An Epistle of an Apostle

My very good friends Jen and Dan have recently been married. Even now, in fact, they are probably enjoying the heck out of each other in Santa Lucia or something. The luckies.

Jen and Dan’s Reception, as told by the iPhone
© 2010 Justin Gifford

It was an absolutely beautiful wedding—everything went very smoothly, and everybody had a wonderful time. Jen and Dan were so visibly elated it was almost magical. Their blatant affection for each other probably would have been disgusting, but for the fact that that’s probably exactly how my fiancée and I come off to the rest of the civilized world. Still, I couldn’t be happier for them, and I am so glad I got to attend. It made me regret all the more my inability to attend the weddings of some of my other close friends.

Sometimes you get so involved in your own emotions you get lost in them, and lose sight of the things that keep the gears turning smoothly. Love is especially tricky, because it’s so vastly enjoyable—and it makes everything related to it feel especially significant, and everything unrelated to it barely noteworthy. Sometimes you need to see things happen before you buckle down and get things moving along.

I’ve known for quite a while that I wanted to marry Kimberly, but when I saw her dedication while I was in the hospital, I had to marry her. After Jen and Dan’s wedding, it’s become all the more urgent. Love is tricky like that, yeah.

But what is love?* In case you are from Corinth or are otherwise unfamiliar with the specifics of the sentiment, Paul of Tarsus can offer some guidance. Amongst his recommendations to the church in Greece is a shining piece of prose that has been quoted in weddings, films, and books and on countless inspirational posters and embroidered hand towels. As befitting for a celebration of love, Jen and Dan’s pastor recited the passage.

Like so many truths, its simplicity lends it to overuse, which unfortunately risks diluting its message. But it really is a beautiful passage, and has always been one of my favorites. No matter how many times I hear it, it never loses its effect. Still, like an excellent film that abducts a song with its excellent placement in a dramatic scene, everything perfect came together during the ceremony. You could see the truth of each enduring quality of love on Jen and Dan’s faces as the pastor listed them. It was perhaps all the more powerful to witness it as I held the hand of the woman I’ll soon stand before during such a recitation.

But its truth is universal. Such is the beauty of the passage that it can be applied to any love you might ever encounter. Love between lovers, certainly. But also love amongst families, love for one’s country, love for the environment, love for those unknown to you, love for those you may not even like. It is about more than love—it is a guide to living well and doing good.

* Oh baby don’t hurt me. Don’t hurt me, no more.
† Also true of Pachelbel’s Canon in D and the phrase “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.”

Love is Patient

Paul starts out with some cheesy rhetoric that, while insightful, is generally inessential. But then the real fun begins.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

The ramifications of this first quality alone are enormous. I can personally vouch for the patience of love, but where this really comes into its own is on a much greater scale. I love my community, not because it’s the only place I’ve ever lived, or even because it’s an especially lovable place. I love it because it’s home—not my home, just home. So many people only known the Lehigh Valley, and whether they long to get out or dread the thought of leaving, it is their home. I love it because I love my people.

But like any blossoming suburban valley nestled between two busy metropolises, the Lehigh Valley has its share of problems. Another translation of the above passage reads, “love is long suffering.” I feel this version is perhaps closer to the essence of what Paul was trying to get across. It is so easy to get frustrated with the state of things, toss our hands up in collective disgust, and shuffle away mumbling something about how things were in our heyday.

But this we must never do! Contrarily, the more the state of current affairs vexes us, the more we need to be involved. We must above all things treat our community with love, and love is patient. We must, then, be prepared to suffer alongside those whose misfortunes are greater than our own, to the end that we may better the community. Environmentalists today have the same charge; brash tactics are largely irrelevant, and we must treat the ignorant or the opposing with love rather than disdain.

Perseverance is a virtue often lauded, but I think popularly misunderstood. I often hear it being used with a connotation of superiority. One perseveres through things because they are better, or it will make them better for the effort. But that ignores an essential element of perseverance that really gets you through: grace. For love to be patient, and for long suffering to be love, it must be graceful; you must not only be willing to persevere, but glad to.

Kindness is an essential counterpart to patience. To be long-suffering without kindness is to be disingenuous and, eventually, to foster spite. Kindness is the glue that binds us to what surrounds us. It seems a pretty obvious assertion that love is kind, but on further consideration it becomes pretty obvious that it stands to be clarified. Love is self-serving, and no amount of goodwill can change the fact that we love not because we have to but because we want to—and we want to because it feels good.

Part of what makes it feel so good (and, coincidentally, so selfless) is its associations with charity. I am reminded of Screwtape’s advice to his nephew:

The grand problem is that of “unselfishness”…Another great help, where the parties concerned are male and female, is the divergence of view about Unselfishness which we have built up between the sexes. A woman means by Unselfishness chiefly taking trouble for others; a man means not giving trouble to others…Thus while the woman thinks of doing good offices and the man of respecting other people’s rights, each sex, without any obvious unreason, can and does regard the other as radically selfish.

Really, you should just go read the book instead of the inane rambling I’ve been treating you to; C.S. Lewis’ brilliance is ridiculously greater than my own. The Screwtape Letters was such a favorite of mine in high school that I carried a copy of it everywhere I went. It was arguably the strongest shaping force of my current moral state.

Anyway, it is with kindness that we can avoid the confusion. Broadly, it’s the same as birthday gifts: you oughtn’t present someone with a trinket you think is wonderful unless they share your appreciation of it. So love must be kind. This is how we must treat the things around us—again, not only within our relationships with others, but everything, from the places we live to the societies of which we are a part.

But the promise that love is kind is followed by the admonition that love is not jealous. When I thought, spake, and behaved as a child, I spent much time wondering how Paul could reconcile this claim with Yahweh’s own admission, “I am a jealous God.” I’m sure much heady theological discourse has been written about the complexities of the diction, but for now let’s just assume that it’s complex.

Nevertheless, that love does not envy is essential. Envy is not a bad trait because it entices us to do evil; it is a bad trait because it undermines our feelings of worthiness. I can personally attest to this. Envy is the deadly sin of choice for me. My past relationships have generally been ruined by envy; jealousy nursed so many insecurities they eventually consumed me. I tended to feel not only inferior, but that I was in danger of dragging others down with me. Not awesome.

But it also undermines our general goodwill. When we feel envious of those who are better off than we, it makes us oblivious to those who are worse off than we. It hardens our compassion toward those to whom we would extend our hands, and it is impossible to love all our brothers when we envy some. That our hearts remain open to everyone is crucial to our ability to love what surrounds us.

‡ Some would say I’m more prone to pride – on the brink of hubris – but I’d say it’s a healthy appreciation of my finer qualities!

It is not Self-Seeking

It’s hard to see why love shouldn’t be self-seeking. Maybe it’s because I really am cynical at heart,§ but I see love as a fundamentally self-serving endeavor. Which is not to say that it doesn’t also serve others; just that with zero incentives, be they emotional, spiritual, or otherwise, I find it difficult to imagine anybody willingly doing the zany things they do when they’re in love.

So if we all agree that love is self-seeking, what do we make of Paul’s assurance that it isn’t? Was he just trying to stir up trouble? Doubtful. So let’s be a little clearer about what is meant by self-seeking.

In love, one doesn’t seek to profit himself at the expense of those around him—especially not at the expense of the subjects of his love. This is really all completely apparent, at the root of it. Nor does he seek to profit even if it costs nothing for anyone else. Love is only self-serving when the benefit to others is even greater. Obvious, maybe, but an important distinction nonetheless.

Love propels us to do amazing things, and grand. Environmentalists who love their world are compelled to nurture it and stand at the ready to aid it. Teachers who love their craft are compelled to encourage their students to share that love. Engineers who love their cities are compelled to build them better. Neighbors who love their neighbors are compelled to open their houses to each other.

We are all compelled to protect each other.

This is an important stipulation, because there is a lot in the world to protect each other from. Protection out of love is different from protection out of self-interest. History is saturated with examples of interest groups trying to preserve what they assume are universal morals in what they perceive as an atmosphere of moral decay. But it accomplishes little, and can have far graver repercussions.

Such hogwash masquerades as genuine concern, but seldom achieves much for the greater good. But protection from true love is concerned only with the recipients’ well-being. As with our consideration of charity and envy, if we are to act with love, we must do so with a perspective besides our own.

In order to do that, love must always trust—and it does. Love is reciprocal; you give a little, you get a little. Ideally, anyway. But trusting is the hardest thing for us to do. Everything else can flow with grace when we are in love, but trust can be stifled by a host of opposition.

When we love, we are at our most vulnerable. Such an all-important, all-encompassing, and sensitive feeling is very much at risk of being hurt. There is always a temptation to hold something back when dealing with love; this is natural, but helps no-one. Love is an investment, but like a fiscal transaction, your return can only reflect your initial investment. If you fear the market will fail you and you choose not to invest as fully as you could, your return cannot be as fruitful as it might have been.

We must, if we are to embrace what we love completely, trust that our love will prevail over any opposition. That trust can only appear, however, once love is already fortified by patience, kindness, tolerance, understanding, and selflessness.

§ I’m not.

Love Never Fails

After an impressively-comprehensive list of the things love must be in order to succeed, Paul closes with one terse observation about what love can do—love never fails. It is easy to presume that it means that, like schoolchildren who are told they can achieve anything they set their mind to, love can accomplish anything under the sun. This is too simplistic for my tastes.

I’d like to think of it more that love is not predisposed to a particular outcome. Love is successful because it is love, and it is therefore always successful because it is always love. This seems, logically, to be preposterous. Except that love is so completely perfect that, as Paul notes, the imperfect disappears. When there is perfection, there is just no room for anything else; just as when there is light, there cannot be darkness. It is not that light is the opposite of darkness, but that it is a vanquisher of darkness.

But there is yet more to love than that it is per se necessarily a success. That love never fails is also an observation on its longevity. Paul compares it to the things it will outlast—prophecies, human language, and knowledge itself. Love never fails because love is eternal.

This is an excellent feel-good message, but, again, we can extrapolate from it a guideline for our lives. As Gandhi is fond of saying on refrigerator magnets and in e-mail signatures, you must “be the change you wish to see in the world.” To do good in the world is to give the world something that will endure. To treat what surrounds us with love, we must think not of quick fixes or clever sound bites, but of lasting contributions. The Iroquois believed that

In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.

The Iroquois understood love.

Now, what Paul said in 264 words took me 2,550 to express, and I managed to bring us no closer to an intellectual understanding of the subject. I suppose, in the end, not every concept can be minced and dissected and understood on a molecular level. It looks like love really will outlast knowledge.

So be kind to what surrounds you.

Tie a Generic Ribbon ‘Round Some Manner of Aged Tree

I don’t know why I hate awareness ribbons as much as I do. It can’t be a simple matter of their ubiquity, because there are lots of things whose ubiquity I rather appreciate. Like air, or pumpkin spiced treats in the Autumn. It certainly can’t be because they’re inherently bad, because they obviously aren’t. It can’t be because they encourage people to do stupid things, either, because as far as I can tell they don’t do that.
But I do hate awareness ribbons.
Which is a shame, because awareness ribbons are icons of our collective struggles against a variety of misfortunes. Which makes detesting them a particularly sticky subject. I should point out, therefore, that one thing I definitely don’t hate is any amount of research that can help ease someone’s pain. So what is it about awareness ribbons?
© 2010 Justin Gifford

Well first thing’s first: do the things work? Okay, that’s actually the second question. The first one should be, ‘what are they supposed to do?’ What are they supposed to do, anyway? Raise awareness, I guess. But seriously, have you heard of AIDS? You have? Good, then you’re aware. Problem solved. How ’bout breast cancer? Same thing. So obviously awareness ribbons don’t raise awareness, or if, preposterously, they had managed to alert a few people of the existence of global problems, they can only do that once, so the purpose is short lived.

Perhaps it’s more appropriate to refer to them by their other moniker, ‘charity ribbons.’ Perhaps the real incentive to wear them proudly is to encourage your peers – and anybody else who happens to see your bumper or backpack or your dress at the latest gala – is to encourage donations to the various foundations that produce these ribbons. Seems like a pretty passive way of encouraging donations. Essentially, you’re just tacking it onto yourself and forgetting about it, the hope being that somebody will happen to spot it and find themselves itching to hand over a few bucks.

The idea is sound, in that the abysmally-low chances of it working are still better than zero, which is the chance it would work if you didn’t wear the ribbon. But the chances may not actually be all that much greater than zero anyway. By passively wearing these ribbons, we as a society have saturated our attention with them to the point that they are no longer eye catching. Essentially, the ubiquity of charity ribbons seems to have driven us to stop noticing them, so the chances of them actually encouraging a donation are even poorer than you would think—and they were pretty poor to begin with.

What, then? Ah, I thought to myself, the ribbons’ purpose must not be to provoke donations at all! They must themselves be the donations! The manufacturers of these ribbons must be the foundations themselves! I checked. They aren’t. Then they must donate the proceeds to the foundations they support. They don’t. A particularly nasty tactic used by advertisers is the promise of some proceeds dedicated to supporting awareness. Well, considering that just by displaying a huge swatch of pink all over the packaging the products are ‘raising awareness,’ it seems that aside from covering the cost of the pink ink, manufacturers don’t really have to do anything further with the proceeds. Except pocket them.

Even when they purport to donate a portion of proceeds, consumers are rarely told what portion (often it’s uselessly small), or to what foundation they will be going. Understandably, some proceeds have to go to the upkeep of the effort; that’s simple economics. But then the foundation has to take a percentage of that donation to cover their costs, so in the end it seems better to cut out the middle man and donate directly to the charity.

If You Feel Aware, Are You?

If the ribbons themselves aren’t really an excellent source of income, helpless consumers are left to figure that awareness ribbons are really only good for raising awareness. So now we can go back to our question—do the things work? Do they raise awareness? In a word, yes.

Some people I’ve spoken with contend that the ribbons really do work, in that they cause people to be more, well, aware of the problem—the implication being that increased awareness yields an increased willingness to take appropriate measures to avert the misfortune. The Pink Ribbons, in especial, tend to be noticed, and some women have told me that they feel more likely to take proper precautions as a result of them. I can’t really discern anybody’s underlying motivation, but my suspicion is that the ribbons had little to do with anything.

In the first place, the ribbons, while a convenient visual shorthand, serve no actual function except to return attention to the issue. That is, these ribbons – red, yellow, pink, or otherwise – are only one (albeit very visual) piece of far huger information campaigns. The claim is that the ribbons encourage precautions or support, but I can only assume that they don’t. A ribbon cannot inform anybody about how to handle any of the various causes they support. If, for instance, a pink ribbon encourages women to examine themselves, it is only because they have received advice on how to undertake that examination from another source. The ribbon serves only as a reminder.

I decided to start asking around; surely I couldn’t be the only one who thought awareness ribbons were not only idiotic but counterproductive. I didn’t have to search far. I asked my stepfather Tony, in that off-hand, clever way that real journalists do when they don’t want to reveal their intentions or color an interviewee’s perception of the subject, what he thought of awareness ribbons.

Tony: I had one on my old car.
Me: Why’d you buy it?
Tony: I bought it because I support the troops.
Me: Were you trying to support a cause that would help the troops?
Tony: I don’t believe in that shit. I just bought it because it was there. That’s the problem with these things: they show your support, but it’s only skin deep.

Good stuff, but Tony’s a grumpy old man. I thought I’d go a little further, perhaps try to find some sympathy. Since we were on our way to help out my grandmother, Mrs. Cook, I thought that’d be a good start. I had but to say ‘awareness ribbons.’

Mrs. Cook: Aggravates me to death to see them all over the place! Pink, red, yellow, blue, green…I don’t know. It all started because of that song, ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round an Old Oak Tree.’*

And then, after a short lull in the admittedly casual conversation, and without any real provocation:

Mrs. Cook: What really gets me is when they say if you buy it they’ll donate 10¢ to research.†

Wow! Excellent stuff, but not exactly what I was looking for. I had assumed that, short of actually trying to support a charity, people bought these things because they felt they were ‘doing the right thing.’ You know—they buy a ribbon because it’s a good cause, and – who knows? – it may help out a charity. The forces at work here, I’ve long surmised, were insufficient education on the specifics of the subject, and sheer laziness.

* My dad never fails, at the first mention of ribbons, Tony Orlando, oak trees, or the color yellow, to regale us with the story of his attendance of a concert at which Mr. Orlando, having sold the rights to the lyrics, he couldn’t perform his own song. The poor bastard.
† This quote is win-win for me: it exactly reflects my suspicions (and shows I’m not the only one suspecting them), but, moreover, it gives me a chance to use the cent symbol, which I almost never do.


It is a particularly nasty byproduct of our cause-laden society. Wherever we go we are accosted from all sides by charitable causes of every variety. Most of the time we pick out one or two that really matter to us, but because we are so jaded by the sight of them, new ones generally fail to impress us. Worse, the overwhelming array of charities facing us subtly trains us to do the bare minimum most of the time—we have to spread our donations out amongst many worthy causes!

In a way, the barrage of pleas does get us to pitch in. Well, we buy a ribbon, because it’s cheap, available, and as far as we know, goes to a good cause. What happens then is that now we’ve shown our support. We did our good deed, and now we’re finished. If we have the opportunity to help out yet again, well, I suspect we may be less receptive to the idea, having already expended some resources on this one particular cause.

Think about it in monetary terms (everybody else does so in this game, after all). Everybody has a limited amount of resources to spend on everything there is to spend things on. Individuals do, churches do, corporations do, and nonprofit organizations do. You just can’t spend more than you have. So let’s assume Steve has €20.00 to spend on charity. He’s a churchgoing man, so €4.00 goes to there. At the behest of the cashier at his local grocer he donates €2.00 to something he’s not entirely clear on, but there’s a forgettable coupon in it for him so he does it so he doesn’t seem like a jerk for saying no. He goes to the nearby Buy-n-Large only to face an adorable set of siblings selling cookies—€6.00. Steve’s heard about this conflict that’s been going on, and he thinks the troops are really brave, so he buys a magnetic ribbon for them whilst waiting in queue. €1.00. You know what? Make it two: he’s got two cars.

Keeping up? Good, ’cause I haven’t been. My point is that now he’s only got a couple bucks left by the time he sees a stand selling care packages to send to the troops. €10.00. Uh oh, out of money—good thing he bought those ribbons, though; that should do the trick. He does support them, after all, right? He’s got the badges to prove it!

The same thing happens with things like Earth Day. So many times something that starts out with great intentions – and gets great results, even – runs out of steam and ultimately ends up diverting people’s attention from doing what would really help. And while we’re being distracted from important things, let’s just take a moment to consider this information taken from the American Heart Association:

In fact, coronary heart disease, which causes heart attack, is the single leading cause of death for American women. Many women believe that cancer is more of a threat, but they’re wrong. Nearly twice as many women in the United States die of heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases as from all forms of cancer, including breast cancer.

Narrow that down to breast cancer alone and the differences is far greater. Still, it pays to remember that mortalities due to breast cancer have, in Western nations, been steadily declining, no doubt largely because of successful awareness campaigns. It’s important to differentiate between an informational campaign, which can help people detect or avoid problems early, from awareness ribbons, which are essentially meaningless ribbons.

When the red AIDS ribbons kicked off the trend, education campaigns were already in full swing; the ribbons just let celebrities (and shortly thereafter, their fans) show how classy they were. Still, women are terrified of breast cancer (I would be too, no doubt, especially considering that it can affect men), but don’t know the first thing about heart disease. A powerful educational campaign might just put a dent in some of the lifestyle choices that are part of the problem.

Pink Ribbons Are All About the Green

While I was researching,‡ I came across an interesting term – pinkwashing – to describe the corporate misappropriation of a charitable symbol for nefarious capitalistic purposes. It turned out that I was dead on in my assumption that lots of people are sick of pink. Within the first minute on Google I found loads of articles decrying the practice. Breasts are big. Err, popular. What I mean is, they’re big business…§

Now my understanding is that pinkwashing applies specifically to products that use ingredients linked with breast cancer while purporting to support cancer research, but I think by extension it can be applied to any use of Pink whose primary goal is marketing rather than charity. If that’s the case, there’s an awful lot of pinkwashing going on. I’ve long tried to perceive the connection between, say, cancer and my morning Cheerios (satisfied that there are none, I continue to eat cheerios, blissfully unaware). It’s a marketing thing.

Given the choice between two identical products, their only difference being a pink ribbon, who would buy the unadorned one? Especially when somebody else is around to see them being uncharitable? Nobody. Moreover, when KFC, for instance, decides to sell Pink buckets, the choice is taken out of the consumer’s hands. I’m not suggesting it’s a bad thing that purchases support a charity by default – if they do – just that if a corporation is willing to donate that amount to a charitable foundation, they should be a little more transparent about it.

Again, it comes down to simple economics. No company can donate anything to anybody if they don’t make the bottom line—simple. My poor brother Nate was working at KFC when the ‘boob buckets’ happened,‖ and he thought KFC’s was a pretty strange model. He told me that while the majority of his customers didn’t show one preference or another, many asked specifically for the pink buckets, unaware that all buckets were participants in the program. Still, maybe that demonstrates that some people sought out the chicken who otherwise wouldn’t have. Good news for the charity; better news for KFC. Consumers should have given the money directly to an organization and then got a dinner they actually liked.

Still, KFC did end up donating something to the tune of $4.2 million, which, despite being less than half of their target donation, is still pretty impressive. I’m guessing, based on the general apathy of the customers, even if the honest supporters had chosen to donate directly instead of buying chicken, that amount would never have been raised without a corporate marketing scheme to back it up. Nevertheless, having set the record for the highest donation ever, KFC hasn’t offered any indication that it will repeat the program.

We need, as always, to avoid letting our good-natured skepticism degrade into cynicism. While there has certainly been a good amount of backlash against, say, Buckets for the Cure, there’s no use arguing with results. In fact, every negative reaction I read involves KFC’s notoriously unhealthy offerings and brings up the then-recent release of the fowl Double Down—truly an attack ad pullum. FiveThirtyEight did an interesting comparison of similar offerings’ health values. Whether the charitable gains are ill-gotten can be disputed, but they done been got.

‡ As always, by ‘researching,’ I mean cherry-picking the data for claims that would corroborate my conclusion.
§ Given that Pink ribbons seem to be the most widely-circulated, the majority of criticism seems to be leveled against them in particular, but the arguments hold true across the board. I use them as an example because I get to type ‘breasts’ over and over. Heh heh heh.
‖ Unfortunately for him, he was treated to an admittedly heated discourse on the subject—one of many predecessor conversations to this blog post.


It isn’t my intention to offend or upset anybody. My fiancée usually keeps my fervor in check; in my zeal to promote constant, unending analysis and free thought, I tend to get a little excited and often come off a little too strongly. This can be a sensitive subject, and I don’t want anybody to get the impression that this is a laughing matter to me, or that I’m completely callous. In fact, the only reason I do discuss things like this is because they are so important to me. I would hate to think of someone passing by a genuine opportunity to help another because they got hoodwinked into buying a trendy product that doesn’t really serve a purpose.

I believe in the old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and there is no doubt that awareness campaigns have drastically reduced mortality rates (at least in Western nations) of many particularly insidious ailments.

But I also believe that people should be allowed to grieve however they want, or celebrate however they want, or struggle however they want. If ribbons are their way of showing that they’re proud and supportive and full of encouragement, as yellow ribbons often are, then they should do it proudly! But let’s cut the crap and call them support ribbons and let families who are struggling support each other in their own ways, without turning it into a cheap marketing ploy. And by cheap I mean very costly.

Today’s Environmentalist

Yesterday on Twitter, Alexandra Cousteau of Blue Legacy challenged the public to update the definition of ‘environmentalism’:

What does it mean to be an environmentalist today? We need some re-definition! Thoughts anyone?

That got me thinking, and I’d say it is time for some redefining. It’s never been easier to call oneself an environmentalist, so let’s take a moment to think about what we’re saying.

© 2010 Justin Gifford

You’d think, from the amount of press that things like the BP oil spill are rare occurrences or that such things have only happened relatively recently. You’d be wrong. Which is to say, environmental disasters, catastrophes, and complications happen all the time, and it’s horrifying. We are, however, now more aware of them, both because we have a greater historical perspective on past events and because we have a greater global perspective on current events happening in somebody else’s backyard. A cynic might go so far as to say that it’s trendy to be aware of such things, the way it’s trendy to discuss fiscal policy at cocktail parties. Not that these things are any less urgent or real; just that it is trendy to have an opinion on them.

Unfortunately, the side-effect of this is that having a ready-made opinion stifles creative thought. When I say ‘creative,’ I don’t mean that in the artsy sense of creating murals or paintings; I mean it in the sense of creating something else entirely—solutions.* It isn’t enough any more to want to pitch in.

Whenever I see questions like Ms. Cousteau’s, I like to peek at the responses it garners, when they are readily available and I don’t have to do any actual investigating. The answers tend to range from the clever:

“For me, being an environmentalist today means doing work through a lens† of mindfulness and compassion.”

to the heady:

“There is no other way of being. One day this word won’t mean anything because we will all be. It’ll be embedded in our values.”

to the inane:

“tough it’s been watered down”

Since the smarter answers are pretty self-explanatory, I’ll skip right to the dessert.

Again, I don’t want to minimize the efforts of real environmentalists, which are many and varied, nor of concerned citizens who genuinely do what they can. My problem is rather the prepackaged opinions that get inhibit real progress. Nor would I suggest that this is limited to the environmental sciences, because it certainly isn’t. But in the spirit of the original question, that is how I must frame my answer.

* A licensed chemist is encouraged to create precipitates as well.
† I’m a photographer; I can’t help picking out the comment that makes a lens reference!

Prepackaged Solutions

One of the things I see all the time is the all-too-common belief in the myth of ‘common sense.’ That is, environmentalists believe that their weapon in the fight to save the world is their common sense. Unfortunately, those who would deny environmental problems like climate change area also relying on common sense (at least, those innocents who have been misled through no fault of their own to believe it). As far as either group can tell, their opponents are either crazy or have a hidden agenda. The problem is not that one group is crazy, but that ‘common sense’ doesn’t clearly exist. It all depends on the company you keep. Anthropologists are familiar with this phenomenon on the largest and the smallest scales and, accordingly, avoid judging cultures on any terms but the culture’s own.

The Liberal vs. Conservative fight is a well-known caricature of today’s politics,‡ but I think anybody would be hard-pressed to demonstrate that bickering between two political groups is a recent phenomenon! Nevertheless, it has important implications. Both groups will remain entrenched in their opinions for as long as it takes to accomplish their goals—that much should be apparent. The only appropriate recourse, then, is not to continue arguing, but to make a real effort to understand the goals of the people whose ideals are contrary to our own, and whose ideas we would change. More on this later.

My point is not who is right and who is crazy. Rather, I wish to illustrate the pitfall that pervades any discussion: the prepackaged opinion. When we recite fact after fact that we have known since grade school to be true, we are not expressing our own opinions, but the opinions of those who taught us. We take these to be incontrovertible and obvious and, because they are all we have ever known, it never occurs to us to doubt them.

Unfortunately, this attitude doesn’t actually fix anything; in fact, it usually does the opposite. Our unthinking repetition of mantras like Reduce! Reuse! Recycle! can actually be counterproductive—they become so familiar to us that we stop giving them any real consideration. Further, to continue discussing the Three Rs, people tend to get hung up on Recycling, because it’s easy and cheap—at least for consumers. If nothing else, consumers get to feel a nice pat on the back when they do it.

And that’s the thing—most armchair environmentalists do it because, frankly, we feel pretty nice for contributing to a cause greater than ourselves. We are often reminded that such a cause is environmentalism. But the flip side to that feeling of self-content is that it can prevent us from doing more. I have had many discussions with a friend of mine about how awareness ribbons seem to do little more raise awareness—a limited resource. By buying a cheap trinket for a few cents, I can absolve myself from doing anything further if it inconveniences me, which it often does.

Many ‘green’ solutions seem to be the same way. If I use more efficient light bulbs (cost-effective), why should I buy a more efficient car (inconvenient)?

‡ And if politics are a caricature of society, that makes it a caricaturecature!

Single-Serving Environmentalism

It isn’t enough to do the bare minimum. As environmentalists, our battle is not with ignorance but with apathy. An apathy that has occurred not despite our best efforts but because of them. Sadly, in their fervor to spread enthusiasm for the preservation of the environment, environmentalists have over-saturated the media, leaving the public with little inclination to care.

Take the case of Earth Day. Earth Day, at its heart, is an extraordinary idea. It was designed to raise awareness in a culture that really was sheltered from the realities of environmental destruction, and to spur the world into action. It did. But after 40 years, it’s lost some steam. Earth Day is a time, for the citizen of average concern, to rally together and ‘pitch in.’ While the camaraderie fosters a sense of accomplishment, instead of the day highlighting the dire need to create more powerful solutions, it highlights cutesy green caricatures§ of environmentalism.

The public can only sustain alarmism for so long until attention wanes—this happens all the time. Worse, while the incentive to Pitch In exists for the day, it seldom extends longer than a week at best. This seems to be because, again, we as a society absolve ourselves from action when we do the bare minimum. In effect, we only need to be environmentalists once a year.‖

This kind of environmental minimalismis especially egregious when it comes to disasters. Disasters – natural or man-made – happen. It’s tragic when they do, but they happen. Lately we have seen that in the Gulf of Mexico. But a side effect is that we are so used to tragedies happening that we are practically on a schedule for donations. We contribute to the cause of the moment, and seldom otherwise. We do not donate regularly, or, in general, to less urgent causes. The reasons for this are several, but that is for another column.

What it comes down to is that, sadly, we are so used to urgency that we seldom respond without it. All of this is to say that we want simple, convenient, and relevant solutions. I do not mean this to sound like criticism; it is only an observation, and it seems to be true in all spheres. Not everybody has the inclination, and few the time, to be a full-steam environmentalist. It’s hard work, and it takes a lot of specialized skills and a critical mindset. No-one can accuse the average green thumb for lacking effort.

However, while they may be excused for not embracing every aspect of environmentalism, there is another pitfall that commonly traps even the best-intentioned shoppers (insidiously, it traps them all the more). That pitfall is known as greenwashing. In our zeal to be environmentally aware, we have created an atmosphere in which it is trendy (i.e. profitable) to be Green.¶ Whenever there is a profitable atmosphere there is a very real potential for fraud. This is worse than benign dishonesty. It causes consumers, who are already in the market for convenient solutions, to divert their money from genuinely helpful products to those that are far less so.

TerraChoice has compiled a thorough list – The Seven Sins of Greenwashing – of common untruths as well as ways to spot them. In an effort to avoid simply throwing blame, and to make consumers accountable, TerraChoice has elected not to name particular brands or companies—a tactic that promotes open-minded thinking and avoids pre-packaged-opinion-mongering.

Students learning to test water.
© 2010 Justin Gifford

This today is the charge of the environmentalist. We have seen how much progress can be made by an individual, but we must now shift our focus to our society. We must embrace an attitude of healthy skepticism.

Healthy skepticism is not to be confused with pseudoskepticism or environmental denialism. These obfuscations serve no socially-valid purpose and generally only benefit a small interest group, if anybody at all. Good skepticism, on the other hand, does not doubt, but it questions. It questions the validity of claims not to suppress them but to make them more accurate. To make them better.

Healthy skepticism does not only question the claims of an opponent, but also its own. When most people hear a statistic that sounds fishy to them, their first instinct is to doubt it. It’s a good start, but only if that initial doubt does not predispose you to disbelief when you find satisfactory evidence. Likewise, most people, on hearing a statistic that confirms what they suspected, are unlikely to doubt it and probably won’t bother checking another source to determine its veracity.

This is a supremely-important skill not just in environmentalism but in all disciplines. Nevertheless, it is all too easy to take a columnist’s word for it, for instance, trusting that not only do they know what they are talking about, but also that they have no particular agenda.

§ I keep using this word! I don’t think it means what I think it means…
‖ Twice if you also count Arbor Day. Thrice if you think Labor Day is Arbor Day.
¶ We have also preserved an atmosphere in which ozone layers exist.

Don’t Be Evil

A useful starting point, I think, may be to examine your motives for environmentally involved. Or for not being involved more. Sometimes it’s cheaper to buy Green (and this is a major selling point), but often companies charge a premium for Green products.** Buying Green is never better than using less. Reduce, man.

But that raises a question of ethics. The pairing of environmentalism with ethics has a long and respectable pedigree, and with good reason. The very idea of environmental stewardship is based on the idea that it is the responsibility of those who benefit from resources (i.e. the Earth) to are for them (it). Many would say it is unethical to waste fossil fuels, or ruin the air, or use up all the rocks. Whether it is or isn’t is a debate for another time, but the sentiment is there and the implications are dire.

So it is necessary to think not of being Green (or buying Green)†† but of being ethical across the board. Sometimes thinking laterally is necessary. Vegetarians, frankly, have a smaller environmental impact than their omnivorous brethren. I can’t advocate becoming a vegetarian, since I am not one myself, but a consumer can still make huge differences by shopping ethically and making a commitment to learn more about their food. While the Vegan horror stories of slaughterhouses haven’t dissuaded me from meat entirely, they have certainly caused me to cut way back; I now shop only ethically-produced food and, as an indirect consequence, I only eat meat a couple times each month. Such awareness has made me feel healthier and better about eating the food I do eat.

To mention one more example that is particularly relevant, coffee is a hugely destructive industry. But true aficionados demonstrate their love of it by buying Fair Trade and shade-grown coffees—both ethically sustainable. It is time to start thinking of new ways to be involved; you may do more good by eating at McDonald’s less than by buying Green window cleaners.

Environmentalism today means rethinking the concept of ‘stewardship.’ We must be stewards not just of the environment, but of our attitudes. Environmentalists must be responsible for seeing through false claims, but also for actively correcting them. It has never been easier to be environmentally active, and the boundaries dividing those who ‘are’ environmentalists and those who ‘aren’t’ have never been hazier. Professional environmentalists know their job, and they’re out there doing it every day. It’s our job, those of us who care but aren’t specialists, to help them—and to thank them for their efforts.‡‡

** A major manufacturer of resealable plastic sandwich bags, for instance, responded to the recession by offering new, Green bags. They used less plastic. They say ‘less plastic,’ I hear ‘more fragile.’
†† My problem is not having enough Green to spend!
‡‡ Mowing the lawn is hard enough; I applaud those who do actual work outdoors!

Update – 7 October

GOOD just posted a link to an FTC proposal for new guidelines that would govern any product’s claims regarding environmental impact. Sweet.

My Conversation with Penn Jillette

Yesterday, on September 11, I had a nice conversation with Penn Jillette. Well, considering that it was on Twitter, it was more like I said something and then he said something, and it all happened in 149 characters. Here’s how it went:

Me: I thought you were smarter than that—seriously, that graphic is just stupid.
Penn: It’s Richard Dawkins, and I’m not smarter than him. I’m not smart at all.

The stupid image to which I was referring was a backlit photo of the Twin Towers with an enormous caption—IMAGINE NO RELIGION. Provocative, eh? Obviously the creator of the graphic has thrown subtlety to the wind with this one (I’ve seen much more tasteful renditions of the sentiment). Mr. Jillette attributed something thereabouts to Richard Dawkins; the tagline is something of a motto for Mr. Dawkins, to be sure, but I suspect from the overall quality of the image that he was not the original creator.

One thing I love about Penn is his honest humility; it doesn’t come off as affectation. I suspect that when people post images like that, it is generally to provoke a reaction, and many revel in it. Penn, on the other hand, was both prompt and courteous in response to my comment—which could easily have been construed as antagonistic or angry. And that is smart. See, I’ve come to view Penn as the kind of guy who has a pretty damn strong opinion about things, but who will also do whatever it takes to spread good information.

Which is why I was so surprised at the fact that he forwarded that image; that image is not good information. It isn’t good anything.

Now, it’s no secret that I’m highly irreligious. I just don’t see anything in religion that I can’t get anywhere else. All the best things religion has to offer (and there are a lot) have analogues you can find in any community. Unfortunately, so do all the worst things religion has to offer (again, there are a lot). But I am not anti-religious. Not in the way Richard Dawkins is. Nor am I an atheist.

Because atheism takes the same kind of faith as any other religion, except instead of knowing in your heart that there is a god, you’re knowing in your heart that there isn’t. Look, maybe Richard Dawkins knows something I don’t (in fact, I’m sure he knows several things I don’t), but I’m just not convinced. Unfortunately all Dawkins’ style of preaching does is, well, preaching to the choir. His openly hostile attitude isn’t going to convert anybody; it’ll just dig them deeper into their faith to shield themselves against the heathen onslaught.

I love P&T: Bullshit! I love it because it’s hilarious and entertaining, and because it’s a smug, pat-yourself-on-the-back kind of good time. But I mostly love it because I generally agree with their conclusions (although after watching the Death Penalty episode I found myself shifting from indifference to criticizing it as well). It is not something I would show to someone whose opinion I would like to change, or even to someone I’d like to educate. It’s amusing to those who already have those opinions, but pretty much useless to those who don’t. In fact, Penn’s outrageously vulgar language, while hilarious, is more likely to fortify opinions that people who hold such beliefs are necessarily immature and uneducated. That’s just how it is.

And that’s how I feel about Dawkins’ work. Of course, I haven’t read everything he’s done, but I think his stance is pretty clear. And unfortunately, while so many of his points are valid, enlightened, and highly relevant to today’s culture, they are presented in such a way as to dissuade the exact people who need to hear them from paying any attention! Richard Dawkins does for atheists what every pastor does for churchgoers Sunday mornings: he reaffirms their beliefs while doing absolutely nothing to change the beliefs of others. He perpetuates the insular culture of the atheist by alienating the very people we should be welcoming with open arms.

Which brings me to that image. The suggestion that the 2001 attacks were fueled by religion is embarrassingly blatant, and unfortunately is also completely misleading. It is clearly an image meant to rile the passions of those who wish to see a world without religion while simultaneously rankling those who claim “But it isn’t my religion!”

I did imagine “no religion.” I saw a world that lacked a lot of deplorable things, but it didn’t lack violence. I have absolutely no doubt that the anti-American sentiments harbored by the terrorists responsible for the attacks would have bred a similar attack anyway even if their motivations were purely political. Tragic, yes, and in this case they were a grotesque distortion of religion (which, per se, is not evil or destructive).

But for one day, when thousands are grieving such a recent tragedy, can we please not perpetuate hatred? Mr. Jillette’s “Penn Point” comments on his discussion with the mother of an injured cheerleader were heartfelt and touching, and despite his rough demeanor on Bullshit! he obviously has a sensitive side.

I just wish he had been a little more sensitive yesterday.

By way of disclosure, I was not personally affected by the attacks. I didn’t know anybody involved—hell, I don’t even know anybody who knows anybody who was affected. So I’m not really writing out of any personal feelings on the subject. Maybe I’d be more credible if I were, but maybe not. Further, I’m not writing out of any desire to defend religion. Sure, I see some good in it, but largely I just see it as superfluous at best, and backward at worst.

My fiancée’s family is pretty religious, and I momentarily resented her father’s kindly hesitation at offering her hand due to my lack of Christian ideals. Still, I don’t do them the injustice of hiding my beliefs or pretending to adopt their own, because I demand that they respect me on my terms, not theirs. At the same time, in return for their indulgence, I choose to approach their beliefs with kindness and understanding, and I at least spare them my cynicism. I mean skepticism.

That’s what I love about skeptics, or at least my ideal of skeptics. We don’t resort to name-calling and cheap emotional ploys. We are above all loving and accepting of everybody whose intentions are good, even if their practices are not. We are shepherds of the intellect. Our flock is wayward, but we don’t abandon them in disgust, we guide them as far as we have to until they can guide themselves.

Update – 17 September

Mr. Jillette was patient enough to read through my rambling, and responded quite cordially:

‘thanks for your kind words. Atheism doesn’t require “faith” except in the loosest sense. Just waiting for evidence.’

I can see his point. Unfortunately, it’s a losing battle. God bless him for fighting it, though. Well, somebody ought to bless him, if there’s no god to do it.