I spend some time highlighting aspects of sustainability that are passed over because they represent truths that we don’t want to accept. People don’t want to hear that we are car-dependent. People don’t really like to hear that their purchasing power matters so every purchase they have counts towards shifting a marketplace. No one looks forward to being told that he is part of the “environmental problem.” However, when it comes to the discussion of sustainability, even stalwart climate hawks have to saddle up with an inconvenient truth of their own. Greens are also part of the problem. Naturally I include myself in this group, so the title is really “We Are Hypocrits.” It hurts a bit, but it’s true.
I recently came cross a great blog post by Scott Bartlett, which I found by way of blogger Simon Wild, titled “How Admitting You’re A Hypocrit Can Save the Planet.” Even from the pro-environment position, Barlett doesn’t pull any punches even though he is, at least partly, swinging at himself.
“We don’t have perfect environmental records. We’ve engaged in all kinds of unsustainable behaviours in the past. Even since the day we realized how urgent humanity’s environmental problems are–and started trying to persuade others to be more green as a result–we still do things that are harmful to the environment. We’re hypocrites.”
He’s right, of course. We live, we consume. All of us. Even those of us that try and raise awareness of what impact our decisions have on the natural world still leave a wake of waste in our paths. I recycle everything I can, but I still don’t walk my food waste to the compost collection in Union Square yet. I make sure to turn off the lights and electronics when they’re not in use, but if it’s too cold to sleep with the windows open, I still suck energy by keeping a fan on (I like the white noise). We can all take a number of positive steps every day that wind up with a net gain for sustainability, but perfection is far beyond our grasp and I found that to be Barlett’s most important point. Not only is a lack of perfection okay, but admitting it could make our goals more palatable to a wider audience.
Regardless of climate change, the environmental lobby has a tendency to come across as scolding rather than informing; demeaning rather than trying to help; dare I say, at times, condescending? Our (helpful and well-intentioned) insisting can get stern enough so that the old image of sandal-wearing, frisbee-tossing, pot-smoking hippies in tie-dyed shirts dissolves into a throng of stingy professors in organic cotton, shamrock suits holding long, firm bamboo rulers to slap hands committing environmental transgressions. Barlett says it well that “environmentalism is too often portrayed as some kind of lofty virtue, and those who don’t identify as environmentalists are too often looked upon with contempt. We can’t afford that…If we represent environmental consciousness as this angelic ideal, we risk alienating people who feel they don’t measure up. So let’s be honest, with ourselves and with others.”
I believe that carbon neutrality is possible for modern humanity, but if we get there it will be the result of technological advances and changes in societal norms, which means the better part of society will need to take part. We need participation more than feuds. We need people to be educated more than scolded. We also have a great deal of material to work with. Sustainability has many different facets that can appeal to people in different climates, economic classes and lifestyles. Environmental advocates should capitalize on this and refine the message every now and then to make sure that we are focused more on solidifying commonalities rather than strengthening differences.
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