I’m as guilty of it as anyone. I see you walking down the street with your throw-away Starbucks cup in hand, and I silently judge you for not being organized or conscientious enough to have brought your own reusable thermos. I see you carrying a plastic bag full of plastic-wrapped groceries, and wonder how you can care so little about the literal suffocation of our planet. I see you sitting behind the wheel of an SUV with no passengers, and I decide that you must be a climate change-denying jerk.
I may be right: maybe you don’t care. Or maybe my snapshot of your life doesn’t show the whole picture.
Climate change is real, but we still have to live
Climate change is real, but so are the realities and pressures of everyday life. We’re in a climate crisis, but we must remember that the very act of living involves a different set of needs and priorities for each of us.
Maybe you were up all night with a sick toddler, and in a haze of exhaustion you forgot your thermos when you left for work—and if you don’t have your coffee, there’s no way you’ll make it through the morning. Maybe you reused your canvas grocery bag so much that it split open today when you loaded it up at the grocery store—the store close to your condo where almost everything is, unfortunately, wrapped in plastic. Maybe you were in a bad car accident once, and are too afraid to drive anything smaller than an SUV.
Who am I to judge? I make compromises of my own every single day. If we’re honest, we’ll admit that we all do. Do we need to improve? Of course we do—but shaming one another for our eco-sins is pointless at best. At worst, pointing a finger at others can distract us from examining our own habits and create a distorted perception of our own virtue.
Eco-shaming is not environmental activism
The impetus for today’s rant was an online exchange between a bed & breakfast owner in Narni, Italy and a former guest. In a review, the guest complained that there was too much plastic packaging in the otherwise lovely breakfast buffet. The owner politely thanked the guest for the feedback, admitted that the jam and chocolate spreads are indeed served in individual plastic packages, and then pointed out that the guest slept with the air conditioning on in her room—despite a pleasant outdoor temperature of 22 degrees celsius, two large windows in the room, and a breeze coming up from the valley below the village. (You can find the review here.)
I found this exchange fascinating. I agree with the guest (it would be better if the bed & breakfast produced less plastic waste), and I also admire the owner for aptly pointing out that the guest is far from an eco-saint herself. I can also easily imagine some possible reasons behind each side’s less-than-perfect choices. Maybe the owner has found that doling out small portions of jam and Nutella from larger containers ends up leading to food waste when guests don’t consume the product and it needs to be thrown out. Maybe the guest is menopausal and suffering terrible hot flashes through the night. Maybe none of these things are true and both parties are simply imperfect—but whatever the case may be, pointing fingers at anyone but ourselves is not going to save the planet.
Lead by example, not condemnation
I’m not suggesting that we should avoid providing feedback like this bed & breakfast guest did. Plastic waste is a huge problem in the tourism and hospitality industries, and I think it’s important that as consumers we ask very specifically for what we want in terms of improvement.
I also think it’s important to worry about our own actions and decisions first—not least of all because what we do speaks so much louder than what we say (or silently grumble to ourselves).
At Fiaschetteria Beltramme in Rome last summer, Lumina and I declined bottled water because the restaurant only had plastic bottles. When our waiter informed us that they don’t serve acqua dal rubinetto (tap water), we told him we’d both just have wine—we weren’t budging on rejecting the plastic bottle of water. Two minutes later, glasses of tap water appeared on our table, along with a wink of approval for Lumina from the waiter. When we visit Fiaschetteria Beltramme again this spring, I’d love to be able to tell you that they’ve made the switch to glass bottles of mineral water (and/or are happily serving acqua dal rubinetto on request). I won’t hold my breath; I know our “micro-activism” won’t change the world. But I also know that my own actions are the only ones I can control, and that my facetious request for a glass of wine to quench a five-year-old’s thirst had more of an impact than accepting the plastic bottle of water and then complaining about it.
And what of the other diners at Fiaschetteria that day—the ones with plastic water bottles on their tables? Do I get to look down on them? Not a chance. Reiterating the above, here’s why:
1) My snapshot of their lives does not show the whole picture.
2) The very act of living involves a different set of needs and priorities for each of us.
3) My actions are the only ones I can control.
4) What I do has some level of impact, however minor. On the other hand, my judgment of others has either no impact at all or, even worse, distracts me from what I could be doing to improve myself.
So let’s maybe stop it with the eco-shaming, shall we?
As the Narni bed & breakfast exchange suggests, eco-shaming doesn’t work: the criticized party simply fires back with reasons the critic should also be ashamed—and both sides are right. I think most of us would be surprised what we see when we direct our finger-pointing exclusively at ourselves. (Side note: I’m not including criticism of government policy and big business in these musings. I think we absolutely should demand better policies from our government and better practices in the manufacturing and energy sectors, for example. Our small, individual actions will never amount to much without sweeping changes at a macro level.)
It may seem counter-intuitive, but perhaps cultivating compassion for the eco-flaws of others is a roundabout path to a greener planet for us all.