Living

Published on December 24th, 2008 | by Justin Van Kleeck

9

Meditation: Hard Choices of Sustainability

Environmentalism and the many other ethically minded “-Isms” (with capital “I”) have many codes of conduct, norms, standards, platforms, principles, mantras, mandates, rallying cries, stump speeches, demands, desires, agendas, and affirmations. Such as…

“Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.”
“Think globally. Act locally.”
“You must be the change you want to see in the world.”
“Do no harm.”

Despite the didactic deluge from the –Isms, actually living in a sustainable, socially conscientious way is far from easy. It is not a matter of memorizing the rules, following the crowd, or going with “the flow.” Life, green or not, is a whole heckuva lot harder than that.

Indeed, the situations in which one must make a hard choice to be sustainable (or most sustainable, or even something resembling sustainable) are infinite, each one with many shades of green and nuances for ethical worrying over. This is especially true during the holiday season, when folks are feeling generous and so looking to give their loved ones some kind of gift–many of which are not very eco-friendly.

Yes, the complexity and reality of reality prohibits any reliable de facto rules. The quandaries we will face are infinite, but here are a few scenarios and larger questions that come to mind when I ponder this realization of mortality:

  • Is it better to buy locally grown produce that is not organic (or chemical free) at the Farmers’ Market or shipped produce that is organic at a chain supermarket?
  • Is it okay to drive to work (whether or not you have a hybrid) if you live within a few miles of the office? Should you walk or bike?
  • If you live on a bus or metro line, is it still okay not to make use of it for most or all travel to places also on public transportation routes?
  • If your colleague lives nearby but keeps a different schedule (by choice or by necessity), are you justified if you do not carpool whenever possible?
  • Are you “exempted” from recycling if the municipality or building where you live does not offer recycling service to you–though there may be recycling facilities at the municipal landfill or other places?
  • Is there any guilt associated with taking an airplane if the reason is to do volunteer work in a developing country? And if you go, should you still feel obligated to do carbon offsetting?
  • If a spouse/partner, family member, or close friend lives in a seriously unsustainable way, should you say something and try to talk/force the person into changing?
  • Should the elderly or ill have be held to the same, or any, standards when it comes to living sustainably? Or do they have more leeway in order to secure health and/or comfort? (Think of the great numbers of such folks who died during heat waves in Europe and even major cities because, often because they were also poor, they did not have air conditioning.)
  • If some important community service building (e.g., hospital, school) is being built in a poor village but environmentally unfriendly materials and/or practices are to be used, should that project be stopped? If not, how far should one go in making it eco-friendly? What compromises can and should be made? Any? None?
  • Should political candidates, business executives, celebrities, and other major cultural figures be put under scrutiny regarding how sustainable their lifestyles are?

Surely many of you have found yourselves in situations like these or that posed the same sort of ethical, environmental dilemmas. I sometimes–okay, frequently–find myself standing frozen in the middle of a store aisle or even at home trying to figure out the greenest choice in some decision. The answers are never very clear, and few if any are without costs and consequences of some sort that I would rather avoid. But still the choices–usually–have to be made….

Ultimately, I believe it boils down to listening to your heart. If you are firmly committed to doing no harm, to helping and supporting all other living beings, then your heart will help you make those choices that seem right for everyone involved–including yourself.

Of course, those internal voices are legion, the red devils and the green angels (or is it the other way around?) will chime in and bicker whenever they get the chance. Yet I believe that deep inside, there is one voice that always speaks, even if it speaks much more quietly than all those talking (shouting) heads in your head.

It speaks…but that still does not mean the choices will not be hard to make much of the time.

Kermit the Frog was right: It’s not easy being green.

Image credit: Erin Silversmith at Wikimedia Commons.



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About the Author

I am an ethical vegan (since 1999), a writer, an educator, an activist, an organizer, and a vegan-of-all-trades. I have a PhD in English but then left academia to work on social change. I focus on veganism, animal rights, local foods, farming practices, environmentalism, and sustainability--starting from the position that humans are just one part of the biosphere, not the center of it.



  • http://www.alittlegreenereveryday.com/ Robin Shreeves

    Justin – all good, fair questions. I often have similar (if not some of the same ones myself)

    Like: Should I spend my grocery money to buy organic products to keep my kids healthy or the fair trade products to make sure other people’s children aren’t working in unhealthy conditions?

    And the questions get more complicated when I’m not only making decisions for myself but also for children and husband who may think differently on certain subjects

    I do believe in listening to your heart, your gut, the Holy Spirit, or whatever it is that you consider the voice inside you. But you’re right, getting all the other voices to shut up is an obstacle.

  • http://www.yahoo.com Bobby B.

    I am so blessed that I do not suffer from environmentally induced emotional turmoil. As such, I will respond to some of your bullet points as directly as I can.

    • Is it better to buy locally grown produce…or…supermarket?

    You could make a case for either. Locally grown produce that uses chemical fertilizers are generally less expensive, reduce the impact of trucking over long distances, and require less cleaning than produce grown with “natural” fertilizers. However, the term “organic” does make one feel like he is doing something positive both physically and mentally, which is good for one’s overall well-being.

    • Is it okay to drive to work…?

    Yes. If walking or biking puts you at risk of being hit by a car, driving your car increases your chances of surviving the impact immensely.

    • Are you “exempted” from recycling…?

    First, I recycle aluminum cans (surprised?) because the recycler is willing to pay for the materials. That little bit of cash helps to cover the cost of my labor and the fuel that I use to transport the cans to the recycler. I don’t care for the idea that I should be expected to provide any recycling business a FREE supply of raw materials from which they can make a PROFIT. If my recyclables aren’t worth a few pennies, I feel no compulsion to make them available. Second, when a municipality forces its residents to participate in recycling programs, it creates a government-sponsored monopoly. Monopolies are supposed to be illegal. As such, it should come as no surprise that this system opens the door for such businesses to corrupt your elected public officials. But again, if recycling gives your spirit a lift, don’t exempt yourself from the experience.

    • Is there any guilt associated with taking an airplane…should you still feel obligated to do carbon offsetting?

    No and no. Very few people take short trips on planes, but rather fly to avoid countless hours behind the wheel of a car. Although I’ve never run the numbers, a loaded plane travelling a few hundred miles may be more environmentally friendly than the 50 to 100 cars that it replaces. Carbon offsetting is like giving to charity. You do it hoping that the recipient makes good use of your money. If you question how your money is being used, you are not likely to feel obligated to give.

    • If a spouse/partner, family member, or close friend lives in a seriously unsustainable way, should you say something and try to talk/force the person into changing?

    Not if doing so destroys the relationship. You will likely have more success simply by setting a positive example. Your actions are constantly being watched.

    • Should the elderly…? Or do they have more leeway…? (Think of the great numbers of such folks who died during heat waves in Europe and even major cities because, often because they were also poor, they did not have air conditioning.)

    Statistically more people die each year from exposure to the cold. However, reporting deaths that result from the cold does not support the politically correct agenda of the global warming apologists.

    • If some important community service building (e.g., hospital, school) is being built in a poor village but environmentally unfriendly materials and/or practices are to be used, should that project be stopped? If not, how far should one go in making it eco-friendly? What compromises can and should be made? Any? None?

    None. If the project meets a basic human need that is unavailable in the area, the environmental friendliness of the project should be only a minor consideration.

    • Should political candidates, business executives, celebrities, and other major cultural figures be put under scrutiny regarding how sustainable their lifestyles are?

    If they are preaching green or working to force green upon the masses, they definitely deserve public scrutiny. What better example do we have than Al Gore? He talks the talk, pushes the legislation, and receives countless accolades for his environmentalism. However, he also enjoys an opulent lifestyle complete with private jets and, chauffeured limousines. Fortunately, he can offset his excesses by purchasing carbon credits from…himself. I’m not sure how that works, but it sure seems like a sweet deal.

    Merry Christmas!

  • http://greenoptions.com/author/jsvk13 Justin Van Kleeck

    Thank you for your comments, Robin and Bobby. As usual, you both make a lot of good points. Part of the difficulty with making the “greenest” choice, at least for me, is that many of the factors you mention seem more sensible and just plain KINDER than the “green” option. But sometimes that feels like selfishness, if it is self-directed.

    I am sure other readers face a similar battle with feeling selfish sometimes when they do not make the most eco-friendly choices. I would love to hear how they deal with this sort of “green guilt complex.”

  • Concetta

    Is it better to buy locally grown produce that is not organic (or chemical free) at the Farmers’ Market or shipped produce that is organic at a chain supermarket?

    I split half and half and figure they equal out.

    Is it okay to drive to work (whether or not you have a hybrid) if you live within a few miles of the office? Should you walk or bike?

    If you need to due to safety, amount of stuff you’re carrying, or necessity of later travel that day, absolutely.

    I would qualify that with it does matter what you drive, though. A gas or electric scooter is a better choice than an SUV, for example.

    If you live on a bus or metro line, is it still okay not to make use of it for most or all travel to places also on public transportation routes?

    Well, people should make the attempt to hit the 50/50 mark for public/private travel. If you can make it work 75/25, all the better, but the schedules/routes aren’t always available for what people need.

    If your colleague lives nearby but keeps a different schedule (by choice or by necessity), are you justified if you do not carpool whenever possible?

    If by necessity, yes. If they’re doing it by choice (and there are no personality/personal issues), well, it does seem kinda bad.

    Are you “exempted” from recycling if the municipality or building where you live does not offer recycling service to you–though there may be recycling facilities at the municipal landfill or other places?

    This one irritates the heck out of me. No one should be “exempted” from recycling. My building doesn’t offer recycling, and its not that big of a load to carry a wad of newspaper to work on Monday to recycle and drop my plastic bags off at the grocery store. Since the husband and I have stopped using a lot of disposable containers, the load to carry to work to recycle is pretty small.

    If a spouse/partner, family member, or close friend lives in a seriously unsustainable way, should you say something and try to talk/force the person into changing?

    Did you see the articles on “mean green”>? People are taking it much more offensively if you even suggest changing them. I try to lead by example, and let the adorable children take the lead in asking people to change – they have better luck.

    Should the elderly or ill have be held to the same, or any, standards when it comes to living sustainably? Or do they have more leeway in order to secure health and/or comfort? (Think of the great numbers of such folks who died during heat waves in Europe and even major cities because, often because they were also poor, they did not have air conditioning.)

    Living sustainably is all about balance. The scale of balance might be different for the elderly than it is for us. I know its different for my parents – they run their A/C and heat a lot more but they also do a lot more gardening, composting and other factors to make up for it.

    Should political candidates, business executives, celebrities, and other major cultural figures be put under scrutiny regarding how sustainable their lifestyles are?

    I think we can demand that, to a point. I’m not suggesting people go around demanding to know from private politicians, but if they offer up things about their “sustainable lifestyle” – it opens the door to questioning.

    And the ones who are really bad examples, flying around all the time on private jets, for example (except for security reasons), questions should be demanded of them in the hopes that they might change their wasteful ways.

  • http://www.yahoo.com Bobby B.

    Justin – You say you feel “selfish” and that you have trouble dealing with a “green guilt complex.” Maybe it has less to do with your environmental beliefs than it does with your beliefs on success, failure, and religion. If you are in a position to weigh the effectiveness of one eco-friendly choice versus another, it is clear that you have achieved some level of economic success. If you were destitute, you might not even have the choice to have or to have not; much less the freedom to have Choice A, Choice B or even Choice C. Your guilt may actually originate with the realization that you enjoy a lifestyle that many others cannot even imagine. You may be asking yourself, “What right do I have to select from such a broad array of green options when so many in this world live in abject poverty scrounging for their next morsel?” It is the adult’s application of his mother’s instruction to finish his plate because the children in Africa are starving. As a child you might have asked, “How does finishing my plate of food help some starving kid halfway around the world?” As an adult, you now realize what a blessing it is to have the means to fill your plate – and possibly the plates of your family and close friends. Being blessed eventually leads to a common question, “Why does God (gaia, mother nature, the solstice, or whoever one worships) allow some to be born into comfort while others are born into seemingly endless suffering?” This very act of questioning God’s motives is enough to shake one’s moral foundation. If that foundation fails to resolve or to reach some compromise with the question, the foundation cracks and allows feelings of guilt to invade the consciousness and dominate the thoughts. Your issue, my friend, may be more than simply choosing one green option over another.

    ;-) Merry Christmas :-)

  • http://greenoptions.com/author/jsvk13 Justin Van Kleeck

    Right-o, Bobby. One’s personal situation will determine how choices are made and what factors influence those choices. I think it turns into feelings of guilt, etc. because we reflect on the bigger picture, on the world beyond ourselves, and recognize how our choices can affect others.

    Even if one can come to terms with the facts of life, without questioning the reasons why they are so, that does not mean one will not think of the effects of one’s choices on others. “Guilt” and “selfishness” may just be higher degrees of this general feeling; I spoke in those terms, but the exact feeling always varies.

  • http://www.bauuinstitute.com/Publishing/IAmSustainabilityBook.html Sustainability Advocate

    I think you can’t come up with any hard and fast rules. Living sustainably requires one to assess the situation in every instant: sometimes it is better to buy non-organic fruit grown locally then those organic strawberries from Chile. It is a matter of personal conviction.

  • Steven Earl Salmony

    Many too many economic powerbrokers have been playing “the only game in town” the way everyone “in the know” has been participating in the construction of a global, leviathan-like “house of cards” called the global political economy.

    QUESTION: Can we share an understanding of the many attacks on Earth and climate scientists by saying loudly and clearly that their assailants’ activities are venal efforts to spread garbage and junk science, based upon nothing more or less than the duplicitous promulgation of ideological idiocy?

    ANSWER: The many arrogant and hostile efforts toward Earth and climate scientists are for the sole purpose of shoring-up and building trust in a con game; to support the most colossal pyramid scheme in human history…..a modern version of the ancient Tower of Babel. Only this modern ‘edifice’ is an Economic Colossus, one not made of stone but rather built out of filthy lucre as a house of playing cards. The entire game is a patently unsustainable, gigantic ruse perpetrated by a tiny, greedy minority of outrageously conspicuous consumers who are recklessly consolidating and relentlessly hoarding great wealth and power.

    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population
    established 2001
    http://sustainabilityscience.org/content.html?contentid=1176.

  • http://www.yahoo.com Bobby B.

    @Steven – Thank you, thank you, thank you! From your impassioned comments one can easily conclude that the sustainability crowd simply wants to wrestle the economic power from the greedy hoarders of capitalism to the greedy hoarders of environmentalism; or the larger -ism behind environmentalism. Rather than continuing the ruse that environmentalism only seeks to help the planet, why not just admit that green is really all about money, power, and politics?

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