Why do we expect environmentalists to live in a hut, wear grass skirts and never set foot in a car?
Last month, I was interviewed for the Home Section of the New York Times. The article, entitled "Green, but Still Feeling Guilty" looked at several green experts to discuss the things in our lives around which we still hold some guilt. When asked if I still felt guilty about my environmental impact I responded, "Yes, are you kidding?! All of the time!" and then proceeded to talk about how I changed my own home to cut energy and water use.
I spoke at length about our graywater sink, our ultra low flow showerhead, and the dual flush adapter for our toilets. I even mentioned the reused 2-liter soda bottles I slipped into the bank of the toilet tank. Half of the water inside my home (and probably yours) either goes down the toilet or the shower drain. These simple measures save more than half of that wastewater. Anyone can do them too, which is why I was excited to be included in the article.
While the article reveals the tips and conclusions these experts have drawn in their own lives, the overall tone of the article (and of the reporter I spoke with over the phone) was one of expecting perfection. We expect environmentalists to live impact-free lives. Someone stands up and says we need to change the world and, instead of listening and considering the information, we look for the things they are doing wrong. Is this human nature? Or is it just easier than facing reality?
Just a few days ago I was giving a lecture and was asked if I felt guilty about all of the jet travel I take to give my talks. "Do I buy carbon offsets?" they asked. I get this question often, and it tells me we are all missing the point.
For an exercise in frustration, take a moment to read the public comments on your favorite political site. They are shouting matches. Most of the criticism is not countering the salient points of the article, but instead attacking the actions and character of the reporter. It's an old trick: someone makes a pointed argument and the other distracts them by attacking them on an unrelated point. And I see this with environmentalists all of the time. Sometimes the loudest criticism comes from your fellow environmentalists.
The day after winning the Academy Award for An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore received a wave of criticism about the energy use in his Nashville home. The facts didn't matter. Many used this bit of juicy info to dismiss his message about climate change entirely.
The idea of environmental perfection is one you quickly abandon (or lose your mind trying). I see it among my eager students who, armed with their new knowledge, skirt to edge of a nervous breakdown over their own impact. You'll recognize these students by the nervous twitch and Nalgene bottle.
I have news for you. There is no perfect solution; there is no choice without impact. Our job, our responsibility, is to measure our impact and find ways to mitigate or reduce it. We have to do this to buy ourselves some time while we redesign the world.
Going back to the Times article, it criticized me for our swimming pool. As I write this I feel this impulse to inform you it's an unheated, covered, saline pool with a variable speed pool pump run during off-peak hours. But then I realize that is my guilt talking again.
Should we dismiss the larger message because I have a pool?
(If you think so, I suggest you read Friedrich Nietzsche's, Human, All Too Human.)
While our national political discourse has descended into shouting matches on television, we can't afford to lose sight of the environmental issue. We are all in the same boat, and physics doesn't care if you believe in Global Warming or not.