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.

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