What can Green mean?

A New Ecological Ethic Based on Contribution

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 what actually does “help the planet” mean? 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. After all, what about ‘bio-plastics’? What about more efficient coal power plants? What about Bill Gates’ geoengineering proposals? What to think about Coca Cola’s new paper bottle? How about Patagonia’s upcycled-bottle jacket or Unilever’s new 100% recycled bottle? Indeed, we must also ask about the concepts beneath these technologies — ideas like ‘the circular economy’, ‘zero-waste’ and ‘net-zero’.

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 to be green. Maybe you have too. Investigative journalism has decisively debunked so many of the ‘green’ things we once esteemed. From industrial plastic recycling to palm-oil products, it turns out they are more 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 green masquerades with a careful study, with so many new “green” products and technologies vying for our attention, what do we do? We can’t convene a panel of experts on every new green initiative! Although it may claim to be great and green, often our intuition urges a closer look. Do we just take their word for it? Do we follow what everyone else is following? Could these be the “plastic recycling” industries or the “oxy-degradeable plastics” of tomorrow?

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 framework, it’s impossible to gain the confident and consistent discernment we so need. Alas, such delineation of communal value 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 world views, ethics and philosophies.

Living among the Igorot indigenous people of the Filipino Cordilleras for five years, I experienced their deep and comprehensive ancestral ecological ethos. For the last centuries, the Igorots have lived in stunning harmony with the ecologies around them. I have I come 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 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, more than ever 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 all those of us reverent of a religion and that satisfies our scientists. An ethics that can be summed up in one simple question for an intuitive answer — yet robust enough for an extensive multi-dimensional evaluation.

But most importantly, we need an ethics that applies equally to plants, animals and ecologies, just as it applies to our households, companies and enterprises. Only this way can we ever hope to aspire to great planetary contributions that our fellow species and neighboring ecosystems are quietly making each day.

In the weeks ahead I will be developing, post by post, a new ethical theory of green based on the example of our common home. This “Earthen ethic” will be founded on the ways that the Earth has greened the planet.

I ask the reader’s patience as the pages turn. The Earth’s example sets the green bar at heights hitherto unimagined by most of us. I believe that with the Earth’s ways laid out, we can see the shortcomings of our current green attempts. However, this shall not be a judgment in the way of our ethics of old. The words ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are absent in this essay. Rather than judgment, I believe the Earth calls for an observation of our processes. Rather than calling for reform, the wondrous creatures and ecologies will observe in the chapters ahead, call for gratitude, reciprocity, creativity and courage.

As you shall see, the way ahead isn’t so much about fixing our technologies, but rather embracing new principles that have nothing to do with our economy of old — yet everything to do with the deep green world we long live in.

NEXT: Imagine. Thriving.

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.

1I use the term “Earthen” in the sense of belonging to the entity of the planet Earth — in the the same way we speak of “Canadian people” or “Canadian companies”. The term is in contrast to “earthen” (no capitalization) which refers to the earth as the ground or as soil.


The Essence of Green

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