Once you become a…
Wait – what’s a punchy noun for this? “Green” is fine as an adjective but as a noun it sounds political. “A Frog In A Pot”? Well, no, because most people won’t know what the hell you’re on about and anyway it’s a better term for people who haven’t caught climatitis yet. “Climatitis” is good, saw that in the Guardian somewhere, but it’s not something you can be so much as something you can have.
You know what, I can think of one myself… I’m gonna go with “carbon-head”. All those in favour? Just me? Motion carried. So.
Once you become a carbon-head you start to think differently about everything. And it’s the strangest feeling, because to become a carbon-head is to understand that we don’t live in a sustainable society, and the use-by on the package is much sooner than some of us, or our children, would really like to live. At the very least we will absolutely lose our Western way of life; at worst we will all lose our lives altogether. In short, The End Of The World Is Nigh. Hey where can I pick up one of those sandwich boards?
But it’s very much like having Cassandra Syndrome, or indeed being one of those doomsday religious types (do we still have those?): you know that a serious global disaster is coming, of an apocalyptic scale, the gigadeath, even, but nobody else seems to know it or believe it.
There are two particular circumstances where I notice this most acutely. The first is when people talk about the future.
“I’m hoping to move back home to East Anglia eventually.”
“Are you crazy?! What about the floods? Where will your children flee?”
“I wonder what smartphones are gonna look like in 50 years.”
“Pretty bleak isn’t it? If we’re lucky someone might work out a way to power up the old Morse networks.”
“My pension is invested in oil and gas – they’re pretty stable funds overall.”
“Hahaha good one. Hahahahahahahaha.”
In case you didn’t get that joke, it’s funny because if those funds keep growing – if the Carbon Bubble never bursts – it’ll mean that between now and my friend’s retirement, humanity never gives up fossil fuels. That means colossal global warming, to the point that if we’re not all dead yet we might as bloody well be. Hahahahahahahahahaha.
But arguably much worse than badly thought out futurism is badly thought out, uh, presentism; because by definition it’s relevant right now. This is the second situation: where an obvious opportunity to counter climate change or at least discuss it appears, and everybody misses the cue.
“We have yet to decide whether Heathrow should have a third runway… Or we need another new London airport.”
“That was our correspondent reporting on the current situation in Europe. We now have Amber Rudd in the studio, cabinet secretary for energy and climate change. So, Amber Rudd… What do you think about the current situation in Europe?”
“For the foreseeable future, coal is the foundation of our prosperity.”
That last one was self-described “conservationist” Tony Abbott, Australia Prime Minister, in case you need his name on a list to give your kids when they ask you who fucked the planet.
So from your new, ethically-sourced ivory tower you may permit yourself a moment to laugh with incredulity at the cognitive dissonance of the world’s inhabitants… Until you realise that until like a week ago you were one of them. What car do you drive? Where do you buy your energy? Who did you vote for? Oh crap. The difference between cognitive dissonance and hypocrisy is self-awareness. Welcome to the fold. Maybe we are all frogs in a pot after all.
So it’s time to do something about this. First order of business: write your own name under Tony Abbott’s on that list to give your kids. Now. Let’s get out there and make a difference! Tomorrow. Or perhaps after the weekend…
Look, I am one lazy-ass frog. And I realised shortly after becoming a carbon-head that my sudden enthusiasm for the climate mission didn’t extend to a desire to make any actual change to my lifestyle. It took me a while pondering over this to realise that my problem is actually quite a lot more nuanced than that, and perhaps you can relate to it.
There are so many aspects of our lives that have a negative environmental impact that it becomes overwhelmingly difficult, if not impossible, to fully decarbonise your existence in a hurry. In fact, in the moment you realise that, you also start to understand why entire countries are struggling with it so much.
And much like the many nations of the world, the way you end up dealing with this is by abandoning the whole idea and carrying on as you were. You can’t switch to a zero carbon lifestyle just like that, because almost nobody is willing or able to make the level of sacrifice that would take.
And even if you did, you still wouldn’t be carbon neutral because you live in a society that very much isn’t. The moment you need anything from anyone, or use any facility or tool that exposes you to the outside world, you lose control over your carbon footprint. Bam! Suddenly you find yourself, metaphorically, casting a lit match into a warehouse-sized vat of unleaded petrol. Could be worse, you’ll think to yourself. At least it’s unleaded.
It feels like there’s only two options. You’re either green, or you aren’t. You can’t do things by halves. You can’t make more effort to recycle if you still drive to work. You can’t buy Rainforest Alliance certified coffee if you buy products that contain unsustainably sourced palm oil. You can’t even campaign for action on climate change while you’re still running a gas boiler, buying mail-order from abroad, or even just keeping an account with a bank that invests your money in the fossil fuel industry (also known as “a bank”). Because to do any of these things would make you a hypocrite.
You were a hypocrite already, of course, ever since you’ve been committing all your carbon sins in full knowledge of the harm it’s causing. But if you want to avoid anyone noticing what a hypocrite you are, it’s much safer to do nothing and fake ignorance of the problem. Better to be an ignorant fool like everyone else than make a half-arsed effort at making a change and be called out as a fraud.
I know exactly how you feel. Before my “revelation” I had two false starts. Both of them triggered by comics, oddly enough: one in The Observer years ago, which I’ve used as the main image for this post (mimics a famous WWI propaganda poster – perhaps an odd choice considering its post-war regard but there you go), and another last year on XKCD. Despite the impact these had on me at the time – you know the one, that nausea, that accelerating pulse, that aimless guilt and fear – it never lasted. And the reason it didn’t was because, when I looked at what I’d have to do to decarbonise my lifestyle, I felt quickly overwhelmed. A large number of the options were either impossible, horrendously difficult, (ironically) unsustainable or would simply change my life far too drastically for me to be comfortable with it.
So what did I do? I got used to it. I guiltily carried on living exactly how I was, I kept my mouth shut, and eventually that uncomfortable guilt and fear finally melted away, and I carried on my life the way I always had.
So why is this time any different? Because I realised a very simple point: that it’s far better to be a hypocrite than to do nothing at all.
This realisation changed everything for me. It means never again having to give up on my good ecological intentions the moment I fuel the car at the Shell garage that just happens to be the closest to where we live. It means not giving up on this blog after going more than a month without posting anything (guys I been busy, ‘kay? Jeez).
It means, in fact, doing whatever it takes to make sure I keep the zero-emission flame burning. Because no matter how little I do to reduce my carbon footprint, as long as I do something then I’m helping to make things a little better than they were. I can feel good about that. And feeling good about stuff is a great motivator.
So if the risk of hypocrisy is what’s holding you back, don’t let it stop you. Embrace it! Be a hypocrite, let’s all be hypocrites, and be proud because together we are legion, and we will change the world. Even if the best you can muster on your personal path to green living is reusing your carrier bags or something, go for it. Once you’ve taken one step in the right direction, you can let the change bed in then take another step. Give yourself time, don’t worry that you aren’t carbon free yet. And don’t worry that you probably never will be. Life is a journey, after all. So long as you keep going.