Real vs. fake environmentalism: we’re too quick to label things eco-friendly

Conserve your earth: buy a shirt to fill out your excessively large wardrobe.

I truly care about saving the planet. But like most people, I don’t like listening to environmentalists. They tend to sound hostile towards humanity. Deep down, some probably want to say we’re all murderers, killing Mother Earth by living in a highly-industrialized world.

They may be right. But it’s a closed issue that the Earth is screwed and our fossil-fuel age is largely to blame. Even people who don’t give a shit understand we can’t pollute the Earth so much if we wish to preserve it for the younglings.

It’s time we start asking a more solution-oriented question. Namely, which of our so-called eco-friendly behaviours really save the earth, and which only save face?

The answer is simple: things that don’t leave a carbon footprint (or any type of pollution) actually save the planet, while anything releasing pollutants damages the planet.

So I find it ironic when people congratulate themselves for buying eco-friendly products. “Buying” and “eco-friendly” are contradictory terms. It doesn’t matter if you buy an energy efficient computer, a snazzy cruiser bike or an organic cotton t-shirt. You still bought something, and a lot of machines had to be powered just so you could have that product.

The only time a consumer is literally being eco-friendly is when they abstain from buying a new product in the first place.

Thus, if I see a girl riding a brand-new $600 cruiser bike down Broadway, and behind her I see a dirty hobo digging through the trash for pop cans, I remind myself who is actually saving the planet. It’s the guy who didn’t just purchase a fancy new manufactured item.

This about sums up why real environmentalism, such as carbon-neutral living, is rejected in favour of the fake, feel-good environmentalism people embrace. Real environmentalism requires you to live like a bum. That means buying very little, buying second-hand and getting by with what you already have whenever humanly possible.

Last June I was technically homeless, living in a forest about an hour’s walk from Nelson, B.C. Naturally, after spending weeks living amidst the trees and birds and lakes, I couldn’t help but feel that nature was far more sacred than I imagined back in the city.

Living in the woods, your eyes sharply divide everything into two categories. First, you see the eternal creations of this world; things like mountains and forests and wildlife that look exactly the same in 2012 as they did a million years ago. Second, you see products of human creation — juice boxes, bars of soap and bug spray.

Living in the civilized world, we hardly acknowledge how intrusive these human creations are to nature. If you see an empty chip bag on a city sidewalk you think, “Well, that’s an eyesore but no big deal.”

When you’re in the forest, walking through pristine wilderness, that same chip bag becomes a powerful, even scary representation of what civilization really does to nature. You realize that even though we can hide our trash outside the city and our pollution way up in the atmosphere, it still damages some part of the Earth.

This reality is largely forgotten in our urban existence. When we buy something, it’s hard to visualize the entire industrial process it took for that product to reach our hands. And it’s equally difficult to quantify the amount of ecological destruction our purchases cause.

Personally, unless I stop to think about how damaging my consumption is, I grow complacent with the very sort of environmentalism I’m bitching about. I reassure myself that I bike and recycle and buy things that are eco-friendly enough.

Several years ago I bought some Converse-looking “No-Sweat” shoes that were made from 100 per cent recycled materials. I fancied this a purchase of the highest ethical order. My smugness was palpable.

Six months later the shoes pretty much dissolved.

After that I bought Nike sneakers. They were probably made by a child, but I expect they’ll last me several years. And in the long run, if I kept buying shoddy No-Sweat shoes, I would be doing greater harm to the Earth (though not supporting slave-labour which is a whole other can of worms).

There’s an important environmental lesson in my parable of the shoes. When you have to buy something, buy something that will last. Get a bike you’ll use for 20 years. And if it’s even possible today, stick with your computers and digital gizmos for longer than 18 months.

Slowing down consumerism may not constitute real environmentalism, but it’s realistic environmentalism. I realize some people don’t care for nature and think the wilderness is just like, boring and cold and shit.

Unlike some environmentalists, I’m not here to say, “Unless you live off the land, you’re making mother Earth shed tears of acid rain.” I respect that damaging the Earth is as human as breathing. I mean, every time we exhale we release greenhouse gas into the air.

By making thoughtful consumer choices, however, we can mitigate our ecological damage — without reverting to the deplorable existence of our hairy, cave-doodling ancestors.


Photo: Jonathon Mcintosh/Flickr

  • Alex.

    Thank you Michael. This article is refreshing and I agree.

  • Alyssa Scott

    Good article with very good points. However I didn’t appreciate the stereotypes of environmentalists. The grand majority of environmentalist rhetoric is similar to this article in voicing a criticism of human behaviour and its impact on the environment and offering a solution. It isn’t hostile, scare-mongering claims by people who “Deep down, … probably want to say we’re all murderers, killing Mother Earth by living in a highly-industrialized world.” I thought that was a pretty unnecessary claim. I also thought it was silly you said that ‘like most people’ you don’t like listening to environmentalists, then wrote an environmental article.

    • Michael Cuthbertson

      Hey Alyssa, Perhaps I should clarify my attack on “hostile environmentalists”
      :
      Maybe more environmentalists today are starting to understand what 21st century people are like, and thus, no longer focusing on what a typical person COULD do to save the earth but what they actually WOULD do if given pragmatic solutions.

      But I’m frustrated reading activists like David Suzuki or Derrick Jensen (who in Endgame basically says we ought to destroy the whole industrial world). Sometimes these environmentalists rant about the disgusting state of the planet, and the impossible changes needed to once again make the earth a pristine place.

      Really, we need a salvage mission. In addition to the developed world’s carelessness, people in rapidly developing countries (e.g. India, China) want to pursue all the terribly destructive practices we’ve enjoyed in the West for a while now. And while nobody wants to abandon such destructive lifestyles, perhaps we can encourage the world to slow down it’s environmental abuse. (e.g. buying one car instead of two).

      Nevertheless. I applaud anyone who makes it their life’s mission to fight for the earth instead of say, the legal writes of corporations or serial killers.