Sustainability Through Literature: Greenwashing and Awareness

Authors: Regan Russell, Abigail Axton, Kayla Clark, Kira Magnus, Brennan Borden, Abigail Kennedy, Sophia Olechowski 

Sustainability is meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future. There are three pillars: social, environmental, and economic. The UN has 17 sustainable development goals. The UN has created an agenda for sustainable development that “provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future” (17 Goals). These include strategies to improve health and education, reduce inequality, and improve economic growth, while simultaneously tackling climate change. From the resources to create literature to the concepts tackled, sustainability and literature are intertwined. Literature tackles concepts and serves to promote change through awareness, often African American stories highlight these needs and how actions affect your environment, showing the importance of connections with nature. Both the African American stories and the 17 goals share a common thread of saving future generations and promoting awareness of the effects of present issues.

In Chapter 10 of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Lucius Brockway is training the invisible man to perform the job that he has been in charge of for years, but Brockway does not provide him with the crucial information that is needed to safely handle the job. The relationship between the two characters could be seen as akin to the relationships between activists and those in power. Without this education, Climate activists across the country consistently warn companies and authorities of the potential effects of climate change but are ignored by many and overlooked due to the lack of baseline education on the topic. While Brockway does warn the invisible man to watch the pressure, he fails to explain the drastic repercussions of failing, “I wants you to keep a ‘specially sharp eye on this here sonofabitch. The last couple of days he’s ‘veloped a habit of building up too fast. Causes me a heap of trouble. You see him gitting past 75, you yell, and yell loud!” (13). The invisible man ignores the pressure, due to the gaps in his training, which leads to the explosion that occurs at the end of the chapter despite constant warnings, the explosion affects the Invisible Man but not Brockway because he runs away, which can be a symbol of younger generations bearing the brunt of environmental downfall that was brought on by older generation’s mistakes. This generational cause and effect is also represented in Lucille Clifton’s Generations poem which discusses the need to work because when you die there will still be people after you.

Beyond this, many companies have been guilty of something that has been coined as the term “greenwashing,” misleading consumers to believe that their products have been produced in a sustainably sound manner or have environmental benefits that they do not possess. The company that Brockway and the invisible man work for is named Liberty Paints who advertise their paint as pure. Even creating a slogan advertising this; “Keep America Pure With Liberty Paints”, but their paints are shown to be impure. This false advertising shows the behind-the-scenes deceit that major companies produce to cut costs whilst still maintaining a positive appearance despite the negative effects they have on the environment. This is dangerous as without awareness there is no room for improvement or reform. As mentioned in the UN’s goals, education is necessary to create changes in sustainability. In both of these examples from Invisible Man, a lack of education directly leads to misinformation and a disastrous accumulation of pressure. Similarly, Kwame Alexander’s Life poem demonstrates the concept of instead of trying to fix issues it turns into a political contest to see who is more morally right while ensuring a lack of blame. This promotes the growth of negatives rather than reworking issues to find new solutions.

Another work of literature that raises questions about sustainability and climate change is the poem “Life” by Kwame Alexander. This poem follows a narrator who finds their home being eaten by termites (ll. 1-4). In response to the termites eating his home, Alexander’s narrator’s friends assure them that “the good/liberal ones/ were not involved” (ll. 6-10). Rather than taking action to protect the narrator’s home, the friends are worried about the identity of the termites. After the narrator’s friends assure the narrator about the termites, the poem ends, implying that the termites were not stopped from destroying the home entirely. The termites in the poem can be used as a metaphor for many issues, including climate change. Using that metaphor, one can see how the poem is critiquing how issues relating to climate change often go unsolved because there is a greater focus on preserving the “innocence” of one’s political identity. No one wants the world to end because of climate change, just like the narrator’s friends don’t want the narrator’s house to be destroyed, but the need for one’s identity to be right often distracts from doing the work that will solve the problem. Alexander’s poem illustrates and criticizes this prioritization of keeping the image of one’s identity innocent. 

In addition to criticizing the prioritization of one’s image over meaningful change, Alexander also discusses individual and collective action concerning climate change. The feeling of need to preserve the blamelessness of one’s political identity stems from the desire for individual emotional comfort. The work that it takes to fight climate change is uncomfortable, and it is much easier to feel that one is doing the work by being on the “correct” political side. However, the desire to put one’s comfort first sacrifices the collective survival of all; it puts others who do not have the privilege of being distracted from climate change at risk. Alexander illustrates this in the urgency of his poem. His narrator does not have the privilege to be distracted by the termites destroying his home. By focusing on the identities of the termites, his friends are putting him at risk for their own comfort. The friends are also putting people other than the narrator at risk through their actions. It is termites that are destroying the narrator’s home, and termites will spread and eventually affect everyone involved. In this way, “Life” shows that a focus on one’s individual experience can be dangerous for everyone, especially those who are already vulnerable.

One could also argue that Alexander’s poem also highlights where and how individual action is necessary. The poem is very short and ends without an actual answer to what has happened to the narrator’s house. While this may just imply that the house was destroyed, it also allows room for a double meaning that implicates the reader. By stopping the poem before the house is potentially destroyed, Alexander gives room for the reader to intervene in the conversation. In doing so, Alexander highlights the need for individual action on the part of the reader and allows them to start putting the survival of all over their own comfort. 

Another poet who discusses the implications of individual and collective action and experience is Lucille Clifton. Clifton’s poetry, specifically her poem Generations illustrates how individual actions can have an impact on larger societal structures. In her verses, Clifton expresses the “responsibility to something/besides people,” ensuring that our presence leaves a positive impact rather than worsening its challenges. Clifton sheds light on the importance of individual actions when it comes to sustainability saying “if it was only/you and me/sharing the consequences/it would be different” acknowledging that the consequences of our actions will not only affect the people on Earth now. As Clifton observes, even after humans become “the bottoms of trees” their legacy continues through future generations. As one explores how individual actions can affect broader social systems and groups of people, Clifton’s words emerge as a powerful tool for educating people on the necessity of sustainable thinking and behavior. Clifton reveals how personal choices intersect with systemic forces and highlights the urgency for collective action to ensure a future for all. 

Additionally, Ellison’s depiction of events in the paint factory raises important issues about how we view industrial labor, especially in relation to problems with sustainability. There are many types of labor that we tend not to encounter in our day-to-day lives, and as a result, the products of such labor are taken for granted, their origins going unquestioned. This sort of “invisible labor” is represented by the work in the basement of the factory. Little recognition is given to the workers who keep the company functioning by being, as Brockway describes them, “the machines inside the machine” (18). The important labor in the basement is literally concealed by those working upstairs, and much of the rigorous work is assumed to be mechanized. Ellison’s protagonist being behind the scenes has to do with the fact that the men upstairs are all white but he’s doing all the hard work that is overlooked. These kinds of hidden industrial jobs are often unsustainable at a structural level, as when the public generally does not see the processes that produce the products they take for granted it is easier for companies to greenwash their processes and leave themselves implicated in dangerous and environmentally unfriendly industrial practices. 

Furthermore, with much of this industrial work largely concealed, it is easier to place the blame for its deleterious effects on individual workers, rather than on institutional structures. This is shown in Ellison’s work as well. The equipment worked with in the basement is shown to be potentially dangerous, and when this causes a catastrophic explosion, the blame is placed on the new worker rather than on the institutional environment that set up the conditions for the accident. The cause of the accident is attributed to the fact that people like the protagonist “ain’t no good for the job,” making no mention of workplace hazards or lack of extensive training (28). Not only is the protagonist’s labor taken for granted in the industrial process, but he also ends up facing the consequences of how the industrial process is structured. Corporations are the ones who contribute the majority of negative climate change but it is the individuals who feel the pressure and experience the side effects- similar to Brockway working for years but the other character is the one there when everything explodes and he feels the pressure.

These perspectives contextualize our reliance on productive forces that are harmful to the environment and to workers, and how unsustainability can persist so perniciously. People depend heavily on the work of those who are most dependent on resources and are often most affected by environmental issues. They keep us safe and comfortable, but the nature of their work is kept separate from ordinary life leaving them largely unacknowledged and unappreciated. The relative lack of attention to these sections of the labor force makes it easier for them to get stuck in the unsustainable practices they are built upon and directs public scrutiny away from the practices of such institutions.

Our visit to the heating plant adds further perspective to these issues of sustainability. Although Geneseo lauds itself as a sustainable campus, claiming the label of “one of the nation’s most environmentally responsible colleges,” it exhibits many of the failures in sustainability common in industrial processes ( For example, Geneseo gives the sense that its energy sources are highly efficient, yet as displayed by a graphic posted in the office of an energy specialist for the heating plant which compares beer to AC power, a significant portion of the energy produced in the heating plant is considered wasted, not all of it being “usable” energy. It was also stressed that using steam energy as the heating plant mostly does is much more sustainable than using oil as energy, but the heating plant still uses oil and natural gas as an energy source to fall back on if needed. However, these resources are only used if it is absolutely necessary to provide heat for the campus, which is seen as essential for the campus to function. This clearly shows how dependent we still are on finite and inefficient resources, no matter how well-intentioned the energy-producing processes are

Our experience is also connected in some ways to the labor conditions displayed in Ellison’s work. There are many safety measures in place to protect the laborers often invisible to the general campus body, but these measures do not guarantee safety for all employees; for example, in the case of an explosion, only one of the building’s walls is equipped to withstand the force of the blast. There were also many ways in which an explosion could occur that were outlined to us, and these are only prevented by strict adherence to safety guidelines, adherence that seemed to be lacking in the sense that students were allowed to cross taped caution lines that mark where only workers should be allowed to be. Sustainable industrial practices also include security and justice for industrial workers, which often do not take the forefront of these processes.

As current college students, we are all actively a part of the future generation, one of which is consistently affected by the generations that have come before us and the decisions that they have made. Students on the Geneseo campus can see the amount of waste that is produced, especially in places like on-campus dining halls. However, many students are unaware of important factors in their daily lives, such as where their heat is coming from. Students must be cautious while shopping because greenwashing is something that many large corporations take part in, making it difficult to decipher what purchasing decisions will have a harmful effect on the planet and which ones will not. The exploration of sustainability and black literature, both as interactants and individuals, matters to not only this class but our overall Geneseo education because of the awareness and implications it brings about concerning intersectionality and performativity. Through the literature we have read we have learned the importance of having a duality when it comes to fighting injustice and not focusing all efforts on one injustice in particular, but rather on a certain issue as a whole. The need for more information and education on sustainability and how it interacts with our lives, both past, present, and future, becomes more apparent every day. While efforts are being made to promote awareness on campus, there is still a severe lack of information and misinformation being spread. Climate change will affect everyone, in one way or another. For example, the current changing of the seasons. What once was winters full of snow days, now becomes a season where the temperature changes on a whim. Schools rarely use their snow days now. In this, anyone can see the real-time changes that have happened to our planet. Change needs to occur, if not for ourselves, but for the future.

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