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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The Flying Taboo and Carbon Reductionism

I’m about to go where few environmentalists and sustainability-types dare to tread – in defence of flying.

Wait! Wait! Hear me out.

I am not an apologist for the airline industry – we should be traveling mindfully, and flying only when there is no other way.

cover of Frank Sinatra's single 'Come Fly With Me'

Image credit

I’ve worked in the green/environmental movement for twenty years, I’m aware of the energy and resource impacts of flying, and I still see travel as one of life’s great pleasures, one of the most effective consciousness-builders and barrier-breaker-downers.

The issue of flight is a vexed, emotive question among even the greenest, who grapple with various deeply felt desires (even if they don’t admit it), especially if they’re in a discussion where the subtext is a game of environmental credibility one-upmanship. There is the feeling that any admission of just having flown, or being about to fly, now has to be accompanied by a justification or explanation.

Very few people working in environment and sustainability have renounced flying completely. Arguably those who have may have hamstrung their message and work with their admirable commitment to walk their talk. There is no getting away from the fact that there is a contradiction inherent in people who are espousing climate change mitigation to be flying around the globe. Yet if Al Gore had decided not to travel anywhere or use a computer, or make a movie, climate change may not have made it into the consciousness of people beyond the environment movement so quickly and effectively.

I once asked Mathis Wackernagel, co-creator of the Ecological Footprint concept, how he reconciled his work with his own footprint, particularly the carbon footprint associated with all the flying his work requires of him. My point to him was that surely part of his Footprint is justifiable because its being incurred for the ultimate benefit of us all? His response was no – the planet did not differentiate between flying by a Footprint messenger and flying by, say, a football player or a supermodel. And he would have to live with this situation and work out how he could best compensate for it. It was the answer I hoped he’d give, but I still believe there is a difference in the purposes for which C02 emissions are generated.

With genuine respect for others and their decisions and commitments around the issue of carbon and travel, I’d like to offer a view on behalf of people who need or want to travel, and especially those who can’t reasonably travel beyond their own country without flying.

While it is all very well for Europeans to talk about how they have given up flying, they can still get around by car and train to a multitude of different countries. Given my mob live on an island, there’s not really much other choice for us unless we are never to leave our country. Travel will once again be the domain only of the super-privileged who get more than four weeks’ leave a year to be able to afford the time to go somewhere by boat. Even to get to somewhere across my own country, which still lacks a fast train system, would take days by car just in one direction.

Most of us rarely have the time or the money to fly (or certainly to fly long haul, which for Aussies is on average a commitment of $AUD 2,000 and twenty four hours on a plane in both directions just to get there and back), and now there’s a pile of guilt when we do. It irks all the more to hear it from people who already got to do all their travelling before it became a carbon sin.

In 2011 I applied for a fellowship with the intent of studying communications approaches in the UK and was essentially told ‘you’re from Australia, don’t come – don’t fly’. It infuriated me. How about we ask some of our jetsetters to occasionally put the brakes on before the rest of us go into a state of self-denial?

In addition, while we get all uptight about flying, probably because it’s more visible, research by Gartner a few years back showed that the global IT industry* has a similar C02 impact to the aviation industry:

The global information and communications technology (ICT) industry accounts for approximately 2 percent of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, a figure equivalent to aviation…

So…are we all also willing to switch off, shut down, disconnect? I’m betting no – and I’m not.

The good news is there are many other things we could stop doing that are wasteful first before giving up travel for pleasure and connecting with family and friends.

Here are five examples of massively wasteful uses of fossil fuels that we could/should be abandoning if we want to adopt a carbon reductionist approach (by ‘carbon reductionist’ I don’t mean reducing carbon – I mean perceiving and ranking activities according to carbon impact):

5.     ‘Frequent Flyer’ Processing

It is cheaper for prawns (shrimp) caught in Scotland to be sent to Thailand for shelling, and shipped back again for distribution in the UK, because the labour in Thailand is cheaper:

Instead of transporting UK-caught langoustines the relatively short distance from sea to factory to distributor, Britain’s leading seafood supplier will send them on a 13,000-mile round trip to Thailand – in the interests of cost-cutting.

The shellfish will then be repackaged and shipped back to the factory where they began their journey. Eventually, they will be breaded and sold across the UK.

Research by Germany’s Wuppertal Institute cited in Natural Capitalism revealed that a typical container of strawberry yoghurt clocked up over twelve thousand miles of transport in the process of being made, assembled into its pot and delivered to the point of sale.

The prawns and yoghurt are just two examples of a multitude of long and unnecessarily carbon-intensive supply lines.

How can we wag the metaphorical moral finger at someone who finally has the opportunity for the trip of a lifetime when dead crustaceans are clocking up more air miles?

4.     Urban Sprawl

As peak oil (ie. passing the point of access to cheap, easy to reach sources of oil) looms, dispersing places dependent on fossil-fuel transport systems is creating resource traps that will lock us into energy intensive living patterns.

Then there is the truly silly, the even greater nonsense of building new cities that NO ONE lives in:

And you were worried about your light bulbs.

3.     Boomerang Trade

In its 2009 report, the new economics foundation cited the following research into ‘boomerang trade’:

All around us still, are ships, lorries and planes passing in the night, wastefully carrying often identical goods from city to city across the globe and back again to meet ‘consumer demand’.

These are just some of the most recent examples involving the UK. For example, we export 4,400 tonnes of ice cream to Italy, only to re-import 4,200 tonnes. We import 22,000 tonnes of potatoes from Egypt whilst exporting 27,000 tonnes back again. Then there are the 5,000 tonnes of toilet paper heading from the UK to Germany, with over 4,000 tonnes returning, and 10 tonnes of ‘gums and jelly’ sweets going back and forth to Thailand. At the last count, 117 tonnes of ‘sweet biscuits, waffles and wafers, gingerbread and the like’ (to use the category used by trade statisticians), came into the UK, rumbling passed 106 tonnes headed in the opposite direction.

Utter nonsense. Award-winning US author and food activist Michael Pollan also cited examples of wasteful trade:

…we are exporting sugar cookies to Denmark while we import sugar cookies from Denmark: a mind boggling trade that one economist said, when he was told of it, “Wouldn’t it be more efficient to swap recipes?”

Boomerang trade is a whack in the back of the head for a would-be traveller trying to work out how to offset their trip by paying for carbon credits.

2.     Fossil Fuel Addiction

What is the carbon cost to GET the energy? To burn squillions of litres of fossil fuel to find, extract, refine, transport oil – not to mention the energy cost of invading countries to gain control of fossil fuel sources.

EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested) anyone?

1.     Wasting Food

Agriculture is the biggest part of our collective Ecological Footprint globally, and when we throw away food, we throw away so much more than the food itself – food waste has massive amounts of embedded energy (and water and nutrient) in it.

Natural Resources Defense Council study showed that Americans throw away nearly half their food, $165 billion annually.

Love Food, Hate Waste calculated that the UK throws away over 7 million tonnes a year, over £12 billion.

Foodwise reports that Australians waste four million tonnes of food a year, almost $8 billion a year in a country of 22 million.

And horrifyingly, a vast amount of food waste occurs even before it reaches the consumer, as Tristram Stuart, author of  Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, reveals in his TED Talk:

Travel at least has benefits for the carbon cost – wasteful consumption and trade do not.

So eschew carbon reductionism and guilt, because unless we cut the abhorrent waste our society produces (everything from food to boomerang trade) which has a far greater carbon impact, we’ll be prioritising waste over enjoyment.

Travel, including to other countries by plane, offers the most wonderful adventures and experiences. Let’s hope someone is inventing a super-turbo-fast submarine-type contraption powered by the energy of the ocean as we speak.

In the meantime, I’d rather ground those frequent-flying shrimps before discouraging anyone wanting to learn more about or enjoy the world, or reconnect with loved ones.

* addendum August 2013: The Cloud Begins With Coal: Big Data, Big Networks, Big Infrastructure and Big Power – An Overview of the Electricity Used by the Global Digital Ecosystem, report by the Digital Power Group, Tech Pundit (sponsored by the National Mining Association and Americans for Clean Coal Electricity), in TIME:

Mills estimates that the (global) ICT system now uses 1,500 terawatt-hours of power per year. That’s about 10% of the world’s total electricity generation or roughly the combined power production of Germany and Japan. It’s the same amount of electricity that was used to light the entire planet in 1985. We already use 50% more energy to move bytes than we do to move planes in global aviation.

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