I had two children, a mild snowstorm and a need for bread. When the woman in the bakery said, “Do you have your own bag?” I heeded the subtext (“Or would you prefer plastic, thus leaving the polar bears floating toward extinction on those highball-cube-sized icebergs?”) and rooted around for the MIA grey-nylon sack I try to keep in my purse. The smaller child began to ramp up from a slow murmur to a high-pitched Guantanamo-detainee wail.
Minutes later, walking through the snow, we ran into an acquaintance who is an environmental lawyer. She carried a backpack and several cloth bags overflowing with the leafy stalks of root vegetables and maternal love. Her children trailed in an orderly duck line behind her. One of mine was licking dirty snow off a bicycle rack, the other wailing through a wall of snot and tears. As we exchanged hellos, the lawyer glanced at my bag, then my children, then back to the bag, and there it was: A sour look of disgust flashed across her face.
I instantly recognized this particular hairy eyeball. It’s rolled over me before. Behold the look of enviro-superiority, a plague upon a worthy social movement and a new variation on the age-old art of woman-on-woman contempt.
Before anyone throws a Croc at me, I should say that I am not some oil-industry denier who thinks global warming is a conspiracy between all those woodland creatures and the “so-called scientists.” I am well aware that our collective go-go industrial-materialist party lifestyle has left some major dents in Mother Earth. Yes, we need to tread lightly and recognize the connection between the polar bears’ diminishing homes and our insatiable need for more. Yes, we need to fix it. My actions ballasting these beliefs are small – probably too small – but they’re there: biking and walking over driving; trying to shop local; no meat; ballot-box support for big-picture policies, etc.
But am I an environmentalist? Well, let’s just say I might not want to hang at that party. I fear the other guests. In one corner might be the neighbourhood mother who fiercely told me to potty train my six-month-old by staring at her 24 hours a day until I could decipher which facial expressions would precede her “eliminations.” Why would I, who enjoys a full life, do that, I asked? Neighbour went red with rage. “Because of the environment! The diapers! The landfill!” Then there’s the former colleague who helpfully reminded me to consider my “carbon footprint” when I mentioned I was going to fly from Vancouver to Toronto to visit my sick mother. Or perhaps the woman whose birthday invitation to my young son read: “No wrapping paper and sustainable gifts only. And please: Take public transit.” Par-tay! Good times!
For the enviro-superiors, the ideal of a healthy, sustainable future planet has no relation to the realities of life as it is on that planet right now. Any movement that doesn’t take into account the vast contradictions of human existence is alienating at best, doomed at worst. The most annoying environmentalists proselytize with the same rigid, unyielding self-righteousness that got us here in the first place: Picture the guy straddling his SUV, shouting, “My way or the highway, baby!”
Celebrities have wagged their well-manicured fingers, too, with Sheryl Crow admonishing the public to use one square of toilet paper and Jennifer Aniston announcing that she takes three-minute showers, complete with tooth brushing.
Fuelling my distrust is that environmentalism has become not only a ready-made identity, but also an industry. Every person who has a blog and a compact-fluorescent light bulb signed a book deal last year. I think my dog inked a contract for a column about how he’s trying to eat organic food grown within five blocks of his doghouse.
But the research about the environment is complicated, and decisions about how to live responsibly demand flexibility; what we thought was good yesterday – or didn’t think about at all – is dangerous today. It turns out those fusilli-like CF bulbs that conserve energy also contain mercury. If broken or not properly disposed of, they can release noxious mercury vapour, especially dangerous to children. In January 2007, regulators concluded that California Liquid Fertilizer, a huge company that held a third of the state’s organic market including the ubiquitous Earthbound Farm, had been spiking its fertilizer with ammonium sulphate for as many as seven years. Less dramatic examples of the complications of good intentions: That SIGG bottle requires a special cleaning brush that’s destined for the dump. Those cloth diapers need bleach. Your bike? It’s shipped from China, dude. Bigfoot footprint.
Of course, the fact that environmental awareness is complex isn’t an excuse to give up, but why pretend that saving the planet is as simple as buying Seventh Generation dish soap? I’m not alone in being put off. Marketers are bracing for a “green backlash,” with one research company advising corporations against using the colour green in advertising because “visual clichés do not compel interest.” Other companies face accusations of “greenwashing”: overstating pro-environment claims. My favourite: the arms manufacturer BAE Systems’ initiative to make its bullets “lead free” and its fighter jets “fuel efficient.” Thank God; when it comes to destroying the world, I wouldn’t want to destroy the world.
Last year, the Canadian Standards Association and the Competition Bureau of Canada set out guidelines asking companies to inform consumers of the specific environmental advantages of their products, rather than making vague claims to being “eco-friendly.” But the guidelines are voluntary, and the public remains suspicious. An Ipsos Reid poll found that 64 percent of surveyed Canadians believe “green” claims are insincere marketing tactics. Interestingly, women are less suspicious than men, and more likely to buy green.
This makes sense: Not only do women make most household purchases, we are – massive generalization ahead – the nesters, and we want safe, non-toxic feathers, and rightfully so. But when I think of the most strident enviro-moms, part of their hectoring seems well intentioned and primal – all parents want to better the world for their kids – and part of it seems mean girl. Leora Tanenbaum, in a book called Catfight, writes about the covert competition among women, bred to backstab and undermine rather than fight out our differences in public. Environmentalism seems to have become another way of inflicting bad-mom status on women who are trying their best. I admit that I, too, have cast enviro-judgment, most recently on a mother in an idling Jeep outside my kid’s daycare. Yet I have a feeling dads aren’t chastising other dads for using plastic instead of glass in their kids’ lunch boxes.
The atmosphere of judgment is only going to get more poisonous as the economy free-falls. A market-research firm, Mintel, reported that organic-food sales are set to take a hit in 2009 around the globe as consumers leave “premium” organic products on the shelf and money in their wallets. What do we do when the survival of our budgets is faced off against the survival of our planet? I’m afraid I know the answer: We face off against each other, yet again.