In an Age of Eco-Uncertainty

article image
Jon Reinfurt /

Environmental responsibility, of late, is an increasingly epic-scale pain in the ass. For every pilgrim trying to live true to his or her beliefs, there is some harder-core-than-thou type with a comment on the link between your chosen brand of boots and dying sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile, every possible choice from diapers to cremation is overwhelmed by conflicting information about what’s better or worse for Spaceship Earth.

That sound you hear? That’s every ounce of fun being sucked out of your life. And yet there is one choice that we know the cost of perfectly clearly, and that’s the choice of doing nothing at all.

A little while ago I wrote a book with Alisa Smith about a year in which we ate only foods grown or gathered in our local area. The project was a thought experiment and we enjoyed ourselves immensely. Then the book hit the shelves and we entered a maelstrom of pointed questions about responsibility, righteousness, the nature of change, and the number of greenhouse-gas molecules that can dance on the head of a pin.

The one thing that this reaction reveals beyond a doubt is that the question How to live? is a hot button these days. Do our lifestyle choices make a difference? Do they matter in everything we do? Should we encourage others to follow our lead? When? Who? How? I am supposed to have some thoughts about these matters. And I think I finally do.

To begin, remember Cohen’s rule.
Sociologist Stanley Cohen, author of the classic book States of Denial, has made a life’s work of the stories we tell ourselves in order to excuse inaction. Cohen doesn’t go easy on people who shrug off responsibilities, but he also comes to the conclusion that no one can be personally vigilant about every issue that demands our attention.

I raise Cohen’s rule because three ugly clouds roll into view the moment we start to think about lifestyle as part of social change: paralysis, guilt, and judgmentalism. Some of us look at the world’s many problems and just–freeze. Others feel guilty because they commute by bike but cling to their air conditioner. Still others judge friends, family, and perfect strangers harshly because they don’t share an obsession with wind power.

Cohen’s rule is a balm against all three: Some of us don’t care all of the time, but all of us don’t care some of the time.

Be the change that you want to see–for now. Cohen’s rule also makes a subtle suggestion about how you might engage with the work of saving the world. You can’t care about everything, so care about what comes up on your radar and stays there. It might be fish; it might be food; it might be human-powered aircraft.

When people make lifestyle choices based on their concerns about the environment, they are often seen as–accused of–being “good.” That label never sat well with me, though it took me a long time to find a better word. That word is accountable, and I can’t define it any more plainly than the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur did: “Those who can account for actions to themselves are ‘accountable.’ “

I prefer accountability to goodness because it embraces the imperfection of change as a process. If I can explain and defend my actions, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I believe that my choices are without a doubt the right ones. Accountability is not certainty; it is attempted certainty.

One person’s eco-douchebag is another person’s vertical agitator. I owe both of these terms to conservation scientist Jennifer Jacquet. On her Guilty Planet blog, she brilliantly featured an image of a warning sign that she saw in a Whole Foods store: “Dear Customers: Please be advised that our Bread Slicer is used for both Organic and Conventional items.” Above the photo Jacquet posed this question: “Are You an Eco-Douchebag?”

Before attempting certainty on that question, let’s look at “vertical agitation,” another term Jacquet coined. Like Cohen, Jacquet has reviewed the evidence and found that people tend to have a finite amount of energy to give to causes. So, you can spread that energy horizontally, trying to educate–harass, irritate–your peers, but a better tactic is to advocate up the power chain. If your chosen cause is that wonderfully named agricultural fertilizer “humanure,” then vertical agitation might involve lobbying government agencies to adapt their health and safety codes (just guessing here) to accommodate composting toilets. Sitting around questioning the moral compass of friends who, unlike yourself, have failed to install a humanure system is eco-douchebaggery.

We all know an eco-douchebag. Last winter I was at a dinner party with a friend who had just come home from a cat-skiing trip in which the powder, he said, was “so deep it kept spilling down my neck.” Again and again he repeated this detail. And when he was finally done, I let the silence hang for a moment and then said, “What was the carbon footprint on all that fun?” See what I mean?

But let’s go back to the sign. I think that most people would agree that getting worked up about whether or not organic and conventional bread should share the same slicer is prima facie eco-douchebaggery. Yet visitors to Jacquet’s blog left more than 6,000 words of commentary, touching on everything from kosher traditions to genetically modified foods. Unremarked was the fact that the sign is an example of vertical agitation. Someone, or more likely many someones, told the store that the principles of an organic lifestyle are important enough that Whole Foods should change the way it does business. Which would be all for the best. I guess.

Trivial changes matter as long as we agree they are not trivial. It has become fashionable in certain circles to snicker at energy-saver lightbulbs as a case study in the futility of change at a personal scale. Yet there was a time–not long ago–when the energy-efficient lightbulb was an almost subversive symbol. Hop in the time machine for a trip back, way back, to 2006, and this breathless headline in Fast Company magazine: “How Many Lightbulbs Does It Take to Change the World? One.”

Was Fast Company wrong in a we-were-promised-jetpacks sort of way? Yes and no. What we learned from changing lightbulbs was that consumer choices often do not have the reach to directly affect big-picture patterns. That, however, is hardly the end of the story. Changing our lightbulbs involved a new awareness and gave weight to a different set of values. The idea that changing lightbulbs could save the planet seems laughable to us today only because we’ve changed them. Imagine the failure it would represent if we still had not seen fit to take that first step.

This doesn’t have to hurt but it is going to be uncomfortable. So, we can’t hope to take personal responsibility for every problem, and when we do our actions are selective and ambiguous, and furthermore, in terms of quantifiably making the world a better place, will probably amount to nothing. Is lifestyle change worth the bother?

I am going to say yes. The question is complicated, but take a step back and it’s clear that in cases ranging from old-growth logging to bicycle-friendly cities, politics at a personal scale played a critical role. As every activist and political organizer knows, without a hint of public groundswell their work turns fruitless and abstract. Good luck changing energy policy in a country where no one will even change their lightbulbs.

I have a rule of thumb for when a lifestyle change will be meaningful: When it feels like an adventure. I’m not saying that it has to be painful. A change, though, that takes some dedication, some education, some wayfinding, at the end of which you look at your life and see that it is truly different, is an example of lived philosophy. It is a way of being in the world that has always punched above its weight.

The greatest enemy of change is apathy, and at the heart of apathy Stanley Cohen found denial: “our need to be innocent of a troubling recognition.” Our imperfect efforts are constant reminders that there are patterns to break, whole stories to rewrite, and while they are never enough, no, never enough, a little practice surely won’t hurt.

J.B. MacKinnon is the author of Dead Man in Paradise and the coauthor of Plenty, about eating locally. Excerpted from Explore (May 2010), an exceptionally thoughtful and well written Canadian outdoor adventure

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.