Am I an environmental-warrior, or a hypocrite?

Can we contribute to the “green” cause even if we aren’t perfect?

This is a 1 Million Women guest blog.

Written by Eve White.

If you're doing your best to do something positive in the world, whether by lobbying the government for action on climate change or just expressing support for renewable energy in casual conversation or online, you have undoubtedly had your hypocrisy pointed out to you. "Do you drive a car? Do you use things made of plastic?" were two questions recently levelled at me in response to me going on about the fossil fuel industry. The implication seems to be that until you are perfect, you have no right to try to contribute to making positive change in the world.

I disagree, and here's why:

Personal lifestyle changes are great, but they are are not enough when done alone. Derrick Jensen argues that even if all Americans made all the lifestyle changes suggested by Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth, such as changing lightbulbs, driving half as much and inflating tyres, America's emissions would only fall by 22 per cent. The figure would likely be similar in Australia. This is not nearly enough to avoid catastrophic climate change. But that's not to say that we should give up.

A movement of people making these changes brings awareness to the cause and creates social pressure for businesses and political leaders to follow. Look at the amount of gluten free produce available in supermarkets today. It's there as a direct result of customer demand. We need to apply the same pressure in the climate sphere.

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There are big problems with waiting until one is living an ideologically pure lifestyle before expressing an opinion or taking action. Firstly, where does one draw the line: Do I need to be a vegan who doesn't drive and lives off the grid or is it OK to be an occasional meat eater who minimises car trips? Is it acceptable to just avoid single use plastics where possible, or do I need to rid myself of all plastic products, including phone and computer? Do I need to wait until I'm growing all of my own food in my backyard or can I buy groceries from the farmers market? Madeleine Somerville points out that if one was to make all the lifestyle changes that would be required to avoid ever being labelled a hypocrite, one would have to remove oneself from society, live off the grid without a car, computer or phone, and grow all one's own food. Once effectively isolated from society, how exactly would I go about contributing to any change within society? I may not be causing harm, but neither could I do much good.

Pointing the finger at the individual distracts from the real problem and assigns the blame in the wrong place. We are caught up in a consumer culture that loves convenience; cities in which it is often easier to drive than to take public transport; an economic system that makes it easier and cheaper to buy goods that have been imported rather than made locally and to buy groceries from enormous faceless supermarkets instead of local farmers; and it is easier to say yes to a plastic bag at the supermarket than it is to take your own.

We are brought up in a culture that equates money and material things with happiness and success. Furthermore, our politics, and thus many national decisions that are made on our behalf, are heavily influenced by the involvement of big business, including the fossil fuel industry. It is entirely appropriate to be pointing the finger at the big corporations and government, and to be lobbying them for change with all our might. It is great that so many people are choosing to live more sustainably, but to point the finger at the individual is to misdirect the blame.

Jensen also points out another problem with blaming the individual: in doing so, we are accepting capitalism's definition of us as consumers as opposed to active citizens within society.

To focus exclusively on an individual's lifestyle choices is to choose to ignore the fact that we have more power than just our consumption habits and our vote once every three years.

Every one of us is capable of lobbying for change, protesting, boycotting, expressing our opinion by writing letters, or joining a political party. We can, and should, participate actively in our democracy – and not just by choosing what to buy. If we all simply accept our role as passive consumers, we are tacitly allowing big business to make decisions for us – decisions that are not in our best interest.

Those of us who are trying to contribute to positive change in the world are fully and painfully aware of our hypocrisy – it does not really need pointing out. And on balance I think I will do more good in the world as a hypocrite who is trying to change things than either a cynic who does nothing or an idealist who is afraid to do anything out of fear of being called a hypocrite.

Eve White is full time mum and part time freelance editor with a PhD in ecology. She lives in southern Tasmania with her husband and two young kids and is trying to help more parents get involved with campaigning for climate action with her Facebook group,Australian Parents for Climate Action.

Banner Image: Unsplash

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