“The test of a first-rate intelligence,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

It’s time for greens to co-opt corporations.

Photo: iStockphoto

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If so, then the growth of the green economy — embraced by corporations, heralded by politicians — marks something of an IQ test for the progressive movement. How can we at once celebrate companies that move toward better practices while acknowledging how much farther they need to go?

The signs of change are everywhere. General Electric and BP are ramping up their renewable energy as wind becomes price competitive with coal power. Prominent architects are using recycled and reused materials, and the market for non-residential green building is at $43 billion a year. More than $2 trillion in assets are invested in socially responsible funds. Sales of organically grown food are skyrocketing at 20 percent a year growth. Sustainable living has gone from granola fringe to glossy fashion.

This poses a real dilemma for those of us who have long advocated for a cleaner, more humane way of doing business. Of course, it’s a tangible benefit to reduce the amount of toxic substances in the air we breathe, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and the homes that surround us. But are megacorporations — the same companies that sold us the toxics in the first place — really the best vehicles for lasting reform?

As this quandary proves, victories are rarely ever clean-cut. Success almost always comes with compromises and contradictions. Progress is, in a word, messy.

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Is it a victory when Wal-Mart is the No. 1 seller of organic milk and organic cotton? Should we applaud when Ford offers a hybrid SUV? In short: What does success look like? How will an ecologically sustainable and socially responsible economy take shape?

After careful consideration, our response is a cagey “Yes, but.” Yes, it’s progress when big companies take steps to lessen their environmental impact. But it’s not quite victory yet.

There are real advantages to the Fortune 500’s adoption of more environmentally sound business practices. More organic food and clothing means less poisons in our soil and water. More solar energy means less greenhouse-gas emissions. More hybrid vehicles mean fewer gallons of gas burned.

At its most basic, the green economy movement — which has been spearheaded by small entrepreneurs and is only now being embraced by giant corporations — is merely the takeover of the very simple act of buying and selling. We all need some stuff, after all: food, clothing, shelter, and maybe an iPod for kicks. The trick is how to produce that stuff in a way that doesn’t destroy the planet or abuse workers.

For too long we’ve allowed corporations to co-opt our social movements through greenwashing and phony charities. It’s about time that we started co-opting the corporations. Let’s use what businesses are good at — marketing, distribution, retail sales — and make it work for us. This is the idea of the “triple bottom line” economy: balancing financial sustainability, social justice, and environmental restoration. It’s an idea that’s increasingly popular, as the 3,000 green enterprises that are members of the Co-op America’s Business Network prove.

Yet the dangers of a big-business takeover of the local, green economy movement are equally real. Will transnational corporations use green practices to more effectively wipe out their mom-and-pop competitors? Will organic standards be weakened by the power of large corporations? Will Americans retain their bad habits of overconsumption but simply switch to earth-friendly products?

In truth, we are not going to spend our way out of a social and ecological crisis 500 years in the making. The revolution does not take American Express.

The inherent contradictions in the trend toward more green business need not be overwhelming. Instead of succumbing to an either/or thinking that says we can either have Safeway organic broccoli or we can have local farmers’ markets, we should adopt a both/and mentality that makes room for each path. Our movement for a local, green economy must mimic the wisdom of nature, which always bends toward unity of diversity. Nature abhors a monocrop, and so should we, recognizing that there isn’t just a single way forward. There are many roads to the future, and while some get there by bike, others may choose to carpool or take a biodiesel bus.

In practice we encourage people to take whatever actions they are capable of. Call it smorgasbord politics. For the pioneers and the early adapters, there will continue to be community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs, off-the-grid energy, bike lanes, and co-ops. For the newcomers just beginning to think about the impacts of their purchasing decisions, buying organic frozen dinners at Whole Foods is at least a step in the right direction. By all means, buy local. But keep in mind that your neighbor might still need some convincing that the green economy is not a fringe movement anymore.

The idea is to construct a green economy broad enough to accommodate a range of interests, niches for both the deeply committed and the newly curious — while of course at all times pushing farther and constantly redefining “mainstream” and “normal” and “acceptable.”

No, we can’t buy the change we wish to see, not when buying too much has gotten us in this pinch in the first place. But we can put a down payment on a future that will have no clear-cut forests, no starving children, no sweatshops, and no endangered species.

Now that’s smart business.

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