The Privilege of Being Eco-Friendly

If you tune into any news source these days, you’re bound to find at least some mention of how global climate change has enacted some sort of disaster in one part of the world or another. While climate change and our disregard for the health of our global ecosystem are certainly some of the most immense issues faced by mankind today, at times I feel that we have turned ecologists and environmental researchers into the harbingers of doom. This image is not incorrect – we’re in the midst of building our Tower of Babel – but sometimes I find that in response to this, it is easy to fall into the trap of the FULL PANIC MODE (FPM).

Operating in FPM generally begins with a wrinkled brow at some headline followed by light Googling and once the heart of the concerning news is confirmed, more intensive Googling ensues. Soon enough we’re ordering brand new wardrobes, special water bottles, and trying to gather up all of the undesirable plastic items we own – or at least, some of us are.

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The true danger in FPM is the feeling that not only do we have to drastically change our lives, but that we should be convincing others to do the same. And while spreading the gospel of reduced waste, and sustainability is certainly admirable, with FPM it’s too often the case that we find ourselves wearing blinders. One moment we’re operating on our default mode and the next we’re becoming frustrated not only with our own wasteful choices, but more insidiously, with others’. The key to returning back to a more productive, rational mode is to remind ourselves that the eco-friendly lifestyle is inherently linked with privilege. You cannot begin to worry about anything, let alone the environment, if your basic needs – food, water, clothing, shelter, & safety – are not being met.

It is easy to lecture, but much harder to empathize. One of the keys to being a good Conservationalist however, is the ability to empathize with others who are not necessarily sharing your life experiences. If we take the zero waste movement as an example, one of the tenants is to refuse and reduce things that we do not need. While this sounds easy enough for many people in the world, if you are in a constant battle between making enough money to make ends meet and having just enough to add to your stockpile in case your situation changes, it does not make sense for you to get rid of perfectly good items that you are not using. Privilege comes in when we realize that even if we donated all of our clothes, it would not mean ruination for us to go out and get new ones. They might not be as nice as the ones we gave away, but they are still readily available to us.

With minimalism becoming more and more popular, I have also seen backlash from people whose current situations, or past situations make it difficult for them to just hop on the bandwagon. The KonMari method and Bea Johnson’s tips are unfortunately out of touch with our most disadvantaged demographics. Living in a food desert means that even though you might love to eat healthy and organic food if it was affordable, it is so out of reach for you that it becomes a fantasy.

This is why operating on FPM is what threatens to put you out of touch with an audience you could learn something from. The people in our society who struggle the most are often the first ones to suffer for environmental hardships. Flint, Michigan is a prime example.

So, if we can’t lecture people, even those who we think are making poor environmental choices, what can we do? We can meet people where they are now.

Before you launch into a diatribe about how America’s consumerist, hoarder society is killing the planet, take a moment to consider that perhaps the friend across from you has a hard time getting rid of his or her “clutter” because of previous experiences. Rather than seeing these unused items as unneeded, they’re seen as a valuable stockpile should the owner ever fall on hard times.

When you start making changes towards living a greener life, you will find that more and more people will notice your small eccentricities (“Why do you always take the extra minute to give your email to stores for receipts?” or “Isn’t it a pain to carry around that water bottle all the time?”) and invite you into a dialogue (though not necessarily in the most polite way). This is your time to shine! A skilled Conservationalist will see this as a prime opportunity for education, but rather then spinning your reasons as a lecture, you can sail into All Fact Mode (AFM). Where FPM has you tearing out of the gate breathing fire, AFM is all about letting people know why YOU are making a PERSONAL choice.

At the end of the day, we can’t place individual blame on systemic issues. Environmental issues are not the work of your neighbor or your grandmother, they are the work of all of us over hundreds of years. Most notably the work of large businesses and governments. AFM puts the other person at ease as they see that your eccentricities are personal choices, and though you may have made them for larger reasons, there is no pressure on the other person to feel like they either have to adopt these same choices or be labeled as an Earth Killer. Instead, you might end up influencing a coworker into deciding to stop using plastic water bottles at work, or maybe turn your parents onto the idea of getting their groceries from the farmers market instead of the big box store, but at the very least you won’t have anyone thinking that you’re some kind of privileged jerk who has no concept of the luxury of choice.

You attract more bees with honey than with vinegar.

Best of Luck and Many Bees,

Eileen

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