The magician’s act has always depended on “an unspoken agreement between the performer and the audience about what is going on.” 

Every small step toward green helps, to be sure. But our craze for all things green represents a transitional stage, a dawning of awareness of ecological impact but one that lacks precision, depth of understanding, and clarity. Much of what’s touted as “green” in reality represents fantasy or simple hype. We are past the day when one or two virtuous qualities of a product qualify it as green. To tout a product as green on the basis of a single attribute—while ignoring numerous negative impacts—parallels a magician’s sleight of hand.

Consider a study of 1,753 environmental claims made for over a thousand different products plucked from the aisles of big- box stores. Some paper brands, for instance, focus on a narrow set of features, like having some recycled fiber content or chlorine- free bleaching, while ignoring other significant environmental issues for paper mills, such as whether the pulp comes from sustainable forestry or whether the massive amounts of water used are properly cleansed before return to a river. Or there’s the office printer that proclaims its energy efficiency but ignores its impact on the quality of indoor air or its incompatibility with recycled printer cartridges or recycled paper. In other words, it was not designed to be green from cradle to grave, but only engineered to tackle a single problem.

To be sure, there are relatively virtuous products, building materials, and energy sources. We can buy detergent without phosphates, install carpeting that exudes fewer toxins or flooring of sustainable bamboo, or sign up for energy that comes mainly from wind, solar, or other renewable sources. And all that can make us feel we have made a virtuous decision.

And it is that very need to feel virtuous which makes the environmental conjurer’s task so easy today.