Wow! Did I ever infuriate my liberal friends when I said I would vote for Ralph Nader! [See Won’t You Be My Nader?.]

They’ve been hammering me with earnest lectures about how every vote for Nader will help get Bush elected, and how an elected Bush will devastate the environment, enrich the rich, hand the country to the oil companies, appoint Supreme Court justices who will send us back to the dark ages. As if I didn’t know. Liberals, bless their well-meaning hearts, can be a bit tedious.

This week I heard the same argument from Vermont’s governor, Howard Dean (D), an excellent administrator and adroit politician, slightly to the left of Al Gore. Stick with me this year, he pleaded. I have a rival on the far right and a rival on the left who will say everything you want to hear. If you vote for what you really want, you’ll end up with what you don’t want at all. Sometimes, he said, the perfect is the enemy of the good.

It’s an argument of impeccable logic, and I usually go for logic. But something in me worries that the good can also be the enemy of the perfect.

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The Kyoto accord, hammered out with the help of mildly good Al Gore (and which the far-righters in our Senate refuse to ratify), is the first international step in the direction of stabilizing the crazed climate. We should ratify it and celebrate it, of course. But only in full recognition that it is far too weak to stabilize the climate. If it were implemented, things would get worse at a slower rate. We need to do much better than that.

In the same vein, our government’s revised regulation for organic labeling is mildly good. It begins to correct the most glaring faults of the first draft, which would have allowed genetically engineered foods, irradiated foods, and crops grown with sewage sludge to be called organic. A huge citizen outcry, beyond anything the Department of Agriculture had ever seen, made it clear that whatever “organic” means, it shouldn’t mean that.

The new draft allows genetic engineering, irradiation, and sludge only by exception, leaving small loopholes that seem destined to become big ones. It permits animal factories, as long as the feed is organic and doesn’t contain hormones or antibiotics. It makes the certification process so complex and expensive that only large producers will bother with it. If you wanted to write a regulation that would help large growers push small ones out of the organic market, you could hardly do better than this one.

It will, however, encourage farms and agribusinesses to stop using toxic chemicals. That’s good. Maybe even worth sacrificing the word “organic,” which will now simply mean “chemical-free.” Mildly good agriculture. Those who practice farming that also builds soil, honors wildlife, keeps farms small so they can be actively nurtured, sells local and fresh, does not draw down groundwater, treats animals lovingly, treats workers as if they were not animals, and builds community — well, those folks are going to have to come up with another word.

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I don’t want to complain about small steps in the right direction. I welcome them. I recognize that they’re the only way to get anywhere worth getting. What I’m trying to kick at, I guess, is the tendency of those who are comfortable in the middle of the perfection spectrum to settle there — and to muddle the words we use to distinguish mediocrity from anything better.

Let’s at least keep the words clear. In agriculture we go from “industrial” (huge, cruel, polluting hog and chicken and beef factories) to “conventional” (large, chemical-soaked farms) to — well, there’s no word for the folks who follow many environmental practices and therefore need to use fewer chemicals. “Integrated pest management” is as close as we have come to labeling that mildly good middle. Next in the direction of virtue comes “organic” as now defined by the USDA. I suggest “ecological” for farms that work really hard to follow the rules of the planet and “sustainable” for farms that actually obey those rules and that also practice the highest morality in their treatment of workers, neighbors, and customers.

In politics, we need labels to distinguish the purposefully destructive (Jesse Helms, for instance) from the ignorant blunderers (George W.), the dawningly aware, the gesturers in the right direction (Al Gore), those in steady good motion (the present governor of Vermont), those who push hard, and those who are unrelenting in their dedication to a world that works for everyone (Ralph Nader).

In the arena of companies and products, we distinguish black (sports utility vehicles), brown (sports utility vehicles that get higher mileage), beige (current compact cars), faintly green (the new gas-electric hybrids), jade (hydrogen-powered cars), spring green (hydrogen-powered buses and trains), deep forest green (bicycles). Most of the products in “green” catalogs are actually somewhere on the beige border, and most of the companies who proudly call themselves “sustainable” are struggling to move from brown to beige. Good for them. They’re going in the right direction. But they have a long way to go.

How do we appreciate the good without letting it be the enemy of the perfect? How do we keep a step in the right direction from becoming a stopping point? How do we get beyond shades of insipid light green?

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