Why Don’t People Like Environmentalists?

I started writing this blog post as a reflection of the documentary “No Impact Man,” specifically about how the viewer identifies with his wife much more than the “no impact man” himself, but that just seemed to be scratching the surface about the issue. I’m still not completely sure what that issue is, or how to best put words to it, but this is my attempt…

I was going to title this post “Why No One Likes Environmentalists,” but then I realized that was a bit optimistic, in the sense that I can’t explain why. In truth, I’m not sure how I feel about it myself and and can’t answer that question– so I leave it to you; let me know what you think. One aspect of the “No Impact Man” movie that really struck me was how much people seemed to hate the project, and therefore him, which got me thinking, as all good documentaries should do.

(For those of you who aren’t familiar: a man, his wife, and their toddler living in NYC decide to live for a year creating the smallest impact on the environment possible. For example, no motorized transportation, no garbage, no food outside of a 250 mile radius, no electricity, etc. The fellow YAVs and myself watched the movie as part of our learning experience about our impact on the environment and the complexity of “simple living.” Our experiment to eat (mostly) locally pales in comparison.)

This impact experiment was pretty controversial at the time, and was part of an onslaught of blogs and lifestyle changes about “green living” that resulted in book deals (Kingsolver’s “Animal Vegetable Miracle” and Goodwin’s “A Year of Plenty” are two that my group has read so far. I’d recommend both; they both speak to a fundamental truth about community.) Reactions ranged from thinking it was a joke, to dismissing it due to sheer impossibility (I think I fall into that category, or at least I used to), to environmentalists thinking he was making a mockery of the green movement for a book deal– and those are the nice ones. No matter what people thought, I was surprised by the strong emotional reaction to his experiment that is truly well-intentioned and interesting.

However, the more I thought about it, the more uncomfortable I became. Environmentalism in terms of daily living, not theoretical hypothetical situations, is a touchy subject, and it’s one that is hard to discuss without one person coming across self-righteous (whether they’re trying to or not) and the other getting defensive. I think this is because no matter what the person says, it’s often implied that they are more aware, more educated, and better at living than others; therefore a better person. It gets personal and a little too close for comfort because it confronts us with a truth we’ve been pushing against and ignoring. No wonder people get defensive, but I think it goes even deeper than that.

It is difficult, especially in the U.S., for people to want to, or even think about, arranging their lives around anything other than themselves and their family. This sounds horribly selfish, but I believe it is a subconscious reaction connected to American independence and competition. Implying that we humans need to rearrange our lives for something else (albeit the sake of the earth, all living creatures, etc.) can be a hard humility pill to swallow. Even for those of us who are marginally aware of how our collective lifestyle of the industrial modern world is slowly (and sometimes not so slowly) destroying the planet, it is challenging to truly open our eyes to that full meaning. Thinking that we have to make such drastic changes like the “no impact man,” or even small ones that change daily habits, and live outside the box of pre-existing cultural accepted, and even expected, way of life is hard; it’s swimming up-stream of our social construction and programming, which is a mighty, and often invisible, force to be reckoned with.

Now that living an eco-friendly life has become a marketing strategy, and people are willing to pay a few extra dollars for a product with a green leaf or something on the front to make them feel like they’re saving the rain-forest, what it means to truly care about our impact on the environment and allow that to change our lives is extremely complicated. This is something I will be learning and thinking about as long as there is an environment to care about.

I’m sorry this post doesn’t have any real conclusion or definitive answer, but I don’t think that’s what this experience is about. Yes recycling and using less electricity is good, and the documentary has several interesting ideas about things everyone can do, but the more I learn, the more questions I have. And I think that’s the way it should be.

(On a side-note, we also watched another documentary, “Truck Farm,” which I would recommend if you have a good sense of humor and like trucks, gardening, and musical theater.)

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