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A hall of mirrors: The New York Times special "green" section.

Published May 17, 2006 5:28PM (EDT)

Fans of infinite recursion will adore today's special section of the New York Times, "The Business of Green." The first level is obvious: This package of articles about the intersection of business and environmentalism is packaged with green-friendly advertisements from the likes of AMD and Shell (and the Al Gore movie "An Inconvenient Truth"). The Times isn't just reporting on how businesses are cashing in on environmental concerns, the paper is engaged in the very same practice.

But it gets better! One of the included articles is about green marketing -- "Eco-Ads: The Aim Is to Say How They Save the World." The reverse side of the page that article is printed on is a full-page ad from Wal-Mart boasting how "By lessening our environmental footprint, we'll lower costs -- for our current customers, and for future generations." And the story itself is illustrated with two advertisements, including one of G.M.'s pro-ethanol "go yellow" ads. This is an almost perfect merger of content and advertising. Publish a story about an advertising trend that is bracketed by the very ads that you are covering. Borges would be proud.

But the Times missed a few golden opportunities to take the recursion to truly satisfying levels. A mild story on "greenwashing" would have been a lot stronger if it had asked an obvious question: Aren't the efforts by Wal-Mart and Shell and G.M. to portray themselves as environmentally friendly, by buying advertisements in the New York Times touting their pro-environment stance, classic examples of greenwashing? But maybe that would have crossed a suicidal line: Directly attacking the advertisers of your special section might make this offering from the Times a one-shot deal.

There's also a more fundamental snake-eating-its-own-tail problem. The general tone of the section is hopeful, packed with tales of environmentalists and business executives working together, full of heartwarming news about advances in energy efficiency, renewable technologies and corporate commitments to social responsibility. But it would have been nice to have just one essay exploring the question of whether environmental destruction is built into the deep structure of the current global economy. Nowhere is the possibility raised that even as some slivers of society in the developed world are beginning to understand the importance of sustainable development, rampaging economic growth in countries such as China and India threatens to utterly overwhelm what little, incremental progress is being made in, say, Northern California or Sweden. This is not meant to dismiss the value of the Times' latest special supplement -- there's a lot of good stuff there. But any discussion of "the business of green" ought to tackle directly the fundamental problem: Economic growth, historically speaking, is an eco-killer.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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