Environmental Concern or Self-Image?
Several years ago, I decided to become a vegetarian for moral reasons. I had become aware of practices in raising animals and in slaughterhouses that appalled me, and I decided that it was morally wrong to consume animals that lived and died in fear and misery. I thought it would be easy: just cut meat out of my diet, right? Wrong. When I started reading labels, I discovered that there are animal products in all sorts of foods that you would never think had them: vegetable soup and jello, for instance. And other common products, too, such as soap, shampoo, and conditioner. Then it occurred to me that, if I didn’t want to be a hypocrite, I would have to rid myself of all associations with leather, too. And what about dairy? Do I stop eating dairy because of how milk cows are raised (which is, bred to have udders so large they can barely walk and shot full of hormones to increase their milk production to a freakishly high level)?
The point is, when I really considered this issue in detail, it became an overwhelming problem to solve. I had to wear leather shoes, for example, or my feet suffocated. And there was no way to determine the exact content of many products. Organic was no answer, either. Just because animals are raised with organic feed and not shot up with chemicals is no guarantee of their humane treatment and death. Also, products labeled organic are only legally required to contain 85% organic ingredients; if your stance is a moral one, that’s not good enough. “Free range” was also no solution: “free range” meat is also no guarantee that an animal lived and died humanely. Furthermore, nobody is labeling leather goods “free range” or “organic” yet, so no matter how scrupulous I might become about my food and household products, I would never be able to do so about leather goods, which I could never completely give up.
In the end, I decided it would be hypocritical to call myself a vegetarian for moral reasons and continue to wear leather and consume animal products out of ignorance or laziness, and frankly, I found the vigilance necessary to not do either exhausting (and almost impossible, anyway). I made uneasy peace with the fact that humans are at the top of the food chain, that we’ve been living off of animal products for thousands and thousands of years, and that denying this would be naïve and intellectually dishonest. I am still opposed to many husbandry and slaughterhouse practices, but I realize now that I have no control over them—including buying “organic” and “free range”—and that to pretend I do would be more about wanting to see myself a certain way than to actually care about these things.
After coming to this awareness, I started to notice how many vegetarians and “organophiles” routinely betray their own principles. They eat junk food, dairy, and all sorts of packaged grocery products without questioning the ingredients or production processes, throwing organic produce, Cheetos, and Formula 407 in their grocery carts with equal disinterest, then smugly demanding paper grocery bags at checkout time without ever considering the impact of this on the environment (both reusable cloth and recyclable plastic bags being better environmental choices, according to my understanding). They suspend their principles if they’re at a restaurant or a friend’s house for dinner. They wear leather, and sometimes even fur. They have no inkling of all the products they use and ingest that contain animal products because it’s never occurred to them to look. And I found all of these practices to be the norm, and not the exception: it seems good enough to many people to see themselves a certain way, whether they actually are or not.
A similar pattern of hypocrisy also occurs in environmentalism. I’m afraid in recent years, as the trend toward being “green” has exploded into popular culture, the problem has gotten worse, not better. As more and more media attention is being given to global warming and “the environmental crisis,” more and more products are being invented to satisfy our desire to see ourselves as “environmentally conscious.” You can go to Target or even Wal-Mart, for god’s sake, and see products as diverse as clothing, candy, and cosmetics labeled “organic” or “all natural” or “free trade.” We now have a “green” cable television channel, whatever that means (you don’t need electricity to watch it, perhaps?).
Labeling is no guarantee of a product’s eco-friendliness. Of products that actually are produced organically (by the legal definition) and free of environment-harming chemicals, if they weren’t locally grown and made, then they were transported to market over long distances—sometimes from different continents—with hydrocarbon fuels, and often with eco-damaging refrigerants to preserve freshness, as well. So even “all natural,” “organic,” and most other buzzwords are no guarantee that the product you’re buying is not tainted by environmentally unfriendly practices. (Although the jury is still out on this too: one study says that because locally grown products are brought to market so inefficiently, it’s actually more damaging to the environment than buying non-organic foods shipped in larger quantities. Here’s a Wikipedia article that contains links to many of these issues in more depth.)
Also, buying products in a co-op, natural foods store, or even a farmer’s market, is no guarantee of being eco-friendly. All of these outlets are chock full of products grown or manufactured traditionally and containing pesticides, herbicides, harmful chemicals, and whatever else you want to avoid, unless specifically stating otherwise. Here’s a great article about “natural” beauty products and “natural” food stores that you might find interesting.
All of this is to say that 1) the product-to-market chain and 2) product labeling are both phenomenally, staggeringly complex issues, and unless you are committed to and vigilant about understanding them, then environmental concern, as well as most other claims about conscientious consumption, is largely about your own self-image.
The issue that really brought this to a head for me was hybrid cars. Since gas skyrocketed last spring, I’ve seen a substantial increase in the number of new Priuses on the road. This is one of the most ridiculous hypocrisies of all, because it’s a really, really expensive one.
There are two rational reasons a person would buy a hybrid car: to save money on gas, or to be environmentally conscious. If you’ve gone out and bought a new hybrid vehicle, you’ve missed the mark on both counts.
If you bought the car for economical reasons, you’ve just spent somewhere between twenty and thirty thousand dollars to save about fifty dollars a week on gas. If you do the math, and are honest about the total cost per mile of the new car (including cost of purchase, gas, oil, maintenance, insurance, wear and tear, and depreciation), then it becomes immediately obvious that it’s much cheaper and much more practical to buy a used just-about-anything than a new hybrid, and cheaper still to just keep the car you now have if it’s paid for, even if it’s a gas guzzler.
If you bought the car for environmental reasons, then you aren’t considering all the factors, either. The energy consumption required to put a car out into the world is immense. The raw materials alone include the manufacture and shipping of steel, plastic, rubber, glass, and paper. Then there’s the energy consumption used in the manufacturing itself (huge!). Then there’s designing, engineering, marketing and advertising. Then there’s shipping the car to markets all over the planet. I can’t find any statistics on this, but it seems like common sense that buying a new car, of any make, contributes to this huge amount of energy consumption, while buying a used car, of any make, does not.
What this means is, if you’ve rushed out to buy a new hybrid car without considering all the relevant factors, it’s more likely that it was about your self-image (I care about the environment! I’m driving a hybrid! or worse, I’m going to save money!), or about wanting a new car and rationalizing buying one, or some combination of both, than it was about saving money or saving the planet. The Prius is the new Corvette; hybrids are now fashionable, and who doesn’t want to be fashionable? And there’s nothing wrong with this, as long as you’re honest with yourself about what you’re doing. A hybrid is the best choice out there for anyone who wants to see himself as an environmentally conscious person. But without the aforementioned vigilance about an issue as layered and complex (and political) as the environment, that’s about all it is.
On the other hand, if you went out and bought a used hybrid, and did so because you needed a car, then yay!! for you: you deserve the good environmental citizen award.
You may think me a hypocrite for giving up on vegetarianism because I found it impossible to be true to the practice; you may say making the effort at all is better than not making the effort, regardless of the issue. But I didn’t give up on vegetarianism. I gave up on labeling myself a vegetarian when I knew it wasn’t, and could never be, the whole truth. And I agree that some effort is better than no effort at all. I’m not talking about giving up on the effort; I’m talking about being honest with yourself about the sincerity of that effort.
I object to people deluding themselves into believing they’re making an effort when they really just want to see themselves, and to be seen by others, as making an effort. There’s a big difference. If it’s about making the effort, then you won’t have a problem admitting where you’ve fallen short and have a few things to learn. You will practice skepticism and dig below the marketing fluff for hard facts and true understanding. You will be willing to make some painful sacrifices; it’s not possible to be environmentally conscious without doing so. And you will avoid giving yourself hard and fast labels. But if it’s about your self-image, then you probably resent having this pointed out because it interferes with how you want to see yourself, and might require you to confront both your desire to be fashionable and your lack of any authentic sense of responsibility about the environment.
Is it okay to be fashionably green because “well, at least it’s a start”? Because some effort is better than none? Yes and no. I’m not sure a thing counts if it isn’t motivated by a person’s values, because when something new captures pop culture’s fancy, being green will just fall by the wayside like old technology and the Independent Party, at least until we’re coerced by law to comply (which also doesn’t count, but hey, at least it gets the job done).
I guess it’s the difference between critical thought and dogmatism. Dogmatism, in this case, about blindly believing in marketing phrases, fashionable trends, and inaccurate self-images with little interest in deeper understanding. If you fall into this category, shame on you, because willful lack of critical thinking does the planet way more harm than good whatever the topic. The most important resource we have is 100% renewable, infinitely reusable, and capable of solving any problem we can possibly conjure up: our ability to think.
Let’s not squander it.