The Corrosive Effects of Green Puritanism

cover of Hwang Dae-Kwon's book 'A Weed Letter'

One of the greatest things about the sustainability movement is the feeling of collaborating on a shared purpose for the common good, whether it’s engaging in action on climate change or getting involved in your local community garden.

As with any other movement, or group or coalition of groups, there can be friction or difference, which is not surprising. This is what helps test and hone ideas, and forge connection and understanding, within and beyond the movement.

But every now and then, there are things I see or read about that drive me crazy.

During the Economics of Happiness conference in Byron Bay in March this year, I experienced a truly cringe-worthy moment.

One of the invited guest speakers at the event was South Korea’s Hwang Dae-Kwon, an author, farmer and eco-activist.

In 1985, he was arrested by the military government, tortured for sixty days until he confessed to being a spy, and was then placed in solitary confinement for the next 13 years as a political prisoner.

On his release aged 43, he wrote the best-selling A Weed Letter, which described how observing weeds and plants while in jail helped maintain his mental and spiritual health, and awakened an ecological consciousness within him.

Here is his talk ‘Know Your Body for Reconnecting to Nature‘ from The Economics of Happiness conference (17 mins):

In question time after his talk, one audience member came to the microphone and asked Hwang Dae-Kwon that question greenies just LOVE to ask:

How many trees he had planted to compensate for the printing of his book?

Hwang Dae-Kwon smiled and replied that it was a fair point and that he should look at taking steps to redress the ecological footprint of his book.

I just wanted to crawl under my seat in embarrassment.

Intellectually, I understand that books require paper and trees and have an impact, regardless of what is printed on them by whom.

In the context of the speaker and his subject, it seemed a churlish question that diminished the contribution of a man who had survived conditions most of us cannot imagine and yet emerged with valuable learnings to share with others.

This is why people who don’t identify as part of the green movement dislike the green movement.

As people discover more about sustainability, or have been living sustainably for years, they are naturally proud of their efforts. Social norms are an effective way of getting people to adopt sustainable behaviours, as is some level of friendly competition.

But when this pride turns pathological, becoming the new form of ‘green one upmanship’, it is off-putting to people who may only just be developing their awareness or making changes.

‘Mine’s Greener Than Yours’ is just ‘Keeping Up With the Joneses, Mark II’.

Then just recently, Post Growth’s current Indiegogo campaign was featured on the Permaculture News, where one commenter felt the need to point out that it was ‘…a very positive and empowering article, which is completely invalidated by the second to last paragraph where it asks for donations.’

Post Growth has been sustained by a voluntary team for three years, around and in lieu of full time work and study (including myself taking a year’s leave without pay in 2011, using up long service leave to help launch it). It has run international events and initiatives, built alliances with other groups, a social media platform and subscriber list approaching 15,000 in total, and achieved widespread coverage for its work on a budget of next to nothing. Now ready to launch an idea to the world, the crowdfunding campaign seeks to effectively pre-sell copies of the book – which will require thousands of hours of work – in exchange for a pledge (not a donation). And we still have to defend what we’re doing from people who either haven’t thought it through enough, or are just looking for a way to find fault?

Please! Don’t we have enough to direct our energies to with the changes we are all pushing for without having to grapple with this kind of thing undermining our motivation and co-operation?

And the incident that wanted to make me tip the bucket on this kind of behaviour: I was horrified at some of the responses to Transition Towns Founder Rob Hopkins’s decision to fly to the US and help strengthen the Transition movement there (Hopkins had made a public commitment not to fly years ago, after seeing Al Gore’s documentary ‘An Inconvenient Truth’).

In his May 2013 announcement in this post, ‘Why I’m Marking Passing 400ppm By Getting Back on An Aeroplane’, Hopkins said:

I recently watched the film ‘Chasing Ice’, and it had, if anything, a more visceral impact than ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. My resolution at the end of watching it, re-enforced by the recent passing, for the first time, of 400 ppm of C02 in the atmosphere, was that it was time to get back on a plane, and I want to use this post to tell you why.

When I was born, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere was 325.36 ppm. When I watched ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, it was 380.18 parts per million (ppm). On the day Transition Network was formally established we had reached 386.40 ppm. When I sat down to watch ‘Chasing Ice’ it was 395.55 ppm.

In spite of all the efforts of the green movement, Transition initiatives, a slew of international conferences and meaningless agreements, the rise has continued inexorably. I know anecdotally that my giving up flying has inspired quite a few people to do the same, but has it had any impact at all on the rising levels of emissions? Clearly not. But has it been the right thing, thus far, to have done? Absolutely.

Responses on the piece ranged from supportive to disappointed, but also included personal attacks on Hopkins:

  • I think this is a sad day for Transition. As an initiator of a young initiative in the US. I see this as highly unhelpful. The ends never justify the means…Seeing a movement leader cave on a strong and patternable gesture (not flying) will only add to cynicsm and apathy. It’s comparable to seeing Mr. Gore flying about in that movie. “Do as I say, not as I do.”
  • Why should the general public take any notice at all of your green advice, when you can’t even take it yourself?
  • I see no difference between you and Al Gore…lots of drivel about how you want us to live….but when it comes to your own behaviour you can always find a reason why your circumstances are ‘special’ or ‘different’ or earth-saving’
  • How do you spell ‘hypocrite’ in your language?

Hey, here’s a word for you to spell:

sanc·ti·mo·ni·ous – adj. affecting piety or making a display of holiness; making a show of being morally better than others

It is not Rob Hopkins’s business whether someone decides to emulate his decision not to fly and then feels ‘let down’ or somehow betrayed by him changing that. It’s up to each person to make informed decisions that work for them, in their specific family, work and personal circumstances.

As for whether Hopkins’s circumstances are somehow ‘different’ or ‘special’, well actually – THEY ARE.

It was Rob Hopkins, not Joe or Jill Bloggs, who got off his backside, founded the Transition movement and took on the demands of leadership.

It is Rob Hopkins who has the currency of attention he can spend in service of a greater good – and even if he does fly occasionally in order to do that, I doubt we will see him clocking up the frequent flyer points.

As one supportive comment on Hopkins’s piece noted (a view I heartily agree with):

I don’t think “too bad the world fried, but at least I didn’t fly so it wasn’t my fault” is the sort of thing that anybody’s grandchildren would very much want to hear. On the other hand, “look at the wonderful local economies and ecosystems we managed to build, so when we pulled the plug on the global fossil-fuel binge, most people were still OK” is the sort of thing that they would probably respect.

Let’s get it in perspective — for every greeny who agonises over whether to fly or not, there are a thousand people who don’t give it a second thought.

I agree that we need to hold each other to account, and that if you set yourself up as a ‘voice’ on a particular issue, you need to make an effort to live according to the values you espouse.

But I do not agree with holding anyone to a rigid standard that the rest of society is not being held to, because they have dared to speak out. It is ‘disgreenimation’!

Upset about paper consumption? Take on the purveyors of junk mail, not the author of a book on ecological consciousness. Annoyed about people asking for money? Put your energy into getting some accountability out of Wall Street, not a group working to change the structures of business and economics. Ticked off about flying? Take on a celebrity famous for being famous, not the guy who might fly once a year whose work has already sparked so many energy descent movements around the world.

Like most people in industrialised societies, activists too are living in the context of a plethora of existing systems that conspire to work against desired social and environmental objectives.

So let’s leave out the Green Puritanism. It’s the blame game in disguise, it’s corrosive within the movement and it’s repulsive to those who aren’t already engaged.

No less than the head of communications for Greenpeace’s Save the Arctic CampaignJames Turner, made the same call in a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, ‘The Climate Change Guilt Trip’.

Most of us are just doing the best we can, even if we can’t do it all right now.

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How The King of Communicators Inspired Change

Ever wondered how the great orators of history crafted and delivered such memorable speeches that resonated with their audience?

Nancy Duarte of Duarte Design – the company responsible for turning Al Gore’s Powerpoint slides into an Oscar-winning quality story in ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ – has dissected Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech from the 1963 March on Washington D.C., to show how it’s done.

In this fascinating analysis, Duarte extracted each line of Dr King’s speech and organised it according to tense in order to show visually how he moved the audience from ‘what is’ to ‘what could be’, ending with the positive situation the speaker and audience wish to manifest, ‘the new bliss’:

screenshot of Duarte's dissection of King's speech, showing where parts referred to the present, and the future

Don’t worry that you can’t read the words – they’re being used here for a different purpose, to show the structure of the speech.

Duarte then separated out elements of the speech, colour-coded them, and plotted them in accordance with where they were used by Dr King. Here’s a visual overlay of each element:

Repetition (identified in blue), a device to drive a point home, and usually done in threes – here are points in the Dr King’s speech where repetition was used:

screenshot of graphic showing where King's words were repetition

Dr King’s most well-known repetitions from this speech were the words ‘I have a dream…’, but he also used it in other sections of his speech:

But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. 

This paragraph is also rich with metaphor, or visual words.

Metaphors and visual words (identified in pink) were used liberally by Dr King:

screenshot of graphic showing where King's words were metaphorical

Dr King uses the metaphor of a check, and a bank account – one that would be familiar to most people – to speak of justice:

In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check – a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

Cultural references (identified in green), show where Dr King used songs, scripture, literature that were familiar and dear to the audience:

screenshot of graphic showing where King used cultural references

Dr King referenced ‘Free At Last’, a Negro spiritual song in his rousing finish to his delivery:

Let freedom ring. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring—when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics—will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Political references (identified in orange), show where Dr King refers to political events, dates or documents, like the Declaration of Independence:

screenshot of graphic showing where King used political references

At the beginning of his speech, Dr King invokes abolitionist President Abraham Lincoln and echoes Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (which began ‘Four score and seven years ago…’)

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

It is worth nothing that the most powerful and memorable part of Dr King’s speech combined ALL of these elements: repetition, metaphor, cultural and political references:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” (political)

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. (repetition, metaphor)

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. (repetition, metaphor)

I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. (repetition)

I have a dream today. (repetition)

I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor’s lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers. (repetition, metaphor)

I have a dream today. (repetition)

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. (repetition, metaphor, cultural – scripture)

Each of these elements, along with Dr King’s measured delivery and speaking style, combined to create a powerful emotional call to action. Dr King was not appealing to the ‘logical’ part of the brain, but intent on shifting the heart.

As noted in ‘Motivating Sustainable Behaviour’, it is more effective to inspire and involve people, and give them a sense of agency over their situation than it is to rationalise and instruct. Martin Luther King appealed to people with ‘I have a dream’ – not ‘ I have a plan’.

Here is Duarte’s analysis in full (7 mins):

It would be fascinating to see a similar visual analysis of speeches by another great political orator of King’s era, President John F Kennedy.

A cursory glance at JFK’s Inaugural Address from 20 January 1961 shows all of the elements of King’s speech: repetition, metaphor, scripture, political references:

Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us…

Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce. (repetition, metaphor)

Let both sides unite to heed, in all corners of the earth, the command of Isaiah – to “undo the heavy burdens, and [to] let the oppressed go free.” (cultural – scripture)

And, if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion…(metaphor)

And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. (repetition, call to action)

In his address at the American University, 10 June 1963:

“When a man’s way[s] please the Lord,” the Scriptures tell us, “He maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him.” And is not peace, in the last analysis, basically a matter of human rights: the right to live out our lives without fear of devastation; the right to breathe air as nature provided it; the right of future generations to a healthy existence? (repetition, cultural – scripture)

For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal. (metaphor, repetition)

Duarte has also applied this technique to other historical speeches, such as Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and from more recent times, Steve Jobs’s iPhone launch speech. You can learn more about creating messages and storytelling approaches in Duarte’s book, ‘Resonate’.

Yet King’s speech is perhaps the best example – not only is it memorable, it has become a cultural icon that has touched audiences beyond those who were immediately involved in the civil rights struggle, and has continued to be influential beyond the time and cultural context in which it was made.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Address at March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Washington, D.C. (17 mins)

It’s success depended very much on the spirit of the man, but also on the structure and delivery of his most cherished message.

Which other great historical or contemporary speeches would you like to see dissected and analysed? 

How well do you know your audience? What metaphors would you use, and what cultural and political references could you tap into when presenting to them? 

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