A reluctant environmentalist

by maddie millington-drake ~

Since deciding to study my masters in environmental change I have felt a certain pressure to almost be the ‘best’ environmentalist in my life. To care more about the environment than anyone in my friendship group, to hold certain standards about how I conduct my life: to take fewer flights, to not use plastic, to be vegan – to ultimately not mess up in any aspect of life that might make my carbon footprint bigger.

To be ‘eco-perfect’.

I feel like I am held to a certain standard that I must uphold otherwise I fail at being interested in the environment. I am reluctant to fully commit to giving myself the label of an environmentalist because I might mess up. Actually, definitely mess up: it’s not a question of if but, constantly, when.

I don’t even know if I want to label myself an environmentalist full stop because I feel it comes with a certain pressure, a certain expectation. I feel I have to prove that I do care about the environment, in a way justify my choice.

Which seems ridiculous when it is the most pressing issue of our time, and something that all other social, political and economic issues are going to be compounded by in some shape or form. It is all going to come back to the climate crisis, so it seems crazy that I am even using the word reluctant.

Maybe it is self-inflicted pressure but I would argue that there is definitely a certain societal pressure that expects me to have an A* in being ‘green’.

But what does that even mean? Should I actually be putting more pressure on myself? Should I never fly again? Should I give up my love for a drunken chicken nugget?

Am I failing in the aspect of my life that I have decided to give my career to? Am I already failing at the beginning of my career?

Maybe I am a bad environmentalist as well as a reluctant one.

It is a hard line and sometimes it does feel like I am failing, because as listed above yes I do still fly, I do eat chicken drunkenly, and I still buy new clothes. Yet I am vegetarian on the whole, I buy clothes from sustainable brands and I buy second-hand. I’m engaged in the conversation, I work for an environmental tech company, I sign petitions – I am trying but I am by no means perfect.

Why do I feel held to such a standard? Does anyone even care?

I have thought about it a lot and I think that there is a lot of finger-pointing at people that have in some way labelled themselves ‘green’. People are very quick to tell someone they are a hypocrite when it comes to things like flying or their diet. I have had countless people shoot me down when they have asked me why I am vegetarian; when I go on to explain it is for environmental reasons, they often come back with “so I’m assuming you do not fly”.

It is so boring to have someone say that to you. Why is that the immediate go-to?

Why do people feel the need to hold me accountable for another aspect of my life when I have tried to make a change somewhere else?

Is it because they feel guilty? That it removes some guilt about the fact that they haven’t made any changes within their own life but it’s okay because if the environmentalists do it then the rest don’t have to? Or is it that it makes them feel better about the fact that they haven’t made a change? I in some respect am ‘messing up’ by flying and therefore I am a ‘bad’ environmentalist so it doesn’t matter that they aren’t doing anything either.

On the flip side, I think the environmental movement in some ways is also partially to blame for this need to call out the hypocrites. There is sometimes a certain ‘holier-than-thou’ air to the movement (and I acknowledge that this sounds like a sweeping statement – it is not – I am fully aware that this is only a small minority). That we ‘care’ more and if you aren’t green you can’t join the club. But the reality is that it is often a privilege to be able to live sustainably in the way that the developed world has come to recognise it. Local, fresh produce is more expensive, sustainable clothes and products are more expensive. The climate crisis isn’t necessarily at the top of everyone’s agenda. And that is okay.

Tackling the climate crisis has to be bottom-up and top-down but it cannot be reduced to individual actions because otherwise everyone will be made to feel like they are failing. But this may not be the reality. It needs to be inclusive and everyone needs to feel that any small change is a change and that it will help. The big corporations and governments need to be held accountable but people need to be given some slack otherwise many will be left behind.

There is no easy way around this apart from maybe taking my own advice and knowing that everything I can do will help and as long as I’m aware of my impact that is one big step.

I shouldn’t care if people call me a hypocrite and I should be settled in the fact that being engaged in the conversation (whilst not letting eco-anxiety get the better of me) is also an important step which many have yet to make.

I should also be proud to be an environmentalist, and removing the reluctance is a work in progress.