Corporate Green

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Are corporations seeking to profit from the American environmental conscience? That’s the argument of columnist Jonathan Last in this week’s issue of the Weekly Standard.

Last notes the current marketing campaign of a Volvo dealer in suburban Washington, who gives away free tickets to former Vice President Gore’s global warming film An Inconvenient Truth with every purchase of a car, internal-combustion engine and all. And then there’s this:

“On a recent trip to Las Vegas, I stayed at the Monte Carlo, one of the themed monstrosities on the Strip. In the bathroom was a card asking me to “please join Monte Carlo’s effort to conserve water by using your towels more than once.” On the nightstand was another card imploring me to “please help protect our environment” by not having the bed linens changed during my stay. I was moved by these pleas, I really was. Except that outside the hotel are two gigantic fountains spewing precious water into the arid, desert air, 24 hours a day. It struck me that the Monte Carlo’s concern for the environment might simply be an attempt to save on laundry costs.”

Last concludes that marketing strategists have keyed in on the growing concern for the environment among American consumers. Big business sees green. As Last puts it:

“What’s happened is that Big Business has figured out how to use our environmental consciences against us. We greens who love the environment are now the unwitting tools of our planet’s destruction. Hotels profit from our willingness to conserve, and car dealerships lure us into luxury SUVs under the pretense of supporting Al Gore.”

The answer, for Last, is a (I think) tongue-in-cheek Swiftian “modest proposal” that most eco-conservatives like me cannot support.

Still, the point is well taken. Corporations can rack up large dividends exploiting the tendency of human beings toward self-righteousness. Call it the “Pharisee tax.” Just as the interlocutors of Jesus ignored their responsibility to their parents while claiming they were giving their money for religious purposes (Mark 7:10-12), we love to spend money on ourselves while believing we’re really humanitarian heroes in the doing. That’s why, on the Left, a car dealer wants to make you think you’re supporting Mother Earth when you purchase a luxury car and, on the Right, an antique dealer puts a fish symbol on his business logo.

Part of this is just the nature of contemporary capitalist Western civ. But it ought also to remind us of how malleable our consciences really are, apart from constant exposure to the revelation of God. If a distant impersonal corporation can help us into hypocrisy, then just think about what we can be convinced of by our own cunning hearts?

We live in a fearful and cowardly time. The crisis we face is not a crisis of clarity but a crisis of courage.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Public Theologian at Christianity Today and Director of Christianity Today’s Public Theology Project.