We can look to cyberpunk literature’s futuristic portrayal of human life for models of simulacra. In Ridley Scott’s masterpiece Blade Runner (Warner Bros., 1982), humans are replicated with painstaking detail (and a 4 year expiration date and superhuman strength). Memories are perfectly implanted into the humanoids so that not even they know they are ‘replicants.’ They are replicas of humans that never existed.
Environmental sustainability, as we are shown through green marketing, is a simulacrum. This is as dangerous for marketing as it is for sustainability.
Modern consumers are offered convincing images of pastoral perfectness through green marketing. It’s all very believable as a (mostly Photoshopped) tapestry of what we picture sustainability to be like (endless energy as bright white turbines set against impossibly blue skies). We are like tweenage girls flipping through the pages of Glamour Magazine, thinking all those women are real.
Through the worst (and most popular) of what passes for green marketing, we are offered a kind of perfect memory (the cow used to make the yogurt is happy on the hillside) to reflect on. This pastoral imagery both harkens back to a simpler time (which did not exist) and offers the promise of a future (which will not exist). Most corporate portrayals of sustainability are truly copies without an original. They are hyperreal in that we cannot differentiate reality from fantasy.
It reminds me of Jim Carey’s character’s experience in Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (Paramount, 1998). A perfect fictional town has been built around our hero and (unknown to him) he has been filmed since birth on this fake set. It is the ultimate in reality programming (the every day as opposed to the Real Housewives of Atlanta). Everything Truman consumes is manufactured specifically for him, and filmed. Everyone around him is an actor. And it is perfect. Until, of course, little rips in the fabric of his manufactured reality (a replica of a perfect town that could never exist) begin to pull and tear at HIS very existence. Even the audience (of the television show within the movie) begins to ask that same ultimate question which sustainability itself forgets to ask: How Will It End?
French Philosopher Jean Baudrillard, in his treatise on Reality Simulacra and Simulation claims that modern culture has replaced all reality with symbols of reality. “All“ includes our concepts of sustainability. Sustainability does not exist without the construct of business within which to place it. Business created the very need for – and there for controls the image of – Sustainability, and it is in this manufactured vision that the simulacrum is revealed.
Even though the framing of sustainability has shifted towards “sustainability as a journey” (does that imply that it is only a concept ?) the common language of “sustainability talk” still holds it up as a tangible, achievable place or state (to “go green,” as in to “go insane,” maintains inevitability). Far from greenwashing, this replicated place creates a more sinister context that once again placates consumers with anything but a 1:1 relationship between “manufactured reality” and The Real. It permits us to believe we will consume our way out of climate change, or that we are worth ‘luxury green’ items. It allows us to have our Mac and be environmental activists too. As the omniscient director (creator) of Truman’s T.V. show Christof (Of Christ) reminds us, “we accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.” Are we, culturally, at a point where we dare pick at the fabric of the authenticity of our portrayals of sustainability? What if, like Truman found, it is all veneer?
The perfection of sustainability – that classic condition of growing while managing resources without impact to future generations – is what we are trying to model…to, er, replicate. But there is no original. Business has created the need for and the context of a sustainable business model.
But something IS happening. Corporations are making real changes. I’ve read about them. I’ve even seen some. I know it. Perhaps I have read too much cyperbunk, but I can’t help but wonder if, as in Blade Runner, these might simply be implanted memories, and we might not actually know the difference.
John Rooks is the founder of The SOAP Group and the author of More Than Promote –A Monkeywrencher’s Guide to Authentic Marketing.