It is an oft-repeated claim.
A famous environmental campaigner takes a flight, eats meat or drives a car. These are environmentally-damaging activities. They are therefore a hypocrite and can be ignored.
I think everyone is aware of this idea and how commonly it is used to dismiss someone’s opinion on climate and ecological issues. The more famous a person becomes, the more likely this argument is to be used against them. It’s an ad-hominem attack – avoiding the issue in question and focusing instead on the person raising it.
I can see two ways for campaigners to deal with this.
The perfect environmentalist
Which is the problem.
Almost everything we do causes some kind of environmental harm. Maybe the person is a vegan who never flies and only travels on foot or by bicycle. No, they can still be ignored because they wear clothes that were made abroad in dubious conditions. Perhaps only when they live in a house they made out of foraged materials, eat only food they grew themselves and wear clothes woven out of their own hair can they be listened to. But at that point people can label them as an “egotistical virtue signaller” or simply a “weirdo”.
Then they can be ignored.
Recognise the toxic system
A different approach is to recognise that reducing your personal environmental impact to zero is impossible.
Which is exactly the problem.
Most of our everyday activities – travel, food, clothing, work – are intimately linked with fossil fuels. Most of us have to wear certain clothes, travel or use certain services for work or family commitments. Despite some recent improvements, much of modern life is still powered by fossil fuels or involves other environmentally-damaging activities such as deforestation.
Against this backdrop, we cannot live environmentally-responsible lives. Why would we hold people to that impossible standard?
The wrong message
For a long time it seemed the solution promoted by environmentalism was individual action. People must make better choices! Lower their carbon footprint! Stop doing things which emit greenhouse gasses.
Everybody is aware of this message because it was very well publicised by governments, schools, NGOs and corporations.
The trouble is that the message is out of date and misleading.
Even if every individual does their bit it won’t be enough. Time is running out. Bigger changes are needed. There’s no technological miracle about to save us. We have the technology we need. What we lack is political will.
If you listen to recent environmental campaigners, most are not asking for people to lower their carbon footprints. They are not blaming and shaming individuals. Many of them readily admit that they are not angels when it comes to their own impact. Extinction Rebellion co-founder Gail Bradbrook said, about her lifestyle “I’m not perfect and it is difficult trying to juggle everything,”.
If activists were asking individuals to dramatically lower their carbon footprints while making no effort to lower their own, then yes, they would be hypocrites. They might still make some good points, but it would spoil their credibility for most people.
But they’re not asking that.
They’re asking government and corporations to change. Those organisations with the greatest responsibility and the greatest power to address the crisis. Those who could make it easy for citizens to live sustainable lives. Who could make the environmentally-friendly choices the cheapest and easiest choices.
Not only is that fairer on individuals, it is also more likely to solve the problem.
Featured photo by Sergey Kustov.