One of my favorite stories is The Emperor’s New Clothes. To me it speaks truth about most things in life. We pick certain lies, deem them truth then persuade ourselves and others of their false veracity. As though enough people expressing the same sentiment makes it true. In the story, swindling weavers create an enticing falsehood, mesmerizing the vain, insecure emperor with their artful detailing of the non-existent.
While advertising may be the modern day equivalent of the deceitful weavers by targeting our insecurities, greenwashing preys upon our deeper need for integrity. We like to believe we’re doing good for those directly in our care without harming others in the process.
Lest we deem ourselves too sophisticated for the clothiers’ tricks, let’s consider bottled water. The weaving is brilliant. Get people to pay a thousand times more for what they can get for pennies. Get people to believe that virtually free (less than 1 cent a gallon) tap water is harmful but bottled water (5 cents per ounce) is healthy. Ironically almost half of bottled water is municipal tap water, the other half not as well regulated. What is publicly subsidized is then poured into environmentally hazardous packaging and then resold to a willing public for a much higher price. Moreover, almost 2 million barrels of oil are used to make plastic water bottles and transporting those bottles burns even more oil. Americans drain 60,000,000 water bottles a day, 90% of which don’t get recycled (as if that matters, but that’s another post). Millions of gallons of water are wasted in the plastic making process, polluting waterways where the water is extracted. Many communities oppose the use of that water, arguing that water underground or flowing from natural springs is publicly owned and should not be exploited for profit. The bottled water industry then has the audacity to claim this:
Greenwashing mollifies us into believing our choices are benign when the naked truth is they’re toxic.
As a Christian, “the truth shall set you free,” is a familiar verse. I’ve been taught truth, or knowledge that has transformative power, is rooted in God’s reality. Problematic of course, because all sorts of spinning is done with Biblical thread. For me then God’s transformative truth has environmental implications. If God consistently defines creation as good then it is a lie to regard all this goodness as merely a tool for our own ends, to serve our personal insecurity as it were. By extension, “For God so loved the world…,” means all of it: not just Christians, not just people even, but everything from magnolia trees to newts.
I get that water in parts of the country, in fact world, is not potable. Yes, cause for insecurity. But it should also be a call to social action. It is outrageous that natural bodies of water are too contaminated to drink from. This is a reality that simply should not be acceptable. Are Christians too entranced with the symbolic water of life to address real water issues? I’m particularly concerned about safe, accessible water for all because I am a mother of three girls. In many parts of the world, it is women and girls who spend hours a day, hours seeking fresh water sources for their families, not getting an education, often endangering their lives or worse. As Christians espousing love for neighbor, stockpiling or purifying our personal water supply isn’t the response to which we’re called.
If we aren’t relying on municipal water systems, then we can easily remove ourselves from engaging in public discourse on corporate polluters, bond issues or ways of upgrading municipal water treatment. If we can buy what is advertised to us as clean water from a pristine lake, then we won’t stop to consider what’s beyond the label, like the chimera of magical clothing. We can easily forget those who cannot make the same choices. Indeed, we can easily forget that access to clean water shouldn’t be a matter of choice but a basic human right.
In The Emperor’s New Clothes, a child too young to be manipulated (unlike our own) by advertising, freed the villagers from the tyranny of insecurity. I’d like to think our role as Christians is to speak truth and life into the tyranny of deadly illusions.