I volunteer a lot, so end up talking to organizers of volunteer organizations. Over the weekend I talked to two organizers of food volunteer organizations. One provides meals through a soup kitchen, the other collects food stores would throw away and delivers it to community centers.
Both repackage food delivered to them in disposable, single-use plastic containers. I know people were able to deliver food safely before plastic was invented, so I know this pollution is unnecessary. They know it too. Everyone knows it, but it’s easier to ignore it. To clarify, what are we ignoring when we produce plastic waste? Not some abstract concept of sustainability. Plastic comes from oil taken from outside the ecosphere and injected into it. It means displacing people from their land, corruption, violence, polluting land around the wells, burning fossil fuels to refine and create the plastic, to transport it, poisoning our bloodstreams and lungs, hormone-mimicking additives that lower sperm counts and raise miscarriage and birth defect rates, fill landfills, cover streets with trash, teach children to devalue the future and civic duty, fill the ocean, more corruption in waste disposal, get into the food chain, cause cancer, and more. A small but significant problem is that they heat the globe too, which most people think of first and most, but is just one of many many problems.
I’ve been working on pollution long enough to know people can react defensively, so do my best not to blunder into the topic, but people who feel they are helping can react defensively and then hostilely no matter how compassionately, empathetically, and diplomatically anyone approaches them. So I think I broached the topic maybe not at the Dalai Lama’s level, but reasonably benignly.
I got to witness extreme levels of claimed helplessness backed by self-righteousness. They would say, in flagrant disregard of hundreds of thousands of years of humans delivering food, that there was simply no other way to do it. That covid restrictions that no longer applied and didn’t stop restaurants from working even when they did require them. That using so-called compostable or paper makes a meaningful difference when they know they don’t. All sorts of irrelevant excuses that danced around that they haven’t tried.
They showed no interest in experimenting. As always, they talked about balance, yet never including in the balance the misery, suffering, and death they necessarily imposed on people and wildlife affected by their choices.
The issue isn’t if cleaner solutions exist. Of course they do. Helping the helpless didn’t start in 1907 with the invention of plastic (though the industry’s growth increased suffering and therefore helplessness). The issue is the failure of imagination and responsibility of people choosing easy solutions. Hiding behind a veil of “but we’re helping people” doesn’t reduce the suffering they help fund at every level of the single-use disposable system.
Here, for example, is a video of a place that still uses plastic, but at least is reusing it. I expect that these self-righteous people I talked to would look in it for differences between the program it features and their own to say why that exact plan wouldn’t work for them instead of looking at the problem-solving process of the people to create that plan. Of course if they set themselves to it, any program imposing cruelty on others but denying it could stop hurting people.
Claiming helplessness behind a veil of “but we’re helping people, do you want us to stop?” false self-righteousness helps no one.
I mentioned environmentalists in the title and focused so far on a different group of do-gooders. I see the pattern in environmentalists. I happened upon this paragraph in Wikipedia’s article on Flight Shame showing how much environmentalists and Greens pollute:
In autumn 2014, a German survey shown that Green Party voters travel more often by plane: 49% flew once a year compared to 42% of Left voters, 36% of CDU/CSU (Conservatives) supporters and 32% of SPD (Labour) supporters. None of them never flew, compared to 17%, 16% and 13% for the other supporters, respectively. […] Greens supporters are often well educated and earn more than the average, and travel frequently for business and tourism. In Britain in 2015, a survey carried out by Travelzoo shown that Green Party supporters are the most likely to fly long-haul.
It only treats flying, but I’ve seen research showing that they pollute as much as everyone in many other areas.
My personal experience isn’t double-blind controlled experiment, but it tells me that when challenged on their personal, unnecessary, often self-indulgent polluting behavior, they react like cornered animals with vicious self-righteous no-holds-barred self-defense. Their main case is that individual actions don’t matter and to look at the (what they consider) good that comes from their, say, flying to Africa or Central America (as if their flying there helps instead of hurts those places). But they turn it around and attack more than reflect and introspect.
Come to think of it, I might be discounting whatever biases I’m not accounting for. What have been your experiences talking to environmentalists about their own pollution?
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