I know this is going to come as a shock to you all, but someone needs to speak the truth. It seems that environmentalists have a bit of a reputation for being holier-than-thou — even, dare I say it, evangelistic. In our zeal to save the planet, we both scare and bore our fellow citizens, who see us as righteous beyond reason.
This is bad form, and bad politics. So let’s try something new: Let’s share our humanity. Perhaps we can endear ourselves to the congregation by admitting our eco-sins — moral slip-ups like, oh, failing to recycle a crusty ketchup bottle, double-flushing the potty, or ripping up the backcountry in a Chevy Tahoe. To be sporting, I’ll go first.
Ahem. I admit to taking long, hot showers when it’s cold outside. These showers can be so long that my fingers prune, and my husband knocks at the door to see if I’m OK. (Of course, he doesn’t really want to know if I’m OK. He wants to know why I’m wasting the contents of our hot-water tank, not to mention the gas to heat it!) And I also admit that I’m frustrated that there are apparently two types of recycled toilet paper: gossamer and 100-grit. This is why I sometimes sneak the good stuff — the squeezable, quilted, temperate-rainforest-on-a-roll kind — into the house.
See? That wasn’t so hard. And now I am practically limp with catharsis. In my eagerness to share the light, I asked a few other greens to take a break from saving the world and confess their sins, both mortal and venial. Here’s what they had to say.
“Despite a long career preaching against excess consumption, there is no getting around the fact that I have seven pairs of cross-country skis in the basement, none of them purchased at garage sales,” confesses Bill McKibben, noted environmental author and Grist board member, by email. “I have skate race skis and classic race skis, skate ‘rock’ skis and classic ‘rock’ skis, backcountry skis, a pair of waxless race skis, and my lovely old deep-in-the-woods skis. I am ridiculously attached to all of them, despite the fact that they are mere material objects … I also have many types of expensive ski wax, the most insane of which contain highly toxic fluorine for extra glide, and you’re supposed to wear a respirator when you put them on. So I guess I’ve got my own little Superfund site, too.”
“I feel guilty about everything,” admits Lily Fessenden of the Audubon Expedition Institute. Fessenden — who, as long as I’m on a roll, I should disclose is kinfolk to me by marriage — not only incurs self-wrath by using lots of jet fuel for business travel, but even by buying fresh flowers: “They’re cultivated in sweatshops in developing countries, and not grown in a sustainable way.”
Duane Peterson, the chief of stuff (really, that’s his title) for TrueMajority, burns jet fuel too, and not just for work. “The truth is, I am convinced we will run out of oil, probably in my kids’ lifetime, which means they won’t be able to travel the planet,” he says. So while they still can, the family is “cruising this, my favorite planet by far.”
Andrea Otanez, managing editor of Grist, takes sinful pleasure in paper products. “A lover of words all my life, I’m a sucker for notepads, note cards, notebooks, index cards — anything to jot my thoughts, favorite quotes, or books to read,” she reports. “Paper makes me feel secure and ready.”
Kevin Anderson, coordinator for the Center for Environmental Research at the Austin Water Utility’s Hornsby Bend Biosolids Management Plant, sins in his mind the way Jimmy Carter lusted in his heart. As a restoration ecologist who turns Austin’s excrement into compost, Anderson knows there are complex ecosystems below the ground. Yet he admits to the sin of — brace yourself — enjoying the sights and smells of a farmer’s field in springtime. “I pass a freshly plowed field and there’s a little flash of delight,” he says, despite knowing that “the smell of that earth is the smell of an ecosystem ripped apart.” (Hmm. And for you, my child, a penance of five fair-trade chocolate bars should suffice.)
Some sins are bigger than others, and perhaps more understandable. “The night we invaded Iraq, we were invaded by army cutworms in our own home,” says Terry Tempest Williams, whose Utah dwelling writhed with so many of these caterpillars that you could slip on them “like ball bearings.” For a while, the big-hearted author swept them up with a broom and dustpan and scattered them into the desert. But after three weeks of wearing headlamps at night so as not to attract more cutworms, she and her husband had had enough. They bought a heavy-duty vacuum, sucked up the worms by the thousands, and took them to the dump. The guilt still lingers. “When we were buying the Shop-Vac, that was a dark moment,” she says.
Because they endure a hovering guilt about their impacts on the earth, greens often wonder what they can do, short of exiling themselves to a Jainist temple, to make temporal reparations for their transgressions. I, for instance, recently jetted to a warm destination for vacation, but assuaged my guilt by going to a so-called eco-resort where I took short, refreshing showers. (I realize this is like ordering a brownie and a diet Coke, but work with me here.)
Fessenden finds herself in a constant state of mental bargaining for the choices she makes. “I buy shampoo in a bar so I can buy vitamins in a plastic bottle,” she says. McKibben assured me that his skinny-ski habit is not in vain: he skied 115 mornings this year. Otanez buys recycled notebooks, and even switched jobs from a daily newspaper to this paper-free rag. The penance for Williams? For the rest of her days, she must wear holey (no, not holy) sweaters; the cutworms that evaded the vacuum turned into cloth-eating moths.
OK, now it’s your turn. Whether or not you feel shame, bear in mind that confessing serves a good cause. Only by admitting our weaknesses can we show the rest of the world that we are all struggling, ultimately more alike than different. So go on, lay your hypocrisy cards on the table. Just move the roast beef out of the way first.