Giving New Meaning to Green

Towards the green world for all that we all long to see

Russell Maier
Mar 3 · 6 min read
The Earth has greened the planet — why can’t we? Photo by the author.

MORE AND MORE WE ARE BECOMING aware of the severity of the ecological crises looming on our horizon. As our collective awareness grows, more and more we want to do something. Alarmed and well meaning, many of us are attempting to ‘help the planet’, to live ‘sustainably’, to ‘protect nature’, or to go ‘green’.

But how do we actually “help the planet”? What does it mean to protect ‘nature’? What are we actually ‘sustaining’? What in fact, does ‘green’ really mean?

Although it may at first seem simple, with a closer look, the answers aren’t so easy. What to think about Coca Cola’s new paper bottle? How about Patagonia’s upcycled-PET jacket or Danone’s 100% recycled bottle? How do we evaluate broader technologies like electric cars, bioplastics and wind turbines? And what about the concepts beneath many of them — ideas like ‘the circular economy’, ‘zero-waste’ and ‘net-zero’? How can we be sure these product, technologies and concepts really are in the Earth’s interest?

Having worked for the last ten years on both the western and eastern fronts of plastic pollution, I’ve come to question much of what I once thought green. Maybe you have too. Investigative journalism has decisively debunked so many of the ‘green’ things we once esteemed. From biomass energy to palm-oil products, from industrial recycling to oxy-degradeable plastics, it turns out many of the ideas and inventions we once through were green, were actually a dark shade of grey.

Canadian Recycling Facility — photo by the author. See my first hand account on the recycling industry.

While it is straightforward to see through the most egregious masquerades, there are so many new “green” products and technologies vying for our attention, one cannot help but be skeptical. Is it really just a matter of applying more efficient technology? Are the latest and greatest innovations really the greenest?

Although it may claim to be organic, sustainable, circular or carbon-neutral often our intuition urges a closer look. Does achieving just one of those virtues really make it green? Do we just take their word for it? How can we be sure it is actually in the Earth’s interests?

After all, if we haven’t made substantial changes to our principles and values, how can the direction of our technologies have changed?

Without a simple and clear understanding of what green actually means, it’s impossible to gain the confident and consistent discernment we so need. Alas, discerning what actually is in the Earth’s interest, is not the role of business people, nor of politicians. And certainly not of billionaires. All too often vested interests run deep. Likewise, such broad discernment is not the domain of scientists focused on specifics.

Rather it is the realm of philosophy, ethics, and the insights of our ancestors. And so too the forest and the trees. After all, if there’s anyone, or any ‘thing’, that can teach us about ecological contribution, it is those who are already doing so.

Living among the Igorot indigenous people of the Filipino Cordilleras for five years, I experienced just this. For the last centuries, the Igorots and their ancestors have lived in stunning harmony with their forests, trees and diverse ecosystems. Guided by a deep and comprehensive ecological ethos their lives and work steadily enrich cycles of life around them. I came to see we are missing a similar ethical foundation to make sense of our place in the biosphere today. We lack a clear idea of what contributing to the biosphere entails and what green actually means.

The ideas of the author are inspired by the Ayyew ecological ethos of the Igorot indigenous people of the Northern Philippines. See my essay ‘1000 years pollution free’

The ethics we do have (laws, religion, sustainability, UN goals) derive their perspective from a view of human interests, human rights, human-time-scale and human-space. Alas, precisely because they are so human-centered they have little to do with the interests of the Earth and all its other life. As such, our old ethics are unsuited for making the impartial ecological evaluations that we so need today. Indeed, our anthropocentric age is taking us down a road where countless of our fellow species are suffering and disappearing.

To guide our growing planet passion, we require a means to make impartial and decisive ecological evaluations — a fresh ethics for our moment that is rigorous enough for an engineer yet simple enough for a child. An ethics that resonates with those of us reverent of a religion and that fully satisfies our scientists. An ethics that can be summed up in a simple question for an intuitive answer — yet robust enough for a comprehensive, multi-faceted, academic evaluation.

But most importantly, we require an ethics that applies equally to plants, animals and ecosystems, just as it applies to our own processes, acts and enterprises. Only this way can we transcend our human-centeredness and see our own processes side by side that of our fellow species. Only this way can we ever hope to aspire to the great planetary contributions that our neighbouring organisms and ecosystems are quietly making each day.

In the chapters ahead I will be developing a new theory of green based on the example of our common home. This Earthen ethics will be founded on the ways that the Earth has transformed our once barren planet into the thriving biosphere we know today.

I ask the reader’s patience as the pages turn. The Earth’s example sets the bar at heights hitherto unimagined by most of us. I believe that with the Earth’s ways laid out, we can at long last fully understand the shortcomings of our current attempts at green. However, this is not a judgment in the way of other ethics. The words ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are absent in this essay. Rather than judgment, I believe the Earth calls for the empathetic observation of our old grey ways. Rather than condemnation, the Earth calls for courage and creativity. And rather than paralyzing guilt and despair, the wondrous creatures we will observe in the chapters ahead call for nothing short of awe and inspiration.

As we shall see, the way forward isn’t so much about fixing our current technologies — nor even about inventing new ones. Rather, it is about embracing primordial Earthen principles that only just now, in this very instant of the planet’s story, do we have the vantage to view, to grasp and to apply to our daily lives.

Only then, with the Earth as our guide, can we step with full confidence into that green world for all, which we all long to see.

NEXT: Imagining A Green World for All

This is the first installment a regular series of posts that will lay out a new theory of Green — what I am calling Earthen Ethics. These posts are leading to a book of the same name. I am a big believer that the medium is the message. Below, you can find a full impact accounting of the enterprise of developing this theory and its publication as well as my household and plastic impact disclosures.

Russell Maier is based in Indonesia, where he and his partner Ani Himawati tend a food forest garden that provides their fruit and greens. Together they track their household plastic and CO2 impacts. Their monthly household plastic consumption of 0.8kg/month is 14% of the Indonesian average. In 2020 their household CO2 emissions of 2046 Kg were 46.5% of the Indonesian per capita average. Meanwhile, their trees, bamboo, ecobricking and offsetting enabled them to secure 286% more CO2 (5851 kg of CO2 ) and keep 2200% more plastic out of the biosphere than they consumed (5.5Kg). See Russell’s full household plastic disclosure (which is independent from their professional work and projects). See a full green impact accounting statement of the enterprise of developing Earthen Ethics and its publication. Russell and Ani are leaders in the global regenerative ecobrick movement.

1For an account of my revelations and insights amongst the Igorots, see my essay: 1000 years Pollution Free: Learning from the Ayyew Ways & Wisdom of the Igorots

Earthen

The Essence of Green