Not Evangelism

Friday, November 12, 2010

Environmentalism is green, not black and white (or: the environmental chief executive)

Environmentalism is, to coin a phrase, a broad church. Which, if we remove the religious overtones, is to say that environmentalism is a term that we can all interpret in a way that's personal and meaningful to us individually without compromising its meaning or purpose. In order words, we can live environmentalism in the way that works for us.

Philanthropy is a kind of environmentalism

Just the other day, I was talking to a friend that is chairman of a very successful business, someone I would describe as a philanthropist; he is passionate about businesses working to positively affect the communities they exist in. He gives a lot of his time, money and effort to causes that he considers important, and that affect those they touch in a positive manner. It's been a constant throughout his working life, certainly for all the time I've known him. To my mind, his attitude and approach are representative of a kind of social environmentalism.

During our conversation, I mentioned the reaction I often get when I express any kind of environmental interests; it usually starts with a question something like this: how can you say you're an environmentalist when you [insert some choice here]?.

He said that he experienced a similar thing: he is often invited to speak about corporate-social responsibility and during his talk, quite often someone in the audience will ask him how he can be committed to that cause when he drives a big car.

It's true, he does drive an expensive, luxurious car. A very fine car, if you like that sort of thing, with a large engine. An extravagant - to some unnecessary - car.
Sidenote: I could so easily go off on a tangent here about how and why luxury cars have to have large engines. Why aren't there luxurious executive small cars? Seems like a niche in the market to me.
My friend told me that his response to the challenge is always to say that the world is not black and white; not full of absolutes, but of degrees. A person and their ethics are not absolutely one thing or another; they are a happy combination of shades of grey (or green).  He knows what big cars can mean, and he has actively chosen to express himself in this particular area. Having thought about it at some length, he has understood his reasons, and he is comfortable with them.

If that sounds anything like my definition of pragmatic environmentalism, it won't surprise you to know that I completely understand and respect his choices, and the informed, active decision-making involved.

Environmentalism is not black and white

My friend doesn't bother to attempt to justify his decisions, or become defensive about them - he doesn't need to. He has considered his choices and balanced them against his actions to find the definition of social responsibility, of environmentalism, that works for him. He doesn't waste time defending himself. Instead, he gets on with doing what he is passionate about: the things that drive him, and have driven him for years, that make a difference to people. The passion is enough. The knowledge that his actions and choices make a difference is enough. The number of lives he has affected, the good he does is not - will never be - outweighed by the car he chooses to drive.

Our conversation reminded me of the article I wrote recently about shades of green, about the idea that we don't live in a conveniently black-and-white world. We live in a grander, far more subtle, far richer world of shades. Our choices and actions exist in a continuum. When we consider where we exist on the continuum, and are active about our decision making, conscious about our choices, we become free to do the thing we believe in with passion, without distraction for justification.

To be successful environmentalists, we need to be considered about our environmentalism; we must understand our decisions, why we choose to do the things we do, and the boundaries and limits of our decisions. To do so only makes us more effective, not distracted by constant justification and rationalisation. That way we can spend more of our time and effort making a difference rather than wasting them explaining ourselves and our choices.

An informed set of choices; a set of reasoned, well-considered personal ethics. That's what environmentalism means to me. What does it mean to you?

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