When To Relax Your Standards

If you’re reading this blog, chances are you have at least one or two green habits you’re committed to. (And I know a lot of you are, like me, extremely deep into this lifestyle.) But are there times when can be OK, or even advisable, to ease up a bit on your practices or standards? I say yes, and here are some examples:

  • When you’re ill: Medicines often come in multi-layered non-reusable packaging. Doctor’s offices are filled with single-use stuff like plastic gloves. Illness can require many trips to doctors and hospitals and pharmacies. Try not to worry about this. Take care of your health as you deem necessary.
  • If your practice or standard has started to hinder you in some way (beyond just requiring a bit of extra effort or attention) or affect your wellbeing: For example, a friend who’s vegan found she needed to eat meat on occasion during her pregnancy. Or, if you generally do not accept people’s offer of car rides if it takes someone out of their way, but your bicycle has a flat and there’s some meeting or other event you really want to be at but would not be able to get there in time without said ride.
  • When you’re visiting the family home or traveling together: A family is a subculture. Your eco habits may end up causing tension or conflict in your precious family relationships, that outweigh the benefit of whatever eco thing you habitually do. If you’re food shopping together, don’t beat yourself up about the plastic bags. (Sometimes it might be feasible to bring your cloth bags and use those, but it might not work in your situation.) If the group wants to drive somewhere that’s a distance you would usually walk, focus on enjoying the togetherness and don’t sweat the petroleum. Think of it this way: Their lifestyle is a day-in, day-out thing, as yours is. Your presence is not adding to their footprint. Anyway, you might be surprised — you might find that the people you thought you knew are more eco-minded than you realized, and that they share some of your habits. This paragraph goes for close friends too, although some people might find it easier to maintain their usual daily practices around close friends than around family members. (Important note for people with kids: Child-rearing differences — cloth vs. disposable diapers, toys, approach to schooling, that kind of thing — can be tricky to navigate and cause inordinate levels of stress and conflict with non-like-minded family members. For tips and emotional support with this important area, I highly recommend you join the Journey to Zero Waste Facebook group. There is a search button on the page; type “diapers” or “kids,” “child-rearing,” etc. You will find a wealth of information. Same goes for dietary differences; you should not have to compromise your health or your ethical standards in order to keep the peace with family members. You will find the J2ZW group an invaluable resource.)
  • When you’re at someone else’s home: Most of the time, going with the flow is best. As with the family example, their lifestyle is a day-in, day-out thing, as yours is. Your presence is not adding to their footprint, at least not significantly. Don’t stress out about accepting a single-use plastic plate, for example. In some settings I have been able to avoid using a disposable napkin or disposable utensils because they weren’t necessary, but when I can’t avoid it I try not to stress out. Ditto for water-use practices. At home, maybe you don’t flush the toilet after a pee. At someone else’s place, naturally you will abide by their practice. And don’t agonize about the extra water use (speaking as someone who sometimes does agonize … do as I say, not as I do, right?)
  • When you have houseguests: Be up-front about your living environment and practices. For example, if you don’t use air conditioning, say so. (And encourage heat-sensitive friends to visit in the cooler months.) If you compost, you could (depending on the guest) invite them to participate by putting their food scraps into the compost bucket rather than the trash. Or you could simply have them leave any leftovers on their plates and you deal with that. You can also have a separate level of convenience for when guests or housemates are present. When it’s just me, I only use a mini fridge that is just cool enough to keep food cold, not cool enough to freeze anything. So no ice. When other people are staying with me, I plug in the giant fridge that holds massive amounts of perishables and has a proper freezer. Although I don’t use a water heater myself, I switch it on for guests.
  • When you’re on the road: Sometimes food and drink will only be available in plastic containers or other packaging that you would usually refuse. And you can’t always get fresh produce or your other usual foods while on the road. Do your best, but don’t go hungry or thirsty just to maintain your eco standards. Dehydration, particularly, is dangerous. (Do as I say, not as I do, says the woman who routinely refuses bottled water even in the dead of summer in Florida. I’ve gotten better about remembering to keep my bicycle water-bottle filled.)
  • During emergencies: Medical emergencies, natural disasters, and such may make it simply impossible to do your usual eco stuff. If you have to evac for a hurricane and you forget your reusable water bottle and utensils, or you have to use a flush toilet when you usually use a compost toilet, don’t beat yourself up.
  • To avoid causing undue disruption: If you’re in the supermarket checkout line, be considerate of those behind you. Are you super fast and organized with the cloth bags? If so, great. If not, keep practicing; you’ll get better. If in the meantime you end up accepting a plastic bag you didn’t want, reuse it.
  • To avoid hurting someone’s feelings: Did your nice neighbor bring you a homebaked treat? Be happy and try not to stress out about the plastic wrap or plastic fork that came with it. If it’s a food you don’t eat, you decide whether it’s worth letting your neighbor know for future reference. You could say, for example, “I so appreciate that you made me this treat. Unfortunately I have dietary restrictions.”
  • Sometimes you just plain need new stuff: A lot of us rarely or never buy anything new for ourselves, preferring to acquire clothing or other necessities via freeboxes, thrift stores, or other zero-waste channels. That’s all well and good, but there are times when you just plain need a pair of shoes or whatever, and can’t find them secondhand. Even us diehard RIOTers allow ourselves $1,000 worth of new goods a year. Enjoy what new stuff you choose to buy, and trust yourself to know the difference between a reasonable purchase and excess.
  • When you forget to specify “no straw please,” and the server brings you one: No, you are not supposed to atone for this heinous eco sin by committing seppuku on the spot. (After all, you wouldn’t want to ditch your friends, or leave a mess for that nice server to clean up, right?) Repurpose the straw if you can — I cut them into segments, which I use as protective guards for my fine-point paintbrushes or calligraphy pens — but if you can’t, just try to let it go.
  • For the greater good (lose the battle but win the war): pretty much any of the above examples. A voluntary extreme-low-footprint lifestyle is supposed to be about love and inspiration and caring, not guilt, scolding, shame, or undue hardship. Do your best, and set a joyful and flexible example.

These examples might sound trifling and a bit obsessive. But I know from experience that people who care about the environment feel these kinds of things keenly. And the positive actions such as eating a plant-centered and local diet, avoiding single-use plastics, and minimizing car trips do add up. We just can’t let it get us down too much when we find ourselves in situations where we can’t keep our habits as much as we’d like to.

And we can’t let our practices become a thing that trashes our human connections, or we lose the whole point. At different points in my life I have inadvertently hurt the feelings of people I loved, and I only found out about it years later. Separating glass and aluminum from trash just isn’t worth that much to me. Of course, there is always an invitation to become more graceful about how I approach a practice such as recycling or composting when in the presence of others.

I will say that, over time, with practice, I have become more skilled at sticking to my personal habits without causing undue disruption or alienating other people. And this wish to minimize disruption or alienation is not just about social comfort (except to the extent that I’m human and want to be loved and accepted just as most people do); it’s really about not wanting to do anything that would cause people undue emotional distress, or undermine the mission of inspiring people to live lighter on the earth.

Finally, to the extent that you believe we are in a state of planetary emergency, while most of the people around you do not, accept that you are probably always going to be in for some cognitive dissonance. Take care of your emotional and spiritual health.

How about you? When, if ever, do you allow yourself to compromise or relax your eco standards or practices?

Further Reading:

Strangers Drowning: Impossible Idealism, Difficult Choices, and the Urge to Help (book by Larissa MacFarquhar). “In Strangers Drowning, Larissa MacFarquhar seeks out people living lives of extreme ethical commitment and tells their deeply intimate stories; their stubborn integrity and their compromises; their bravery and their recklessness; their joys and defeats and wrenching dilemmas.A woman believes that if she spends money on herself, rather than donate it to buy life-saving medicine, then she’s responsible for the deaths that result. She lives on a fraction of her income, but wonders: when is compromise self-indulgence and when is it essential?” (from Amazon description). I bought this book and found the case studies helpful in finding my level of acceptable tradeoff about some aspects of my low-footprint lifestyle choices.

“What If We Stopped Pretending <that the climate apocalypse can be stopped>?” (New York Times article) “Our resources aren’t infinite. Even if we invest much of them in a longest-shot gamble, reducing carbon emissions in the hope that it will save us, it’s unwise to invest all of them. Every billion dollars spent on high-speed trains, which may or may not be suitable for North America, is a billion not banked for disaster preparedness, reparations to inundated countries, or future humanitarian relief. Every renewable-energy mega-project that destroys a living ecosystem … erodes the resilience of a natural world already fighting for its life. … Keep doing the right thing for the planet, yes, but also keep trying to save what you love specifically—a community, an institution, a wild place, a species that’s in trouble—and take heart in your small successes. Any good thing you do now is arguably a hedge against the hotter future, but the really meaningful thing is that it’s good today.”