A reader sent along a link to this George Monbiot piece with the somewhat accusatory question:

In a recent column, George Monbiot excoriates environmental superstars for not walking the talk. So what about the Grist luminaries? How do you live in reality?

One often sees this sort of thing, and … well, I wish one wouldn’t.

At least once a week we get a letter from some fruitcake saying: "You [or some celebrity or writer] can’t support [some environmental change or policy] until you give up your car, grow your own food, and live by candlelight." Otherwise — gasp — hypocrisy!

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations DOUBLED!

This is, in fact, a favorite right-wing talking point on the environment — it’s all part of the modern-day conservative attempt to reduce everything to "personal responsibility," thereby freeing the centers of financial and political power from any structural restraints. When well-meaning greens echo the line, they do themselves a disservice.

Let me be clear: Of course there’s nothing wrong with living an environmentally exemplary life. It would be better to live that way than to not. It would be better to devote oneself to charity, too, or go to Africa and work on poverty relief. For any given individual, he or she could be living a more virtuous life.

But that’s more or less a distraction.

If we must wait on humankind to collectively become virtuous — or, ahem, "evolve spiritually" — we are screwed-with-a-capital-S. True virtue will always reside in a minority. Most people will continue to live normal lives, concerned with their immediate surroundings and largely ignoring far-off or long-term effects.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Ironically, this is the real point of Monbiot’s piece, which I’m not sure the reader quite understood. Monbiot says:

“Consumer democracy”, “voluntary simplicity” and “mindful living” have proved to be a disastrous distraction from the political battle. They don’t work for all sorts of reasons, but above all because of the staggering hypocrisy of well-meaning people. If we want to change the world, we must force governments to force us to change our behaviour.

My only quibble with Monbiot — and it’s fairly substantial — is that I wouldn’t put the focus exclusively on government action. I would say, more broadly, that we must push for structural change. That involves changes in laws and regulations, yes, but also changes in popular and business culture, as well as changes in physical infrastructure — the places we live, how we transport ourselves, the way we generate energy, how we manufacture the material items we use every day. (The latter are more the calling of entrepreneurs and inventors than government regulators.)

People’s lives and habits are primarily determined by their milieu. Free will exists, but it is not ex nihilo — it operates within fairly narrow bounds, in the context of a much larger determinism arising from material and social circumstances. To make lasting change, we must alter those circumstances.

Whether I, or you, or any particular person lives a life of environmental virtue is all-but-irrelevant to the larger environmental effort. The goal is creating a human society where a life of environmental virtue is de facto, something individuals live without thinking twice about it, because their material and social circumstances channel them in that direction.

We’re in a political fight, not a contest of individual virtue.