A couple of weeks ago I devoured “We are the the weather”, the latest book written by Jonathan Safran Foer. It is the most brilliant, honest, hopeful and at the same time frightening book about climate change and our contributing role as humans that I have read this year. Not because of the facts he presents, but mainly because of the thought that I can’t get out of my head after I finished the last page.
The thought that I might be… a climate hypocrite.
Behaving like a climate denier
“It feels obvious to me that I am not a climate change denier, but it is undeniable that I behave like one,” Safran Foer confesses in one of the first chapters of the book.
Take a moment to let those words sink in.
In the discussion about climate change, we often look at that little group of climate change deniers, at those who deny that climate change is taking place. I consciously say little group, because there are not that many, if you put it in perspective.
There are now more people in the US who believe in Bigfoot than there are people who deny climate change.
So no, that group of climate change deniers is not that big. Yet we pay attention to those people: we try to convince “them” to join “us”. While instead we should take a good hard look in the mirror. Because although there is a good chance that the mirror image that is staring back is not a climate denier, it is much more likely that the person you are looking at does behave like one.
Being versus behaving
Being a climate change denier is different from behaving like a climate change denier. I regularly have the feeling of belonging to the latter group. I am not a climate change denier, not at all, but I do behave that way because:
- I know that flying is extremely bad for the environment – in fact: it kills all my other “good deeds” to stay within the ecological limits of the planet – and yet again I got on the plane to spend time with my in-laws and friends on the other side of the world.
- I am aware of the fact that the clothing industry is the second most polluting industry in the world and yet this year I bought a new pair of jeans, a pair of sneakers and flip flops.
- I have knowledge about the huge ecological footprint of cheese (not to mention animal welfare) and yet I grated Parmesan over my pasta yesterday.
If I know all this, why am I doing it anyway?
I am not a climate denier, so doesn’t this behavior convert me into something much worse? Into someone who knows that climate change is real, who has the information to make choices at an individual level to exert influence on it and then deliberately chooses not to.
In other words: does this make me a climate hypocrite?
I notice that I often try to come up with justifications. I am looking for argumentation to rationalize the actions that I take, knowing that they are bad for the climate. I do that through a counter-action, by comparing myself with people who are doing even worse than me or by presenting arguments that justify my actions:
- I board the plane, but I offset my CO2 emissions by planting bamboo in Uganda (or it’s done for me by the awesome The Social Reporter, who planted trees for me as a “thank you” for making her new website!). Moreover, I fly because otherwise I cannot see my in-laws or friends, so then it is ‘allowed’, right?
- I have bought a new pair of jeans, a pair of sneakers and a pair of flip flops, but that was only after I hadn’t bought anything since January 1, 2018 and because I really had to replace all the items. And I am sure that I will not buy anything until the end of this year and probably nothing next year either. So in 3 years will only add three new items to my wardrobe. Compared to a Dutch person – who buys an average of 46 items per year – this is 135 items less. So, I am doing a good thing, right?
- I sprinkled cheese on my pasta, but hello … I have already stopped eating yogurt in the morning, never again eat animal products on my sandwich for lunch and I eat less than a kilo of meat per month. In the Netherlands, average meat consumption is still around 77 kilos per person per year. So, I am doing a good thing, right?
Maybe you now think: yes, but Nati, that is true! You are doing a good thing. You should not be so strict with yourself. And ok, you may be right about that, but do you really think that “the climate” feels the same way?
Do you really think that a river that floods, or completely dries out, thinks “Oh no, wait a minute, I just have to keep flowing like I always did, because there is a blonde chick somewhere there who has good intentions “.
Or that a devastating forest fire will first have some sort of internal conversation: “Come on, can I really do this, burning down so many hectares of trees and plants? She only bought 1 pair of jeans this year. Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt.”
Let’s face it: The climate does not give a f * ck about my good intentions. The only person who probably cares about that is me. Why? Because … it feels so good.
Feeling good versus doing good
Safran Foer describes an important difference in his book: the difference between feeling good and doing good. He cites an example where he immediately jumps in the car and drives non-stop for 16 hours to be with his family when a hurricane is on course to hit his hometown. His children are happy that he is there for them at such a scary moment and his mother calls him with praising words about how wonderful he is as a father. Safran Foer therefore feels good. But something also gnaws at him… He may feel good, but what does he actually do? Neither the 16-hour drive, nor the hugs of his children, nor the applause of his mother reduces the risk that these severe weather conditions occur more often. He wonders out loud what he is actually doing to prevent that.
Last year I was on holiday with my family in Portugal (yes, by plane, but well, in Europe, there are also people who… wop, there I go again…). During World Cleanup Day, I plowed through the sand for 45 minutes on the beach with my mother and husband to pick up litter. Afterwards we went for a lovely lunch, we raised our glasses to celebrate our good deed and, while the sweat was still gushing from our foreheads, man, did we feel good about ourselves. That we had participated in World Cleanup Day, eventhough we were on holiday. But does the fact that we took a plane from Rotterdam to Faro with a family of 7 people not completely offset that? Would it not have been better for us to stay at home, save a huge amount of CO2 emissions and other pollution and then accept the fact that some ice wrappers and bottle caps were still laying around on the Portuguese beach?
Doing something is better than doing nothing
I can almost hear you say it. And myself too. “But Nati, at least you do something. Isn’t that better than nothing?” Is that so? If I were to get seriously ill and my doctor would send me home with a paracetamol, would I also think “Well, but at least he is doing something? Isn’t that better than nothing?” Or would I like him to do everything in his power to give me the best treatment, so that I would have the best chance of getting better?
Yes, something is better than nothing, but the danger is that, because we feel so good about that “something,” we are not really taking the action that is necessary. We are not really doing something. Of course I cannot dismantle the fossil fuel industry on my own, or stop the bio-industry. Of course, world leaders must take action. But it is and-and, not or-or. Blaming “the system” is too easy, as it relieves me of any responsibility.
I think it’s time that I take a critical look in the mirror and ask myself who’s staring back: someone who really does something good, or a climate hypocrite who feels good.