Here’s a question for you: Why are so many people so very sanctimonious about their environmental practices?

I think that, in general, people tend to be a bit smug about “lifestyle choices” in general, but nowhere is this more apparent than in some corners of the “green” community. And I find it simply fascinating, on a lot of levels. I also find it extremely irritating, not least because it tends to be extremely alienating. People might be interested in adopting more environmentally friendly practices and ideas if they didn’t feel like they were trying to muscle their way into an exclusive club, and if people weren’t so bloody preachy about the environment. So very holier-than-thou, making it clear that while you can try, you never really will be as good as they are anyhow.

It does seem like there’s always been a little bit of an undercurrent of smug exclusivity among people making choices “for the environment,” and that became much worse when it became trendy to be environmentally friendly[1. Which, I admit, is a trend I was excited about at first, because I thought that it would bring about some changes in environmental policy and public attitudes. Which, indeed, it has to some extent; the progress we are making is in no small part due to the fact that it is now hip to say that you care about the environment. This is especially true in the corporate world, where standards of corporate stewardship have radically improved because companies know that their customers expect environmental responsibility now.]. As soon as yuppies started adopting the “green” movement, it suddenly became about something more complicated than the environment. It became about showing that you’re up on the latest social movement, and, in a way, it became a competition to see who is more green.

What’s interesting about this competition is that it didn’t seem to be based so much on choices that people could make for the environment, but on buying the outward trappings of sustainability to make it readily apparent to society that one is “green.” The thing about making truly environmentally sound choices is that they are often rather boring. And, more importantly in a society obsessed with status and proving status, they aren’t always readily apparent. And we can’t have that, now can we?

For example, not having a car is, generally speaking, a more environmentally sound choice than owning a car. But, if you own a Prius, you can be superior about how environmentally sound you are. Whereas if you don’t own a car at all, it’s a bit suspect. I mean, are you really choosing to not own a car? Or are you just too poor? Likewise, not buying stuff in general is better for the environment than buying stuff, but, again, how can you show that you care if you don’t buy stuff? You need your green-branded consumer goods to show that you care, yes? And to show that you’re not…poor.

And, of course, the way to really show that you care is to lecture people, preferably often, about how their choices are not as good as yours, and about how much they need to improve. This always fascinates me when it comes from someone using more resources lecturing someone who is using fewer resources; being solemnly informed by multiple people that I  must convert to compact florescents despite the fact that my electric bill hovers around $12/month and I have multiple reasons for not using CFLs, for example, seems especially funny to me when it comes from people who are probably using much more energy than I am.

The “green” movement has eagerly adopted a lot of things that poor people have been doing for, well, decades, because they had no other choice, but the movement has managed to put its own capitalist spin on them, and to combine them with a healthy dose of superiority and shaming. Appropriation of practices from minority groups is hardly something new, of course, and it bears noting that in the process of appropriation, dominant groups attempt to make things theirs and to distance them from the communities they originated in.

So much of society these days seems to be about shaming. As though this accomplishes anything. As though making people embarrassed and uncomfortable and upset somehow converts them to the point of view of the shamer. I wrote about this just a few weeks ago in the context of the heaps of shame piled upon women, but it’s a larger issue. People are shamed for their food choices, for how much energy they use (or don’t use), for the books they like to read, for so many things.

The curious thing is that the shamers and ‘splainers seem to think that this is accomplishing something, that people will mend the error of their ways if only they are brought to understand them. It’s a tremendously arrogant attitude, the “it’s all for your own good” and “I know what’s best for you” attitude and it’s really rather pointless. It usually just makes people look ignorant and pedantic and, well, sanctimonious. If you genuinely care about the environment, surely that means that you should support any measures to make a difference, and that the outward trappings are less important than personal actions. Before hastening to condemn someone for not using reusable grocery bags, maybe you should ask if your annual vacation to Hawaii has a larger environmental impact. Before telling people that they obviously don’t care about the environment if they don’t do X or Y, perhaps you should examine your own life and ask how you can improve.

Rather than assuming that poor folks are all ignorant and willfully recalcitrant, maybe you should give them credit for caring about the environment also, and for taking the steps which are accessible to them. Maybe they can’t afford to buy organic like you can, but that does not mean that they aren’t interested in food issues. And that doesn’t mean that they somehow fail at caring for the Earth. In fact, they probably use less energy and resources than you do, because your need to be showy about your devotion to the environment often ends up defeating the point.

4 Replies to “Sanctimonious”

  1. Agh. Yeah. A thing that’s good for the environment is not using paper towels–when you’re in public restrooms dry your hands on your clothes. At home use cloth. But it’s kind of boring, no one sees you doing it, and there are valid reasons you’d want to use paper towels sometimes. Using a persistent coffee cup instead of paper turns out to give no net carbon benefit if you wash it every use. If you’re willing to let it go a few weeks then fabulous, you’re reducing your carbon footprint. Otherwise you’re just buying stuff.

    I likewise will avoid buying compact fluorescent light bulbs for as long as I can fucking get away with it. When incandescent bulbs get phased out I will hoard those fuckers and treasure them like gold (nerdery: tritium is far more valuable than gold by mass ((further nerdery: but makes a worse metaphor so shut it))). Fluorescent light is bad for me.

    And I will not give a rat’s ass about how far my food has been shipped until such time as I don’t have to give a rat’s ass about how much my food costs which I don’t see happening any time real soon. Unless that Lotto thing works out.

    Everybody can g’head and wag that Big Finger o’ Shame; I am shameless. Anyway I’m working on it. I’ve got there with what I read so it’s at least theoretically doable.

  2. Oh gawd, thanks so much for writing this, it’s just so true.

    I’m poor and 90 % of my clothes are from thrift stores, 80% of my food is from the local food bank, I found my furniture in the streets or on fleamarkets, my books, records, dishes, etc are usually second hand as well, so basically I mostly “consume” stuff other people have discarded, but of course that doesn’t count as environmentally friendly.

    In my neighbourhood there are a lot of these eco friendly consumers, and it never ceases to amaze me how self absorbed they are. They tend to buy a lot of junk like healing energy stones for their personal well being and emotional balance, but if they cared about humans as much as the environment, they’d send the money they spend on this crap to places like Haiti where people need real medicine.
    Ack, I could rant about this subject forever…

  3. For years now I’ve been distancing myself from the environmental movement when I do environmentally friendly stuff because I’m so irritated at this kind of behavior. That particular narrative around menstrual cups in particular bugs the living shit out of me – and I am a huge cup enthusiast, you will not meet a more enthusiastic cup enthusiast than me, lo I have sung its praises these many years – because when any sort of exposure comes from the “green” movement, it’s all about YET AGAIN shaming (many, though not all) women for having the nerve to have periods, being so frivolous and silly as to DESTROY THE EARTH while doing the socially mandated dance of hiding them, and then being too poor to purchase them or having too successfully absorbed body shaming to be able to use them with ease or any number of other factors which might make things tough. Stop ruining awesome shit, guppie a-holes!

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