Toxic Assets

Bill Walsh | May 06, 2009 | Policies

President Obama has rightfully linked our economic recovery to our environmental recovery. But we need to break the link between the corporate behavior that drove us to the brink of financial ruin in the first place and that which continues to drive us towards ecological ruin.

Like the economic collapse, our ecological collapse is being fueled by industries creating widespread social risk in their reckless and dangerous pursuit of short-term profits. What’s worse, their modus operandi includes massive public relations campaigns, philanthropy and lobbying efforts that portray their self-interested behavior as part of the societal solution. Think Clean Coal.

In the green building movement, the leading example of this behavior is the rebranding of virtually every building material as a “green” product, officially recognized by one label or another. The green label craze resembles the virus-like uptake of the financial assets known as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), the so-called derivatives that brought down the financial house. CDOs purported to apportion risk, protect conservative investors and assure long-term economic stability. But CDOs, like green labels, were really a Trojan horse.

Journalist Matt Taibbi’s recent R-rated description of the CDO rage in Rolling Stone Magazine sounds like a description of green product marketing today: “Suddenly, thanks to this financial seal of approval, banks had a way to turn their shittiest mortgages and other financial waste into investment-grade paper.... The problem was, none of this was based on reality.... To get AAA ratings, the CDOs relied not on their actual underlying assets but on crazy mathematical formulas that the banks cooked up to make the investments look safer than they really were.”[1]

Relying upon the fraudulent AAA ratings, the most conservative investors unwittingly fueled the machinery of their own ruin. Relying upon the plethora of greenwash labels and certifications will have a similar ironic outcome – the most committed environmental consumers unwittingly fueling the industrial engines that have driven and continue to drive us towards ecological collapse.

The bad mortgages sold by Citibank and the bad debts bundled into the CDOs by insurance behemoth AIG have been labeled “toxic assets.” Their detoxification depends largely upon the full faith and credit of the US Government, i.e. the Fed’s ability to create wealth by printing money. But the Fed won’t be able to create species gone extinct and cultures extinguished under the greenwash forest certification standards authored by the timber industry, or undo the avoidable reproductive problems caused by endocrine-disrupting chemicals in thousands of green-labeled products.

Whole systems of banking, insurance and credit thought “too big to fail” have failed. We are all too aware that big ecological systems – arable land, fresh water, the climate - are under stress. Their collapse has the potential to make this economic crisis look like kids’ stuff. All it takes is another Katrina in New Orleans, or another tsunami, this time in L.A., or another Chernobyl, the plume this time spreading across the US bread basket or California’s Central Valley, or the final disappearance of honey bees. Or maybe it will be some statistically impossible combination of ecological crises, as unlikely to happen as say mortgages, insurance and credit failing all at once.

Our major industries – mining, timber, energy, chemicals, plastics – have been reinventing their images, not their industries. Ubiquitous green labels and advertising are part of the problem, not the solution. If it seems too easy being green these days, remember how easy it was to refinance your mortgage two years ago.


[1] Taibbi, Matt "The Big Takeover." Rolling Stone, Issue 1075. [link no longer available]