Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Greener Than Thou

The word "green" still seems fairly new to me. I'm not exactly sure when it entered the American vernacular, but I don't recall hearing it much before about the year 2000. Before that, those of us who cared about the environment were simply called environmentalists.

In fact, I'm not sure that I even would have identified myself as an environmentalist back before "green" became trendy, but I've been doing "green" things all my life. I mean, as a child back in the 1970's we recycled all of our cans and newspapers - and this was WAY before the concept of curbside recycling came on the scene. We'd collect the stuff in our garage and a few times a year we'd drive to the industrial section of town where the recycling center was. My dad has had a compost heap as long as I can remember. We never had paper napkins (well at least until my parents got divorced - but that's another story). We always got most of our clothes as hand-me-downs or from the thrift store. And I've been a most of the time vegetarian since I graduated from high school in the mid-1980's.

I suppose this stuff made me a bit of an odd duck back in the day. I mean, while most of my friends were all caught up in the launch of MTV and the latest fashions, I was worried about top soil erosion and acid rain. And when bottled water first came on the scene, the main brand was called "Evian" which, if spelled backwards gets you "naive" - and that's certainly what I thought anybody who would spend that kind of money on water had to be!

So I have watched with great interest as environmentalism has grown from a fringe movement toward the mainstream. And while it is heartening to see more and more people taking up the banner and trying to live in a more sustainable way, I've started to notice a somewhat disturbing trend... green snobbery.

I'm actually not sure that this is such a bad thing, I mean, I'd certainly much rather have peer pressure working for the environmental movement than against it, but it also worries me that so often, rather than supporting other people in their efforts to live more sustainably, we end up berating anybody who has the gall and audacity to _____ (fill in the blank with the eco-sin du jour).

Don't get me wrong, I am thrilled that people suddenly have started to care about the planet, but at the same time, it seems to me that many (from my perspective) newcomers to the movement are very quick to adopt a holier than thou attitude about their "green topic" of choice.  And what always seems so strange to me is that people are very keen on taking one particular element of green living to extremes. There are vegan evangelists, zero waste fanatics, car-free enthusiasts, solar power aficionados, bio-fuel zealots, frugal living eccentrics, local food junkies and on and on. And while I think that all of these things are laudable pursuits, it often seems that people will choose one topic to get all high and mighty about, while completely ignoring all other aspects of their environmental impact.

Now I don't mean this as a knock on blogs that focus on one particular element of green living... because I think that makes sense in terms of having a focus for a blog. And I also think that focus is necessary when you're trying to enact policy changes. But in terms of day to day living I don't think that "one trick pony" environmentalism is terribly helpful in the long run.

I mean, the reality is that everything we do has an impact, even breathing creates CO2 for heaven's sake! The vast majority of the time we're faced with choosing the lesser of a whole plethora of evils. And which "evil" is "lesser" is quite often a matter of considerable debate!

It's also just a fact that what is a simple change for one person, may be an impossible hurdle for another. So much depends on where you live, and what kind of support systems and resources you have available to you. I mean, there are many things that I find to be simple no-brainers (like going "no-poo" and not using TP except for number 2, and composting kitty litter, and driving under 1000 miles per year) that other people would consider to be extreme. At the same time I know there are many aspects of my life that would be severely frowned upon by certain members of the green movement (I occasionally eat meat, I can't deal with setting the furnace below 70 degrees because my toes go numb, I have a 50 inch plasma television set, and I am a hopeless night owl).

I guess my point is just this. I think that we, in the "green" movement need all of the help that we can get. We are fighting an uphill battle against the forces of corporatism and profit, and we're all performing a balancing act of one sort or another, so we need to support each other in our efforts. I'm certainly not immune from ecological snobbery. I mean self-righteous indignation does seem to be our national pastime these days, and we all love to have an excuse to indulge in self superiority. But, I think that in the long run, the planet and the human race would be much better served if we all tried to lift each other up rather than tearing each other down.


  1. I absolutely agree! My father lives in a town of 1200 people, and they have zero recycling. Water bottles, pop cans etc go in the garbage (never mind the milk jugs, newspaper & glass jars). I cringe every time I go & make an effort not to consume anything out of a bottle or can, but they just go about their lives. They do occasionally come into the city and could easily throw their recyclables into the back of the truck, or the trunk of the car but why bother.

    It's frustrating, but I don't want to be the family member leering at others when the commit these types of 'atrocities'. I do my best & try to support without being overbearing.

  2. "But, I think that in the long run, the planet and the human race would be much better served if we all tried to lift each other up rather than tearing each other down." AMEN! I couldn't agree more.

    I also think that part of green snobbery is actually just a form of consumerism. The Prius owner looking down on the dude with an old used car (I would argue that the old used car is more environmentally friendly that the impact of building a new car), etc. So much of the "greening" of mainstream culture seems to be about a shopping excursion. But yeah, I buy crap too and nothing is a one-hit wonder. Would be so great if we followed your logic and spent more time helping than distancing ourselves from each other.

  3. Kristin - It's such a challenge to find a way to encourage others to change without being a jerk isn't it? I have found that just living it seems to produce the best results. Back before they took our dumpsters away (long story) I used to avoid work by cruising the ally and dumpster diving. I'd pull out anything useful or recyclable, haul the useful stuff off to the thrift store and recycle the cardboard etc. My NASCAR watching, tobacco chewing, redneck neighbor thought I was totally off my rocker... BUT... now, he brings me his phone books to recycle instead of tossing them. It's a tiny step I know, but it is a step!

    Aldra (CF) - You make an excellent point about the consumerization of the green movement. Turn off brain, insert money here...

  4. Great post! I found you through Beth Terry's post on environmentalism and having/not having kids, and have subscribed to your blog based on your screen name (who knew there were other green childfree cat people out there?) and this entry.

    The greener-than-thou thing drives me crazy. Our lives all have different pressures that affect what green activities we adopt, and how quickly. (The same thing happens within the vegetarian community -- it becomes, as someone noted, a 'purity pissing contest' to see who can harm the fewest animals.) As I see it, if you're aware of the problem and actively trying to do something about it, you deserve my support and encouragement. Full stop. What's the point of getting competitive and contemptuous? It's a big problem. The more people we can encourage to live more sustainably, the better.

  5. Hey NotEasy, Thanks so much for stopping by!

    I totally know what you mean about the vegetarian thing. The whole topic of diet is practically a mine field these days and people seem to have a religious-like fervor about it. I always feel like saying "OK - instead of getting all over me for eating eggs and cheese (you try being a vegan when you can't eat most nuts, seeds or soy) why don't you focus on getting McDonald's to serve a few vegetables."

    Not sure if I'm making any sense or not, but it just seems like we're always trying to get perfection from a small group of true believers, which just leads to in-fighting and frustration, and also makes the movement seem extreme and uninviting to regular people. Seems like we'd be better off with a "big tent" approach that encouraged people to come join us one step at a time.

  6. Hey Becks. I don't experience the green snobbery effect so much in New England. Perhaps it's that historical yankee frugality.

    As you know, at mediaOrganic our mantra is small changes can make a big impact. You are right on stating that not all green ideas work for everyone. The important thing is to avoid being judgmental in our efforts to educate people. Habits are hard to change because our brains become hard wired to thinking certain ways.

    Regarding the vegan thing, I noticed on the subway this week an ad for vegan.org that featured photos of some poor, miserable creatures covered in their own excrement. It amazes me that in this day and age these proselytizing organizations still don't understand that this type of advertising works against their interests. They would be better served showing a pair of buff nubiles frolicking in a field of wheat under a summer sun. Advertising 101: associate yourself with the benefits. For a good example of this just watch the pharmaceutical commercials during the evening news.

  7. John - That is such a good point. I think that those who are motivated by guilt are probably already vegans - they'd do much better by enticing people to the rewards of lifestyle change than making people feel like criminals for just going about their day to day lives.

  8. You commented that even breathing creates co2.....i was reading on another blog where someone suggested everyone practice a certain type of meditating that concentrates on slowing your respitory rate so that we were all breathing slower and creating less co2. i personally thought that was a little extreme, but as has been stated we all have to do what we can in our own way :)

  9. Sandra - Ha! Well, to each his own indeed, and I suppose every little bit helps... This actually reminds me of something I read once that said riding a bicycle was bad for the environment because (you'll love this) people who ride bicycles tend to be healthier and therefore they live longer, and living longer means they end up using more resources. My oh my, I suppose by that logic the obesity epidemic could be considered an environmental movement! Thanks for stopping by.

  10. Just saw this post and your blog through It Starts With Me.

    I completely agree with what you're saying (and may I say, you're an excellent writer!).

    Sometimes it's hard to get in discussions with people about enviromental issues and being "green", something I'm passionate about, without sounding preachy. I've talked to my parents about it but in small doses. They live outside the city limits in my hometown on a private road, so they don't get the recycling service and would have to drive into town to do it. They've always recycled newspaper but just this past weekend when I was visiting, my mom showed off her 4 new recycling bins that she labeled (and is still trying to train my dad on). She was really proud of herself!

    I think in the end the way you approach issues you care about, whether it's environmental or not, really dictates the way people respond to you and if they even listen.

    Excellent post!

  11. Hi Julia,

    Thanks so much for stopping by, and for your kind words. I think your experience with your parents is proof that leading by example does sink in even if it's not obvious. My next door neighbor has always been a tad big amused by all of my "crazy green stuff." But I try to make it work to her benefit. She has her lawn guy save all of the grass clippings for my garden and I make sure she gets a bunch of tomatoes every summer.

    The other day I was outside working in my garden and she came running over... "Did you see?" she exclaimed with great excitement. "I'm recycling!" Apparently one of her grandkids finally convinced her to sign up for curbside recycling and she just had to show off the new cart to me.

    One step at a time...

  12. That's one of my favorite posts, despite the lack of kittens :)

    I recently stopped reading a very informative blog because I could not stand the snobbishness of the author. And don't get me started on a certain vegan forum... I was searching for local cruelty-free products, but every single thread began with a person asking for help in becoming a vegetarian, then the vegan bullies proceeded to attack said person (despite the forum being also targeted at vegetarians), stating that it's better to kill animals than to enslave them, etc. And, of course, the person would never show up again.

    Seriously, what good is that doing for the animals? There was no information whatsoever on that forum, only folks fighting to see who was a "better vegan".

    You and Jennifer have hit the spot for me. We all have different lifestyles and needs. We should help each other out instead of always demanding more from others (and ourselves, for that matter).

    1. My oh my... you are deep into the depths of the blog archives here! I had to go re-read this one to remember what I wrote - and I miss the kitties too! This post would be much more readable (at least by dyslexics like myself) if it were broken up with some cute kitty pictures!

      But I too have unsubscribed from a few blogs that I just couldn't take anymore because of this tendency to vilify anybody who doesn't fit into their picture of "green enough." Here's to the inclusive approach to a healthier planet!


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