Thursday, February 29, 2024

Beware of “Greenwashing”

We are all familiar with the term “whitewashing.” The verb whitewash used in the figurative sense means "to cover up, conceal, give a false appearance of cleanness to," and it was used with that meaning by the middle of the 18th century

But what about “greenwashing”? What does that word mean and why should we beware of what it designates? 

Greenwashing is defined as “the act or practice of making a product, policy, activity, etc. appear to be more environmentally friendly or less environmentally damaging than it really is.” This word was first used around 1990.*1

Since it is a form of deception, we must be aware of and beware of greenwashing. This is one of the many important emphases in a new book (in English) that I have read and written a review of this month.*2

The book title is Slow Down: The Degrowth Manifesto, and the author’s name is given as Kōhei Saitō. The English translation was issued just last month, but the original Japanese edition was published in 2020, and its (translated) title is “Capital” in the Anthropocene.*3

Saitō (b. 1987) was born in Japan but was a university student in the U.S. from 2005 to 2009 and then in Germany, where he earned a Ph.D. degree in 2015. After a few years teaching at a university in Osaka, in 2022 he became an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Tokyo.

“Ecology Is the Opiate of the Masses!” is the attention-grabbing title of the Introduction in Saitō’s book. He explains,

Long ago, Marx characterized religion as “the opiate of the masses” because he saw it as offering temporary relief from the painful reality brought about by capitalism. SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] are none other than a contemporary version of the same “opiate” (xvii-xviii).

Before that, though, in his preface to the English edition, Saitō asserts that “greenwashing is everywhere,” and he describes that concept as “an optimistic belief in green technologies and green growth” and says that it “may be nothing more than a ploy to buy time for capitalism” (xi).

Saitō’s main criticism is not directed toward the global warming deniers, whom he rarely mentions, but toward those who want to save the environment. Thus, his second chapter mainly disparages proponents of the Green New Deal (GND)—as I was when I made a blog post affirming the GND in Feb. 2019.

He asks, “Can a Green New Deal really save us,” and he answers his rhetorical question in the negative. Why? Because those espousing the Green New Deal emphasize “green growth,” which Saitō thinks is impossible. And now I think he is probably right and my previous support of the GND was wrong.

Politicians always have to be concerned about the next election, so affirming “green growth” is a way of appealing to those who want to combat the dangers of climate change as well as to continue receiving the support of “big business.”

But Saitō’s main point throughout his book is clearly stated in the Introduction: capitalism is the “root cause” of the current climate crisis (p. xix). Greenwashing is used to protect capitalism by making people think that the GND and the like will alleviate the ever-increasing environmental crisis.

So, why should we beware of greenwashing? For the simple reason that the New Green Deal and other similar plans for saving the planet from global warming are deceitful, for they propose that that can be done with capitalism kept intact. Still, the NGD is certainly better than maintaining the status quo.

Saitō’s analysis of the climate/ecological problem is most probably accurate. (You’ll have to read Saitō’s book or at least a/my review of it to understand what degrowth communism means and why he thinks that it is the only viable solution to the current climate crisis.)

But the solution he posits, a worldwide shift from capitalism to degrowth communism, is absolutely unrealistic. Even Saitō says, “The Earth will become uninhabitable for humankind before capitalism collapses” (p. 26).

But, sadly, with the MAGA Republicans refusing to provide additional funding for Ukraine and candidate Trump saying he would encourage Russia to “do whatever the hell they want” if it attacked a NATO country that didnt pay enough for defense, perhaps nuclear warfare will bring the end of the world as we know it before the ecological crisis does.


*1 From the Merriam-Webster online dictionary.

*2 The review was written for The Englewood Review of Books, which provided me with a free copy of Saitō’s thought-provoking book. My review will appear on ERB’s website next month, but you can read (here) the review article (of around 1,200 words) that I submitted to Englewood.

*3 In the first printing of the English translation, all references to global temperatures should be disregarded, for they are all incorrect. I was able to exchange emails with author Saitō about this matter, and he said it was “a stupid conversion error” that has already been fixed on the Kindle version and will be corrected in the subsequent printings of the published book.

Note: Here is the link to a YouTube video of Saitō explaining his understanding of degrowth communism. That video has had nearly 10,000 views, and there are other, and longer, videos by Saitō on YouTube. 


  1. Here are important comments from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for bringing the work of Kohei Saito to our attention.

    "Although I believe recycling and reducing our dependence on petroleum products (including plastic) are important, the real problem is our excessive consumption, which is what we really need to reduce, as Saito evidently points out (I have not read his book). Our excessive consumption is driven by capitalism's marketing methods, which encourage us to consume more and more. We are constantly, and everywhere, bombarded with ads for various products. The more we consume, the greater are business profits, so Saito's attacks on capitalism have some merit.

    "Judy and I try to be minimalists, although I must admit that we are not heroes. It does appear, however, that the minimalist movement is gaining some traction--a good thing."

    1. Thanks for your comments, Eric. The main disagreement I have is your saying that "Saito's attacks on capitalism" have SOME merit, which I take to mean not much, whereas I think it has CONSIDERABLE merit. And you say that "the real problem is our excessive consumption," and although Saito does see excessive consumption in the Global North with its Imperial Mode of Living as a problem, he sees an even greater problem being the excessive production of goods that are not essential for living our daily lives well and the resultant excessive efforts "by capitalism's marketing methods" just as you mentioned. Saitō states that capitalism depends on people being "driven to ceaseless consumption," so now the "marketing industry is the third biggest in the world after food and energy production" (pp. 159-160).

      I think seeking to be minimalists and to recycle and reduce dependence on petroleum products is certainly meritorious, and I applaud you for taking that stance. The problem is, though, thinking that such efforts will solve the problem of global warming and the predicament of the ecological crisis. More drastic activities are needed--but that is the crunch, we as individuals can do little to change the root cause of our predicament.

      As I have written on this blogsite previously, even though I think the coming collapse of the world as we know it is inevitable, with more and more people doing the kind of things you are doing, that collapse will surely take place later rather than sooner. Thus, it is important to keep on doing what we can, even though we realize it will never be enough.

    2. Here is Eric's reply to my response to his earlier comments:

      "Thanks, Leroy,

      "I used the term 'some' rather than 'considerable' with respect to the merits of Saito's arguments regarding capitalism since I have not read his book, so I was hedging my bets. 'Considerable' may be more appropriate. I do fully agree that much more is needed than individual efforts at minimalism. The 'much more' is a political problem, and I am afraid we lack the political will to address climate change adequately and aggressively."

    3. Thanks, Eric, for continuing the discussion. And please know that I didn't mean to be critical of you (or critically mean to you). Rather, I took what you wrote as an opportunity to express my very positive views about Saitō's criticism of capitalism. And, yes, I certainly agree that the vast majority of the citizens of this country, or most countries in the affluent Global North, lack "the political will to address climate change adequately and aggressively."

  2. Then a few minutes ago I received the following email from Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson in Kentucky:

    "Not a very optimistic outlook! Do we have, even in the U.S., unalloyed capitalism? Thankfully, we have had significant changes since FDR, enough to scare the pants off of Republicans, who call Democrats 'socialists.'"

    1. Yes, Dr. Hinson, I am not at all optimistic about the future of contemporary world civilization. As one who has long sought to be somewhere between the extremes, I have always sought to be realistic rather than either optimistic or pessimistic.

      Certainly, since FDR we have not had laissez-faire capitalism in this country, although some Republicans since Sen. Goldwater and increasingly in recent years with the growth of economic neoliberalism have made concerted efforts to rid the country of many of the restraints on capitalism that began in the 1930s.

      And with the MAGA Republicans now, again there are repeated efforts to stifle efforts of Democrats to create a fairer and more just society for all citizens by charging them with being socialists. That is why when some were saying back in 2016 that if Bernie had been the Democratic candidate for President rather than Hillary, Trump would not have been elected. But I think Bernie would have been defeated more decisively than Hillary was, for he identifies as a socialist, which is seen in a very negative light by so many U.S. citizens.

    2. Leroy, I thought Bernie should have identified himself as an FDR Democrat, which is basically what he is. And basically what I am.

    3. As a U.S. Senator, Bernie is identified as an Independent who caucuses with the Democrats. But he has been a member of various socialist organizations from the time he was a young man and has self-identified as a democratic socialist. The Wikipedia article on Bernie has a multitude of references to his connection with socialism, but mostly as a democratic socialist.

  3. Thinking Friend Virginia Belk in New Mexico shares these comments:

    "I brought home from China in 2002, a copy of Mao's 'little red book'; however, I have never read much of it. This blog inspires me to again attempt to read all of it! On that trip, one of our guides and I spoke at length about conditions before and after Mao's reform; the conditions that gentleman described were horrifying! and his wholehearted endorsement of the changes that resulted as he experienced them, were heartening and positive.

    "I still think Mr. Biden's original agenda for our nation was several steps in the correct direction but, increasingly, I am disheartened at the radical Republican group's intent to undo them! Increasingly, I fear that TWAWKI is irretrievably vanished, forever.

    "Chernobyl and Fukushima were a preview of what we can expect in the increasingly near future; unfortunately, I think Mr. Saito is correct...Even if we were to adopt socialism today, we cannot regain all we have lost of which humanity needs to maintain healthy living on this planet.

    "However, my belief in God's Grace, inspires me to do what I can to maintain a healthy lifestyle in my personal activities and ecologically sound practices for my community."

    1. Thanks for your comments, Virginia. To understand Mao's thought and the influence it has had in China, reading his "little red book" is commendable. But please don't think that that is the kind of communism Saito is forwarding. He makes it quite clear that he is not promoting the top-down communism of either Stalinism or Maoism, both of which are, Saito thinks, based on a misunderstanding or misuse of Marx's ideas in his later years (in the 1870s).

      I think you are correct in saying that MAGA Republicans have tried to thwart many of the positive things Pres. Biden has tried to do to slow climate change. But the same sort of efforts began earlier when Trump tried to nullify many of the positive things that had been done in the Obama Administration. And if Trump is elected again this year, it is quite certain that things will go from bad to worse.

      I commend you for doing what you can "to maintain a healthy lifestyle” in your personal activities and “ecologically sound practices" for your community. What you and I and all the people who agree with us need to do is to increase as much as possible the number of people who will do the same--and to help elect politicians who have that same concern.

  4. One of life's ironies is that the church computer "Hub" Green Team of Second Baptist Church in Liberty, Missouri still shows me as the lay leader of the Green Team, even though I moved to Oregon in 2022. So I am preparing my annual environmental book review for Earth Day. I bring this up because the book I am reviewing sounds almost like a twin to Saitō's book. I even tried a web search for Kōhei Saitō and my author Jem Bendell. All the results omitted one or the other, so maybe they are working independently at finding the same solution. From Marx to Degrowth to Greenwashing they agree. On the last one, I would say that Greenwashing is even worse than the Green New Deal (although much of what it wants is still good, just not nearly enough). Large corporations have been Greenwashing furiously for decades. British Petroleum, for instance, invented "your carbon footprint" in their marketing department to deflect attention from them. Various technological fixes are being pedalled despite being virtually useless, especially after figuring in their high environmental and energy costs. Carbon capture? Really? The only tech fix Bendell approved in his 2023 book was cloud brightening in the arctic, because he is afraid of runaway methane release of frozen methane under the tundra and even under the arctic waters off of Siberia as well. That could be game over.

    I was impressed with the video you linked. Saitō's presentation was very clear and succinct. Marx never looked so good to me!

    Jem Bendell, an English sociology professor emeritus, started his career in sustainability, even working with the World Economic Forum for a while. However, he came to the conclusion that our elites were going nowhere on global warming, and in 2018 attained some notoriety by publishing a paper called Deep Adaptation. It helped spur the growth of a protest group, Extinction Rebellion (XR). I just double checked XR, and discovered Google now identifies XR and Extended Reality from Apple! As we were saying about big corporations . . . In 2023 Bendell capped some further research with his new book Breaking Together: A Freedom-Loving Response to Collapse. Yes, he thinks societal collapse has already begun as nature is collapsing underneath us, and global measures such as life expectancy have been falling for several years (even before Covid). He compares our situation to the sinking of the Titanic, where the band played on even as the top engineers on board realized the ship was doomed to sink. His subtitle perhaps channels the survivors who made it to life boats or got really lucky in the water. He wants us to act like Buddhists, but his description could as well fit certain loving Christians. The band playing on is the elite greenwashing still blocking public recognition of the depth of our problem. If anyone what to check out his ideas, you can actually read his book as a free download available at the end of this article:

    1. Thanks so much, Craig, for your lengthy and helpful comments. I do not remember hearing of Jem Bendell, although, not surprisingly, the late Michael Dowd, whom I have mentioned in several blog posts in the last 2-3 years, had a discussion with him in March 2020 and Bendell interviewed Dowd in 2022. I look forward to listening to those YouTube videos, for they indeed seem directly related to what Prof. Saitō discussed in his book and highly relevant to the deep thought needed for understanding the current ecological predicament and how we might best react to it.

      I tried repeatedly to find the free download on the link you shared, but while it said much about the book, I never could find any link to the book itself--and it would be quite a large download, for the book is over 550 pages long. After listening to Bendell on YouTube, I will probably order a copy for the Mid-Continent Public Library here in the KC area. (Patrons can recommend three books a month, and earlier today I sent in my first recommendation for this month.)