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Who’s Greener? Who Cares?

To be Sustainable, Green Movement Must Embrace Hypocrisy and Halfway Solutions

All I wanted was some sugar. Oh, for the days when such an errand was simple.

photo of a plot of plants in a wet environmentJohn Cavanagh photoRice seedlings at Danilo Atilano’s small organic farm in the Phillipines.

I found myself in an aisle at Berkeley Bowl West, with a fancy earth-toned pouch of raw cane sugar in each hand. The brown one was certified fair trade but not organic; the blue one was certified organic but not fair trade. I looked at the fair trade pouch, and imagined a crew of decently paid, self-respecting worker-owners casually spraying their crops with gallons of industrial pesticides. I looked at the organic pouch, and imagined a bedraggled gang of exploited wage-slaves, bent double as they handpick weeds from between green rows of organic sugar cane.

Egads. Can’t I just pay a premium for a feel-good product, and move on? If one sugar pouch were clearly “more ethical” or “more eco” than the other, maybe I’d have an easier choice. But then, I’m still just buying my way out of guilt, nibbling on the fantasy that I’ve just made a significant contribution to a progressive movement. It’s an old idea; in the Middle Ages the Catholic Church got rich selling indulgences to those seeking pardon for their sins. Driving a Prius or wearing a Patagonia fleece may not be so very different today.

There I go again, getting critical. It’s just that the green movement sort of invites the criticism. When Stephen Colbert recently interviewed environmentalist Bill Mckibben, founder of 350.org, the host asked: “So, you’re from Vermont? Did you ride your bicycle from Vermont to appear on the show, or… did you drive down in a car fueled by hypocrisy?”

There’s a real question behind the jab. Just how many lifestyle changes must we make before it feels like “enough”? And is it permissible to stop halfway?

I certainly have my own little hypocrisies, such as enjoying longer showers at the gym, where my eco-conscious housemates won’t notice the water running.

But when I am in an Earth-first state of mind, I try pretty darn hard. I can fret and vacillate if I can’t find a product on the shelf that meets all my ethical expectations. And the more time I spend scrutinizing products and companies, the quicker I become at identifying the flaws behind any claim to sustainable and ethical practices. “Cage free” chickens? They’re likely kept in a windowless barn. “Sustainably Harvested” lumber? The industry probably has ten different ways of manipulating that label. “All natural” ingredients? Don’t get me started.

Obsessively weighing the impacts and externalities of any choice can lead directly to what my friend Tara calls “analysis paralysis.” I suffer from this frequently, and blame it largely on my training in western philosophy, which left me with an addiction to over-analysis. One philosophical tenet that comes up very frequently for environmentalists is Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, which states that we should act only in ways that we think everyone should act at all times. Your parents probably used this line of reasoning to teach you about littering.

But attempts to follow strict environmental maxims can quickly become exhausting – or farcical. A videographer friend of mine, Matt Harnack, produced a short called “Fossil Fuel Free Film,” in which he turns off the heat, carefully wires a solar charger for his iPhone, MacBook Pro, and video camera, showers with cold water, and eschews cars and the Caltrain in favor of his bicycle. He undergoes massive personal inconvenience in order to reduce his personal contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.

I couldn’t help noticing that Matt’s focus is on direct CO2 emissions, and he overlooks many related issues. He expresses no concern for where and how his iPhone and its solar charger were manufactured, what was done to the Hetch Hetchy Valley in order to provide him with that cold shower water, or how much fossil fuel is embedded in the production and transport of his clothing.

How long did it take me to spot some flaw in Matt's project? About four seconds. But I don’t gain much from nitpicking a friend’s attempt to live more sustainably, besides a pang of holier-than-thou gratification. More importantly, Matt never claimed to be solving all the problems in one go; he chose to focus on a single issue and should be commended for his dedication.

Three-quarters of the way through the film, Matt admits he is exhausting himself to no avail. “I tried to live more sustainably,” he says, “but I forgot to sustain myself in the process.”

This is an important point that bears repeating: if we allow caring for the planet to supersede our care for ourselves, we sap our own energy and self-esteem until we are no longer effective agents for change.

In a recent article for OnEarth, David Gessner argues that a little hypocrisy is exactly the ticket. He recalls a conversation in which Boston environmental planner Dan Driscoll told him, “We nature lovers are hypocrites of course. We are all hypocrites. None of us are consistent. The problem is that we let that fact stop us. We worry that if we fight for nature, people will say ‘But you drive a car’ or ‘You fly a lot’ or ‘You’re a consumer, too.’ And that stops us in our tracks. It’s almost as if admitting that we are hypocrites gets people off the hook.”

Gessner goes on to conclude: “If only non-hypocrites are going to fight for the environment then it will be an army of none.”

Last weekend, Tara and I – fellow victims of analysis paralysis and eco-guilt – attended a workshop with the Gestalt Institute of San Francisco. Before long we were admitting that we are attached to our cynical/critical worldviews, that we selectively seek out information to support these views, and that we don’t do anyone any favors by killing ourselves trying to be perfect. The facilitator told us to worry less, live more, and look on the bright side once in a while. Most importantly, he argued that no one is close to consistent or perfect: “We have to embrace our inner fucked-up-ness,” he said with a wide smile.

The point is that it’s OK to go halfway. It’s to OK pick a few causes and forget the rest, or to delineate how much you actually care about the planet and what you are willing to do about it. We don’t have to pretend to be perfect eco-angels. In fact, it’s distinctly unhelpful to keep up any such charade.

Walt Whitman probably said it best, in the oft-quoted lines from Song of Myself that ring true both for individuals and Earth as a whole:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Brian Scoles, Intern, Earth Island JournalBrian Scoles photo
When not writing for the Journal, Brian pursues all sorts of interests not at all related to his degree. He is passionate about intentional community living, wilderness exploration and leadership, and most recently, activism. He also works with Applied Mindfulness and is a contributor at Sustainablog.

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Comments

Well done.  Oh hypocrisy, as it relates to green washing, Hunter Lovins often quotes that hypocrisy is the first step towards true change.  Once we start talking about our eco-badassness, whether we are a corporation or an individual, we create a yardstick by which to be measured and begrudgingly or not must eventually inch forward.  Bring on the hypocrisy.

By Bret Walburg on Tue, May 08, 2012 at 2:43 pm

Mr Scoles.  Beautifully written!  I found myself nodding as I was reading it.  With this article, I think you’ve done as much to get people to overcome hypocrisy inertia and do more for the environment as you’ve done to encourage people to (sanely) limit the lengths they go to to save the environment.  Win, win.

By Dave "DFM" Mitchell on Sun, December 11, 2011 at 10:22 pm

Thanks Brian! You’re a badass.  You give voice to an issue that all who seek to live ethical lives eventually face, and I’m in favor of your conclusions.  Do what you can and don’t fret about being perfect.  After all, our society would see massive benefits if our meat production were dropped by even a tenth.  I drop mine my 90% in the hopes of helping to balance out for others, and I do it because it’s easy for me.  The right balance between difficult-but-right and easy-but-questionable has to be struck and I think anybody living on either extreme is in the wrong.

By Steven Crane on Fri, December 09, 2011 at 6:28 pm

Thanks for writing this article Brian. I resonate with having felt paralysis in the past with my must-save-the-world-every-moment fanaticism. To my surprise, my experience is that when I’m able to let that go that I am more effective at being a environmental citizen.

By Jessica Tyler on Thu, December 08, 2011 at 6:04 pm

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