-day internal investigation of itself and decided, in the words of Adweek, that it was “sticking with polluters—for now.” As founder Richard Edelman explained to PRWeek, "we have a 30-year history of [climate work], starting with dolphin-safe tuna in 1992.” Ignore for the moment the fact that there may be some dolphin-washing going on, that climate work seems mainly to involve “20 emissions-intensive clients globally,” who will now be examined somewhat more closely by the agency to see if they can’t be “adding context to information with respect to climate,” whatever that means.
High on Edelman’s new list of principles: “working with organizations committed to accelerating action to net zero.”
We are, no question, cooking with gas.
Some notes from around the climate world
+This one is close to my heart: Nordic skiing champions are getting hurt more and more often because they’re having to ski on icy manmade snow due to ever-smaller natural snowfalls. Manmade snow “isn’t really snow at all,” said Jim Steenburgh, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah. “What it is is water that’s blown through nozzles that break up the water into extremely small and tiny droplets that then freeze. While the structure of natural snow is fundamentally different.”
+Law students announced a boycott of the mega-firm Gibson Dunn because of its endless work for firms destroying the planet’s climate. According to the Leehi Yona and David Cremins writing in the Nation,
“in addition to its involvement in dozens of climate change cases, Gibson Dunn has lobbied for Koch Industries and represented the corporation behind the Dakota Access Pipeline, a project that would violate indigenous rights. (In another affront to native sovereignty, Gibson Dunn has also represented those seeking to overturn the Indian Child Welfare Act). Over the last decade, the firm has brought in nearly $27 billion in fossil fuel and energy revenue, with no sign of slowing down even as the need to halt and reverse carbon emissions becomes all the more urgent.”
+Plastics are emerging as the fossil fuel industry’s next play—a useful article in the Atlantic lays out the damage that will do to the climate (and everything else)
+Ken Pucker, former COO at Timberland, explains in the Harvard Business Review why ‘sustainable fashion’ isn’t.
“Like all industries, fashion is nested in a broader system. It is a system premised on growth. While serving as an executive in the industry, never once did a CFO ask me if the business could contract to yield a more durable customer base. Nor did I ever hear from a Wall Street analyst making a pitch for Timberland to prioritize resilience ahead of revenue growth. This unyielding pursuit of growth, of “more,” drives strategies that are specific to the fashion industry. Because it is hard to make a better performing or more efficient blouse, handbag, or pair of socks, to motivate consumption, the industry pushes change. Not better — just different, cheaper, or faster.”
+The temperature rises, people sweat, and they get more kidney disease. A lot more.
+Making the wrong kind of history: it was 123 degrees this week in Australia; it’s never been hotter in the southern hemisphere. Meanwhile Argentina and surrounding countries sweltered in an historic heatwave of its own—the temperature in the lee of the Andes may have hit 111.
And now, on plods our nonviolent epic yarn—this is one of my favorite historical stories, so skip it if you’ve heard me tell it before. And if you need to catch up on the first 40 chapters of The Other Cheek, check out the archive.
Everyone at SGI—students and staff—had risen early to watch the Dalai Lama’s interfaith gathering from Ahmedabad. It had started at 5 p.m. there to avoid the worst of the day’s heat, which meant it was 5:30 a.m. when the broadcast went live on the screen in the Mandela auditorium. Students were still settling in when the singer started in on Here Comes the Sun, and no one could figure out why she stopped, or why the whole assembly seemed to be heading for the exit.
It took CNN International ten or fifteen minutes to locate someone’s cellphone video of the piglets squealing amid the Muslims, and to assemble a crew of experts to explain exactly why it had been so insulting.
“Swine are unclean to the Islamic faith, and also to Orthodox Jews,” said a man from the American University in Beirut, identified onscreen as a “religion scholar.” “This was a deep insult, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this shuts down the entire conference. The Dalai Lama has to be feeling—sheepish,” he said, as the rest of the talking heads smiled in unison.
With the conference adjourned, Maria stood up and turned off the monitor, sending everyone to breakfast, and telling them to reconvene afterwards for a discussion.
Because they were up so early, they were sharing the dining hall with this week’s yoga-with-trees retreat—the series had become so popular that most of the center’s other holistic programs had been put on hold, and each Sunday a new crew of people would arrive to channel the inner essence of the aspens that grew around the campus. By now everyone at SGI was used to middle-aged men sitting cross-legged in front of trees, or women doing a ‘re-childing’ workshop (MK and Cass’s idea originally, though they’d thought of it as a joke) that involved building the tree fort only boys had been able to erect when they were young. The guests were quiet and paid well, and they helped distract attention from SGI’s real mission as a center for activist training and coordination; the main drawback was that the cafeteria no longer served maple syrup, on the grounds that it was widely considered ‘tree blood’ in the tree-yoga community. Today the yogis were in silent mode, meditating on the way that the food they put in their mouths was like the nutrients sucked up by aspen roots that made its steady way right to their outermost leaves. The SGI students mostly respected the silence, in part because they were groggy from being up so early, and in part because the events in India had stunned them.
Almost no one wanted to talk when they filed back into the auditorium, either. Maria reviewed briefly the story of the morning’s pig problem, and then the school’s defaced posters; she asked for reactions to either one.
“I think it’s sad?” said Memory. “People should be kinder to each other, especially monks?”
No one else responded, and the silence grew. The faculty, seated in a row at the table on the small stage, kept a steady gaze on the students, just waiting.
Finally Jukk broke the silence. “Personally, I’m glad those monks did what they did,” he said. He stood up, clutching a napkin. “I brought a piece of bacon from breakfast. If I toss it at you Anand, what’s going to happen? Is it going to hurt you? It’s . . . bacon.” He looked quickly—triumphantly—over at Allie, but she was looking down at the floor. He went on, a little less brashly.
“Let’s face it. Religion is outmoded. It’s from the days before science, when people needed some explanation for the world. But no thinking per-son could endorse it.”
“He’s right, you know,” said Aadit. “It’s always been violent—think about the crusades. Now it’s Islam, mostly. Every time there’s a shooting or a bombing, there’s always someone yelling ‘Allahu Akbar.’ What does that tell you?”
“And everyone here is always going on about women’s rights, women’s rights—who do you think is keeping women down?” said Jukk, more and more exercised. “I mean, Yasmin has to keep her hair in a scarf. What’s wrong with hair.”
Yasmin looked stricken, and several of the students moved to comfort her.
“Shut up Jukk,” said Winston Liu. “You’re being an asshole.”
“Oh, good argument!” said Jukk.
“Jukk’s right—it’s not a very good argument,” said Professor Kinnison, rising from his chair. “Tolerance is indeed a virtue, but is there no one here who wants to make an actual case for the role of religion?”
When no one answered, he continued: “I’m not completely surprised. Fifty years ago, a hundred years ago, five hundred years ago almost everyone in this world was committed to one religious tradition or another—it would have been how they understood their lives. And for most people that’s still true. But for the educated—and especially for the progressive—there’s been a fast drift away from faith. Jukk, in Scandinavia less than five percent of people go to church—it’s irrelevant. The US is the most religious developed country on earth—but non-believers are the fastest-growing category of Americans, and that growth is concentrated among young people.”
“Pope Francis is a rock star,” said Tomas.
“True,” said Professor Kinnison. “But it doesn’t seem to have changed people’s perceptions of religion as much as, say, the ISIS bombings.”
“Or the Taliban,” said Aadit. “I mean, they tried to kill that girl who just wanted to go to school.”
“May I say something?” said a quiet voice from the end of the faculty table.
“We would be honored if you did, Professor Vukovic,” said Maria—and indeed the whole gathering was staring at the old man as he rose a little slowly to his feet. Except for Allie, the students knew him only as some kind of famous and ancient relic who never ever said a word.
“I am an atheist,” he said. “I have been most of my life. At first it was for ideological reasons—I was also a communist, and thought that religion was, as Mr. Marx put it, opium for the volk. I stopped being a communist before long, and I would very much have liked to stop being an atheist too, but I’ve never been able to encounter a god or gods. It is a great sadness—maybe the great sadness—of my life. Because most—not all but most—of the greatest nonviolent activists I’ve ever met have been people of deep faith. And, I might add, the most violent people of my lifetime—Hitler, Mao, Josef Stalin to whom I gave my allegiance when I was young—were persecutors of religion. Anyway, today I want to tell you a story about the single greatest nonviolent activist I ever met, a man named Gaffur Abdul Khan. I am . . . somewhat short of breath these days, and this is a long story, so I’ve asked my research assistant—my research assistants—to help me. Also, they know Powerpoint, which I do not. Goldfarb? Salgado?”
Cass and Allie, who’d been sitting together at the front of the hall, came forward, one standing at each elbow, and Allie pushed a button to lower a screen. When it was down, she poked at her computer for a second, and an image of a tall, handsome bearded man appeared in front of the hall.
“This is Gaffur Abdul Khan, born 6 February 1890 in what the British called the Northwest Frontier Province,” said the professor. “It’s that land on the border of present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan, the homeland of the Pathans, the precise people that caused such trouble to the Soviets, to the Americans, and basically to everyone else who tried to subdue them. First they caused great trouble to the British, and that is the story I want to tell.
“Gaffur Khan was born in the town of Utmanzai, twenty miles from Peshawar, now perhaps the greatest small arms bazaar in the world. His father was the khan—the chieftain—of the village, and a man of some wealth and standing, at least by the standards of his palce and time. Though like everyone else in the region they were good Muslims, his father sent him, despite the grumbling of the mullahs, to the Mission high school in Peshawar run by an Anglican reverend. Khan would say later that watching the brothers who taught at the school, seeing their love and generosity, had rubbed off on him—he would quote a Pathan proverb, “When a melon sees another melon, it takes on its color.”
Khan turned down service in the British military—an honor that few who had the chance rejected. Instead, he made the hajj to Mecca, and then began to wander the villages of the Pashtun region, setting up small schools so others could be educated. One day, in a remote village, he stopped in the tiny local mosque and didn’t emerge for a few days. He said later that as he prayed, the word “Islam” began to vibrate with meaning for him: ‘Surrender.’ Surrender to the Lord and know his strength. He began his work as a reformer in earnest. Between 1915 and 1918, says his biographer Eknath Easwaran, he visited every one of the 500 villages in the settled districts of the Northwest Frontier. He would sit with the villagers in each one, and talk about education, about community—and about the news beginning to filter out from the rest of India of what Gandhi had begun. At some point they began to call him Badshah Khan, the King of Khans.”
Professor Vukovic stopped, and sat down. He seemed worn, suddenly unable to talk. He glanced up at Cass and nodded.
“Well,” she began a bit hesitantly, “the British put him in jail for the first time in 1919, after they imposed martial law. When he got out, after six months, he went back to building schools, and was soon put back in jail. There’s a story I found when I was researching—he was locked up and one of the British officials told him he didn’t believe that he was actually nonviolent. Khan said he’d taken a vow because he’d read about Gandhi. ‘What would you have done if you hadn’t heard of Gandhi,’ he asked. Khan slowly bent two of the iron bars of the cell. ‘This is what I would have done to you,’” he said.
“That’s the part you need to understand,” said Professor Vukovic, still sitting down. His voice was thin, but urgent. “When I met him he was an old man, but still tall—he was 6’3—and strong. And the Pathans were—are—the most warlike people I’ve ever met. It’s a world of honor codes and violent revenge. Which makes the rest of the story . . .”
“It makes the rest of the story even more unlikely,” said Allie, who rested a hand on the professor’s shoulder. She switched the powerpoint to show a picture of a small crew of men and boys in red shirts. “Khan did a lot of amazing things. He founded more schools, he started the first magazine in Pushto, and he worked hard to liberate women; he didn’t believe in what they called purdah, secluding women, and he made sure that girls could be educated. But eventually, once he’d met Gandhi, he had his most important idea. For an army. The world’s first nonviolent army. They called themselves the Khudai Khitmatgar, the Servants of God, and their first declaration was “As God needs no service, but serving his creation is serving him, I promise to serve humanity in the name of God. And their second pledge was “I promise to refrain from taking violence and revenge.”
Cass took over from Allie. “These guys didn’t make ‘promises’ like you or me. These were vows. They meant them. They all had red shirts they wore. When Gandhi started making salt at the end of his march, there were huge demonstrations across India, and the British didn’t know what to do—the whole world was watching. But not in the Northwest Frontier. They sealed it off, they imposed martial law, there was no one there to see. No reporters. In Peshawar they had a demonstration, completely peaceful, but the British thought that if they gave in even a little bit the Pathans would run them out. So they started firing on the demonstrators.”
“This was at Kissa Khani Bazaar, the Storyteller’s Bazaar,” said Professor Vukovic. “I’ve been there.” He paused for a moment. “They shot and killed a number of people. No one fought back. Instead, the next line of red shirts pushed aside the bodies, and stood there, baring their chests. The British killed them, and then the next line came forward. This went on for hours, from 11 in the morning until 5 in the evening. Two hundred and fifty dead.” He seemed completely spent, and sunk back in his chair—Maria got up and stood behind him, whispering in his ear. He shook his head, and Allie resumed the story.
“The repression—well, it did the opposite of what the British wanted. Soon there were 80,000 members of the Servants of God. They shot them, they threw them down wells, they . . . dishonored them by making them take off their pants in public. But nothing worked—they stayed nonviolent.”
Cass showed a picture of the giant Khan towering over a frail Gandhi. “The British sent him to prison thousands of miles away in the main part of India, and when they released him they kept him exiled,” she said. “He lived at Gandhi’s ashram and became his great friend. In fact, they called him the Frontier Gandhi. And when the British finally let him return home, the first thing he did was arrange a visit for Gandhi.”
She looked over at Allie, who flipped up a picture of the two men in Peshawar. “When Gandhi came, he said it was the most important visit of his life. Wherever he went in India, he was mobbed by screaming crowds. Here, the Pathans by the tens of thousands stood by the roads, smiling, erect, and perfectly silent. Gandhi said they were the first people he’d ever met who’d really begun to understand non-violence.”
Anand Chowdury waved a hand. “How come we’ve never heard of him? I mean, I’m a Muslim, I’m from that part of the world, if this guy is so great why isn’t he famous?”
Cass said “I don’t completely get that part either. But it has to do with what happened when the British left India.”
“Exactly,” said Professor Vukovic. He was sitting straighter now, his voice a little stronger. Cass and Allie shared a look—they knew from the day he’d spent preparing the powerpoint that he could barely talk about the massacre at Kissa Khani; he’d told them it made him ashamed of himself simply to think of the strength of those people. Now that the story was becoming more scholarly, he was rallying, though his voice was still a little tremulous.
“When the British left India, the Muslim League demanded that the portions of the subcontinent where Islam predominated be separated out—that’s how Pakistan came to be born, and Bangladesh. Which was originally East Pakistan, but that’s another horrible story. Anyway, Gandhi—and Khan—hated this partition. Gandhi was fasting and praying, not celebrating, the night of India’s independence. Even though he was in his 70s he planned to walk across India to the Northwest Frontier to see Khan. But he was shot before he could go, by a fanatic Hindu who thought he was too soft on Muslims. Meanwhile the Muslim League hated Khan as much as they hated the British—the Pakistanis put him in jail right away as a security risk, and he spent maybe half the rest of his life there. Every time they let him out he’d go right back to trying to change the world—when I met him he was out of prison and fighting a giant dam that would have drowned the Peshawar Valley.”
“And his legend never really died, at least among the Pathans,” said Allie, who put another slide on the screen, this one of a great procession of people winding across a rugged mountain road. “When he died in 1988, at the age of 97, still under house arrest, 200,000 people came to his funeral. Tens of thousands of them marched for dozens of miles over the Khyber Pass. There was a five-day ceasefire in the Afghan Civil War.”
She paused, and Maria said: “Thank you all three of you. This is a remarkable story; I only knew it in bits and pieces, and Marco –Professor Vukovic—I had no idea you’d known him in person, though I should have guessed.”
“It was the only story I could think of when I saw those posters,” the old man said. “And after what happened today in Ahmedabad . . . .Well, the point is for me: anyone who says Islam is violent better be prepared to explain why it produced the greatest nonviolent army of all time. You could call him a jihadi, I guess, but he always said that ‘Islam is amal, yakeen, muhabat: service, faith and love.’ And it wasn’t just Khan. If you want to argue that religion gets in the way of progress, you better be able to explain Gandhi and his Hinduism, or King and his Christianity. I don’t believe in God, as I’ve said, but I do believe in history.”
“Unless there are questions, I think that’s enough for the morning,” said Maria. “We’re very very grateful to you Professor Vukovic, and also to your assistants.”
“I’ve got a question,” said Jukk, who looked annoyed. “For Allie. You’ve been telling us what a great guy this Khan is, but you’ve got a gun on you all the time. So what are you talking about?”
Professor Vukovic started to rise, his face coloring, but Allie but a hand on him. “Don’t worry, Professor, I’ve got this,” she said. She pulled up the cuff of her jeans so that everyone could see there was no longer a holster on her boot. “I got rid of the gun a few days ago,” she said. “And I’m not going to tell you all the reasons why. But I will tell you what I was reading when I finally made up my mind. It was a talk that Gandhi gave to the Pathans when he went for a visit.” She rummaged around for a moment in her notes, and then pulled out a piece of paper.
“Gandhi sat and talked with a bunch of Khudai Khitmatgars when he was visiting. And he told them they needed to be nonviolent in their hearts as well as their actions. He said that a true warrior would feel stronger without a rifle than with one. He said ‘a person who has known God will be incapable of harboring anger or fear within him, no matter how overpowering the cause for it may be.’ I’m not there yet—in fact I’m not anywhere near there yet, so don’t test me. But I’d like to be.”
Allie walked over to Yasmin, who was sitting in the front row, and took both her hands in hers and sat on the floor in front of her, and said: “I’m sorry about what happened to your poster. I think I may have been the cause of it, and I’m really really sorry. And I hope you’ll take me to a mosque someday, so I can see what it’s like.”
The hall emptied slowly, people talking quietly as they headed for class. Cass walked Professor Vukovic slowly back to his office; he was leaning more heavily on her arm than she ever remembered. She laid and laid him out on a small cot next to his desk, and loosened his tie—he was asleep in seconds.
Allie was the last person left in the auditorium, cleaning up the papers and shutting down the computer screen. Maria, who’d been lingering by the exit, came down the stairs to the front, and sat there watching her. After a minute she said:
“Two things. One, that was beautiful. One of the most important things that’s happened at this school ever. We could send this class of students home right now and most of the teaching would be done. Second, Professor Vukovic told me some of your story. I have some resources for you—some people to talk to when you’re ready. But are there ways I can help?”
Allie looked at her and said, “would you go to Mass with me someday?”
“I haven’t been to Mass for 20 years,” said Maria. “I would . . . love to. This weekend.”