Dealing with “Eco-Hypocrisy”

“Definition of hypocrite. 1 : a person who puts on a false appearance of virtue or religion. 2 : a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs or feelings.” (from Merriam Webster)

Yep, had to double-check so I looked up the definition of “hypocrite.” Yes indeed, that is me. Not so much 1), putting on a false appearance; but definitely 2) acting in contradiction to my stated beliefs.

For example, I believe that disposable plastic cups are really bad for the environment. But I still accept them at a party or bar sometimes when I’m not willing to do without a beverage. Ditto straws — I hate them and think they are horrible for the environment. Yet I frequent establishments where straws are routinely dispensed, and all too often I don’t remember to request “No straw please” til it’s too late — the server has already brought it. Sometimes I bring the plastic cups home and reuse them, but not always. Same with straws (they make great protectors for fine-pointed pens or paintbrushes; I just cut them to the ideal length for whatever paintbrush or pen-tip I’m trying to protect).

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It gets worse. A LOT worse. I think that flying is one of the worst things an everyday person can do, environmentally speaking. But I took three airline flights last year, as well as a long-distance solo car trip. All were in connection with my mother’s illness and passing, and the settling of family matters related to same. Still, if I were a true environmentalist, would I not have found a way to make those trips by more sustainable means? In the past, I’ve hitchhiked across country on 18-wheelers that were going my way; why didn’t I do that this time? I’ve also found Craigslist rides in multi-passenger vehicles; or rented a car and packed it with passengers found on Craigslist. I’ve done all of those things on many occasions. Why then, more recently, did I “cave” and fly, or drive solo, rather than insist on a more low-footprint option? Because I felt emotional, pressed for time, didn’t want to deal with sifting through sketchy Craigslist ads, or sitting in a truck stop enduring the various hitchhiker hazards — bad weather, humiliation, possible arrest for soliciting rides? What lame excuses, when I stack them up to my own, self-imposed beliefs about the paramount importance of the environment. I am literally not living in congruence with my own beliefs.

(A note about Craigslist: Am I the only one who sorely laments the decline of the Rideshare section in recent years? It has gone sharply downhill from a downright folksy road-companion bulletin board, to a million desperate sketchy would-be taxi services thinly disguised as “ride offered”).

Or, maybe if I were a real environmentalist, I would have decided that keeping my footprint low was more important than visiting my mom when she was sick, or attending her funeral, or making a separate trip to spend Christmas with my siblings after Mom had passed. But most people, even staunch environmentalists, would probably cut a person slack on this. (For a thought-provoking exploration of this dilemma of “public-spirited vs. personal/emotional” — the extremes to which some do-gooders go in service of their humanitarian convictions — I highly recommend Larissa MacFarquar’s book Strangers Drowning.)

Anyway, I took the flights and the solo car trip, and I have yet to offset them. I did take a step in that direction earlier this week though, by asking Rob Greenfield which carbon-offset company he uses to offset his travel. Although my everyday life has a relatively low footprint, generally ranging from 7-15% of the average U.S. citizen’s, I’m an absolute eco-hog compared with Rob. He only eats what he grows or forages; he produces no waste; and he triple-offsets all of his travel. (He’s constantly getting requests to fly to other countries for speaking engagements, so this is a big deal. One of his conditions for accepting overseas engagements is that the organizers triple-offset his flights.) All of which is to say, when Rob recommends something, it carries weight. Interesting note though: Even Rob considers himself a hypocrite — as in, he notices gaps between his practices and his beliefs. His take on things (as I interpret it) is that we are all hypocrites to a degree, but that we can’t allow that to stop us from doing our best and constantly pushing ourselves to improve. That’s my take also. Otherwise, how could I live with myself? How could any of us?

As I see it, the real value of Rob’s example, beyond just the fact that he has such a low footprint, is that he is reaching so very very many people. That, really, is a way that all of us can live with our failings: We can always be expanding our beneficial influence, even at those times when we are not able or willing to further reduce our negative impact.

This blog post you’re reading right now was prompted by something I did that seemed at first to be yet another example of my dreaded eco-hypocrisy, but turned out not to be. The other day I saw a Facebook post about an upcoming NASCAR event called Celebration of Speed, which is supposed to “showcase an array of the most distinctive and luxury cars from around the world.” Oh what fun, I thought! I immediately made plans to attend, and shared the event widely. (It’s tonight from 6 to 8pm at One Daytona, by the way.)

Well, this morning I had a message in my inbox from a friend, to the effect that she found it strange that I, being an environmentalist, would post a NASCAR event. This friend is an environmentalist herself, and furthermore has turned her environmental passion into a real job (you know, the kind with a steady paycheck), and furthermore, she just so happens to look like a fashion model or movie actress. My knee-jerk reaction was to feel like a worthless piece of crap. “Oh jeez, I really AM an eco-hypocrite!” But then I thought more about it, and considered what would be my real answer to that question of how it could be that I, an environmentalist, could attend/promote a NASCAR event. Here is what I came up with. I hope this helps other people who are struggling with their own inconsistencies, or wondering about the seeming eco-inconsistencies of others.

• Environmentalist doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate cars. You drive, right? You are an environmentalist but you drive every day. I’m not perfect either. (Really there is no such thing as perfect – it’s one of the core points I make in my book.)

• And, the NASCAR thing is a special event. Societies since time immemorial have always had special events. Maybe the jousts of medieval times were sort of like their NASCAR!

• This brings up a major point about why most people don’t want to be environmentalists — we are supposed to be perfect saints and are not allowed to have any fun.

• This question reminds me of one time, an acquaintance saw me eating ice cream. She screamed “I THOUGHT YOU WERE AN ENVIRONMENTALIST!!!” (Interestingly, I don’t think she was even considering the factory-farm, animal-suffering angle, which is the thing that bothers me about consuming ice cream or other dairy. I got the impression, rather, that I was somehow violating her image of an “environmentalist” as some rarefied ascetic creature who lives on steamed weeds, ideally homegrown ones. Though based on the, what shall we say, “solid”? shape of my body, I obviously live on a lot more than steamed weeds.) I replied, “Holy crap, woman, I’m an environmentalist, not a MASOCHIST!”*

(*And by “replied,” I of course mean that I thought of that retort three hours later, when my interrogator was long gone. Esprit d’escalier being one of my secret eco superpowers.)

(And, re ice cream: The truth is, I am phasing “regular ice cream” out of my diet. I used to eat it once a week and now it’s just a few times a year. If I were able to get ice cream that was made from the milk of local, happy, pasture-roaming cows, I would feel perfectly OK about eating ice cream. Or, I like the idea of making my own ice cream from local milk. That is yet another thing to put on my to-do list.)

The other thing I did in response to my friend’s note about the incongruity of an environmentalist promoting a NASCAR event was to actually look into NASCAR’s green initiatives. I hoped and suspected I would find good news. And the good news is, I did! They are apparently doing quite a bit! I got to find out I’m not a hypocrite after all, at least not in this particular case. (See NASCAR links below under Further Reading.)

And on a personal note: Some of my seemingly incongruous love of automotive stuff might have to do with my childhood. We took a lot of cross-country car trips as a family. I have always loved gas-station signs and anything vintage or novelty that has to do with cars. Many a seeming hypocrisy has some emotional or otherwise “humans being human” root. (The “personal note” of “On a personal note…”) (On another personal note, my initial reaction to my friend’s question had a lot more to do with my own emotional stuff than with actual environmentalism. Then again, the more thoroughly I face and handle my emotional stuff, the better environmentalist I can be.)

This is not to say I believe in giving myself a free pass to indulge every emotion or sentimental attachment. But, as eco activists seeking to influence others, we do have to factor human emotions, affections, sentimentality into our equation. Plainly put: If we want more people to get on board with low-footprint living (and if we want OURSELVES to STAY on board with low-footprint living for the long haul), we have to make it a lot more attractive. Which includes making it flexible to people’s individual needs, circumstances, and yes, emotions. (And speaking of attractive, if you are an environmentalist who happens to have a steady-paycheck job and look like a movie star, that’s all the better for the eco movement, and thank you.)

By the way, my love of long car trips continues to this day. I simply love driving cross-country, either by myself or with good companions. Rolling into sun-bleached ghost towns and churchy green hamlets; eating hash browns at beat-up formica counters faded to 1957 yellow; buying honey from a beekeeper out in the Louisiana swamp. I used to take at least one long roadtrip a year, usually alone but sometimes with companions. And I miss it sometimes. However, I rarely do car roadtrips anymore. And I feel OK curbing my roadtrip urge. My craving is mostly satisfied in other ways, such as making paintings of street scenery that includes old gas-station signs. And going to vintage auto rallies and speed-car shows, where I am delighted simply to be a spectator. (Many of these shows I can walk or bicycle to, since, hey, I live in Daytona Beach which just so happens to be a mecca for such events.)

On a final note, if you interpreted the title of this post to mean “How to deal with the eco-hypocrisy of OTHER people,” no worries! The tips are the same as for dealing with your own eco-hypocrisy. Just as we need to be forgiving of ourselves and appeal to our own self-interest as we navigate this path, so we need to be forgiving of others and appeal to THEIR self-interest.

Thank you for being with me on this path.

Further Reading:

Rob Greenfield’s post “Taking Responsibility for My Flights” provides a wealth of resources and suggestions, and also offers an exhilarating glimpse into the mind of a highly successful human being who is truly living his principles and having fun doing it.

NASCAR Green: An Industry Effort As environmentalists we always have to ask: Greenwash or real? Planting trees; recycling; reducing waste; optimizing their fuel mix; even exploring solar car technology … NASCAR’s efforts seem real and wide-ranging to me (and potentially very high-impact in a good way, given the sheer numbers of people who come into contact with NASCAR). But that’s just my take on things. Check out NASCAR’s corporate website, and the Fortune article linked below, and make up your own mind. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Fortune article: How NASCAR Is Going Green “What NASCAR was aiming to do was — again four-and-a-half years ago, not really knowing that green was going to go as far as it did in this time period or as quickly as it did — was to become part of the community that was leaning in a green direction. Then also offer up NASCAR as a proving ground and as a demonstration platform for green technology solutions and products to show their relevance and how they can literally do what everyone has found that green products and solutions can do, which is save money, perform at least as well as the traditional alternatives, and in some cases perform better.” (emphasis mine) “And in that context, doing the right thing by the environment, creating jobs, as a result — new jobs that are here in the U.S. — and also helping us out with our energy independence as well, making us a little bit less dependent on foreign energy sources.”