Not Evangelism

Friday, November 19, 2010

Environmentalism (still) isn't black and white

My last couple of posts on the subject of what makes an environmentalist have prompted some interesting reactions, especially amongst people who don't believe that environmentalists are allowed to drive large cars (they are). Or that there is somehow some tight, precise definition of environmentalism that doesn't include people that don't meet the criteria (there isn't).

There are two things I'd like to say about this: firstly - and I've said this before - environmentalism is not binary, and secondly there are many different types of environmentalism. I'll deal with the first point this week, and the other point next week.

Here we go.

Environmentalism is not binary

Or, to say it in a slightly less geeky way: environmentalism is a continuum, not an either-or prospect. (Was that less geeky? How about: environmentalism is grey, not black and white.)

How often does a person have to run to be a runner? Is it a one-off prospect, like doing a race once? Does a runner have to run every day? Does being a runner imply deep, life-changing, commitment to running, ordering one's life around running to the exclusion of everything else? Is it something that once-done, never leaves us?

Or is it somewhere in between, somewhere in the greys between the extremes of black and white?

It's not so clear cut, is it? I'd take a stab and say that a runner is someone for whom running is an important, perhaps major, part of their life. But there's a lot of room in that grey, and that's where the question of degree - of shades of grey - comes in. How much of a runner a person is depends on who is defining it. To non-runners, running a marathon - even training for one - seems like a big deal. To professional runners, it probably does not.

Environmentalism, like running, is not black and white. We can't say that someone is an environmentalist because they do one thing, and not another, marking them off against a ludicrous, imaginary checklist. Whether someone is an environmentalist or a runner is a matter of perspective, a question of degree. I'm considered a rabid foaming-at-the-mouth environmentalist by some of my friends and colleagues. And a very light-green just-dipping-my-toe-in-the-water sort by others. And guess what? The same is true for running, or cycling. I cycle more than some - much more. And I cycle less - much, much less - than others.

To say that an environmentalist doesn't - can't - drive large cars is kind of silly.

In one respect, such a statement raises a very interesting point - a point which also reveals the ridiculousness of that kind of statement. It leads to the question of what constitutes a large car; presumably there is some size of engine that it is acceptable to drive and still be considered environmental. But go a single cubic centimetre larger and it's just not compatible with any kind of environmental ethos. All of a person's good works are negated, wiped out, made null and void.

Which notion just doesn't work for me. A cubic centimetre of engine capacity is not a good a measure of environmentalism.

My kind of environmentalism

There's a sort of joke about Al Gore and his film An Inconvenient Truth (which, if you haven't seen, I strongly encourage you to watch. You might not - should not, will not - agree with every point made, but it's food for thought and it may shape your personal decision making and choices). The joke goes something like this: the global warming that Al Gore describes in the film is partly contributed to by all the flying that he's done in the making of the film.

Ho ho.

On the one hand, this is a cheap shot: cheap, easy and obvious. On the other, it's an uncomfortable point: how can one take international long distance flights and still be concerned about matters environmental?

Having read the above, if you haven't got an answer for that, nothing else I write is going to help.

I'm not here to answer for Mr Gore; I can only give my own answers and reasons for my actions; can only try and explain (rather than justify!) my choices. To me, it's about being selective, informed and reasoned. To know why we do these things, make our choices; reasoning through them is neither rationalising them away, nor weakly defending them; it's understanding them, and that's at once less tangible and more powerful.

There's less waste in a reasoned decision than there is in a thoughtless action. And yet to know why we're doing something still doesn't excuse any kind of profligate wastefulness, any more than doing it for a good, informed reason somehow magically removes any impact or consequence of our actions.

Sour green grapes

I guess when people have a go at environmentalists that don't fit their personal model or definition of environmentalism, there's also a kind of high-horse moral concern at work. After all, if a person - especially a public figure - is "guilty" of some kind of transgression (according to the observer), they can't possible tell other people off for doing it. In some kind of twisted reasoning, by not fitting a personal, private definition a public figure somehow permits - sanctions, even - behaviour that doesn't fit that definition. If a person's definition of environmentalist excludes any kind of air travel, yet Al Gore (publicly acknowledged to be an environmentalist) and his film crew can fly around the world, then it becomes okay for everyone to do it.

My flavour of environmentalism doesn't tell other people off for their choices. I've thought long and hard to be satisfied with my decisions; let someone else make their peace with their own mind. I'm certainly not here to think for them.

And let's be honest. Some of this criticism of environmentalists with large, expensive cars is just sour grapes, disguised as a moral crusade. We can do much better than that.

Next time: Shades of green. What type of environmentalist are you?

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