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The Corrosive Effects of Green Puritanism

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cover of Hwang Dae-Kwon's book 'A Weed Letter'

One of the greatest things about the sustainability movement is the feeling of collaborating on a shared purpose for the common good, whether it’s engaging in action on climate change or getting involved in your local community garden.

As with any other movement, or group or coalition of groups, there can be friction or difference, which is not surprising. This is what helps test and hone ideas, and forge connection and understanding, within and beyond the movement.

But every now and then, there are things I see or read about that drive me crazy.

During the Economics of Happiness conference in Byron Bay in March this year, I experienced a truly cringe-worthy moment.

One of the invited guest speakers at the event was South Korea’s Hwang Dae-Kwon, an author, farmer and eco-activist.

In 1985, he was arrested by the military government, tortured for sixty days until he confessed to being a spy, and was then placed in solitary confinement for the next 13 years as a political prisoner.

On his release aged 43, he wrote the best-selling A Weed Letter, which described how observing weeds and plants while in jail helped maintain his mental and spiritual health, and awakened an ecological consciousness within him.

Here is his talk ‘Know Your Body for Reconnecting to Nature‘ from The Economics of Happiness conference (17 mins):

In question time after his talk, one audience member came to the microphone and asked Hwang Dae-Kwon that question greenies just LOVE to ask:

How many trees he had planted to compensate for the printing of his book?

Hwang Dae-Kwon smiled and replied that it was a fair point and that he should look at taking steps to redress the ecological footprint of his book.

I just wanted to crawl under my seat in embarrassment.

Intellectually, I understand that books require paper and trees and have an impact, regardless of what is printed on them by whom.

In the context of the speaker and his subject, it seemed a churlish question that diminished the contribution of a man who had survived conditions most of us cannot imagine and yet emerged with valuable learnings to share with others.

This is why people who don’t identify as part of the green movement dislike the green movement.

As people discover more about sustainability, or have been living sustainably for years, they are naturally proud of their efforts. Social norms are an effective way of getting people to adopt sustainable behaviours, as is some level of friendly competition.

But when this pride turns pathological, becoming the new form of ‘green one upmanship’, it is off-putting to people who may only just be developing their awareness or making changes.

‘Mine’s Greener Than Yours’ is just ‘Keeping Up With the Joneses, Mark II’.

Then just recently, Post Growth’s Indiegogo campaign was featured on the Permaculture News, where one commenter felt the need to point out that it was ‘…a very positive and empowering article, which is completely invalidated by the second to last paragraph where it asks for donations.’

Post Growth has been sustained by a voluntary team for three years, around and in lieu of full time work and study (including myself taking a year’s leave without pay in 2011, using up long service leave to help launch it). It has run international events and initiatives, built alliances with other groups, a social media platform and subscriber list approaching 15,000 in total, and achieved widespread coverage for its work on a budget of next to nothing. Now ready to launch an idea to the world, the crowdfunding campaign seeks to effectively pre-sell copies of the book – which will require thousands of hours of work – in exchange for a pledge (not a donation). And we still have to defend what we’re doing from people who either haven’t thought it through enough, or are just looking for a way to find fault?

Please! Don’t we have enough to direct our energies to with the changes we are all pushing for without having to grapple with this kind of thing undermining our motivation and co-operation?

And the incident that wanted to make me tip the bucket on this kind of behaviour: I was horrified at some of the responses to Transition Towns Founder Rob Hopkins’s decision to fly to the US and help strengthen the Transition movement there (Hopkins had made a public commitment not to fly years ago, after seeing Al Gore’s documentary ‘An Inconvenient Truth’).

In his May 2013 announcement in this post, ‘Why I’m Marking Passing 400ppm By Getting Back on An Aeroplane’, Hopkins said:

I recently watched the film ‘Chasing Ice’, and it had, if anything, a more visceral impact than ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. My resolution at the end of watching it, re-enforced by the recent passing, for the first time, of 400 ppm of C02 in the atmosphere, was that it was time to get back on a plane, and I want to use this post to tell you why.

When I was born, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere was 325.36 ppm. When I watched ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, it was 380.18 parts per million (ppm). On the day Transition Network was formally established we had reached 386.40 ppm. When I sat down to watch ‘Chasing Ice’ it was 395.55 ppm.

In spite of all the efforts of the green movement, Transition initiatives, a slew of international conferences and meaningless agreements, the rise has continued inexorably. I know anecdotally that my giving up flying has inspired quite a few people to do the same, but has it had any impact at all on the rising levels of emissions? Clearly not. But has it been the right thing, thus far, to have done? Absolutely.

Responses on the piece ranged from supportive to disappointed, but also included personal attacks on Hopkins:

- I think this is a sad day for Transition. As an initiator of a young initiative in the US. I see this as highly unhelpful. The ends never justify the means…Seeing a movement leader cave on a strong and patternable gesture (not flying) will only add to cynicism and apathy. It’s comparable to seeing Mr. Gore flying about in that movie. “Do as I say, not as I do.”

- Why should the general public take any notice at all of your green advice, when you can’t even take it yourself?

- I see no difference between you and Al Gore…lots of drivel about how you want us to live….but when it comes to your own behaviour you can always find a reason why your circumstances are ‘special’ or ‘different’ or earth-saving’

- How do you spell ‘hypocrite’ in your language?

Hey, here’s a word for you to spell:

sanc·ti·mo·ni·ous - adj. affecting piety or making a display of holiness; making a show of being morally better than others

It is not Rob Hopkins’s business whether someone decides to emulate his decision not to fly and then feels ‘let down’ or somehow betrayed by him changing that. It’s up to each person to make informed decisions that work for them, in their specific family, work and personal circumstances.

As for whether Hopkins’s circumstances are somehow ‘different’ or ‘special’, well actually – THEY ARE.

It was Rob Hopkins, not Joe or Jill Bloggs, who got off his backside, founded the Transition movement and took on the demands of leadership.

It is Rob Hopkins who has the currency of attention he can spend in service of a greater good – and even if he does fly occasionally in order to do that, I doubt we will see him clocking up the frequent flyer points.

As one supportive comment on Hopkins’s piece noted (a view I heartily agree with):

I don’t think “too bad the world fried, but at least I didn’t fly so it wasn’t my fault” is the sort of thing that anybody’s grandchildren would very much want to hear. On the other hand, “look at the wonderful local economies and ecosystems we managed to build, so when we pulled the plug on the global fossil-fuel binge, most people were still OK” is the sort of thing that they would probably respect.

Let’s get it in perspective — for every greeny who agonises over whether to fly or not, there are a thousand people who don’t give it a second thought.

I agree that we need to hold each other to account, and that if you set yourself up as a ‘voice’ on a particular issue, you need to make an effort to live according to the values you espouse.

But I do not agree with holding anyone to a rigid standard that the rest of society is not being held to, because they have dared to speak out. It is ‘disgreenimation’!

Upset about paper consumption? Take on the purveyors of junk mail, not the author of a book on ecological consciousness. Annoyed about people asking for money? Put your energy into getting some accountability out of Wall Street, not a group working to change the structures of business and economics. Ticked off about flying? Take on a celebrity famous for being famous, not the guy who might fly once a year whose work has already sparked so many energy descent movements around the world.

Like most people in industrialised societies, activists too are living in the context of a plethora of existing systems that conspire to work against desired social and environmental objectives.

So let’s leave out the Green Puritanism. It’s the blame game in disguise, it’s corrosive within the movement and it’s repulsive to those who aren’t already engaged.

No less than the head of communications for Greenpeace’s Save the Arctic Campaign, James Turner, made the same call in a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, ‘The Climate Change Guilt Trip’.

Most of us are just doing the best we can, even if we can’t do it all right now.

This post was originally published at Cruxcatalyst: The Heart of Change, a blog maintained by Post Growth Co-Founder Sharon Ede, which supports sustainability change agents to be more effective in their work.

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