Mind & Soul

Don't Be The HSIC

All hands on tree by Shane Rounce

I’ve ranted once or twice here on my blog about the ineffectiveness of shaming. Once, I addressed the absurdity of comparison, especially when we do it to ourselves. And another instance, I took a look at shame when it is directed at us from others

But as we close up the month of April and leap into May, I can’t help but think about the form of shame that annoys me the most: environmental. 

It sounds silly on its face, but when you think about how April is home to Earth Day on the 22nd and April itself has been declared Earth Month since 1990, you might see where I’m going with this. 

As a result of this special designation, April is the time of year when so many of the granola-loving masses love to tell you how you’re loving Mother Gaia wrong, which can include accusations of eating the wrong foods, enjoying the wrong hobbies, planting the wrong flowers, and righting the wrongs … wrong. 

The problem with this shaming is how it essentially has the same impact as all the other forms of judgment, hypercriticism, and sad attempts to one-up each other. It leads to more people not engaging, not listening, or not working to create a better tomorrow. It does more harm than help, all in the name of serving one person’s ego.

And one would think that is exactly what climate change activists would want to avoid. 

I don’t know if I would call myself an activist in this respect, but I’ve been an advocate for implementing real, substantive change in order to get our society closer to living in harmony with nature for the better part of 30 years now. That’s not a brag. I’m just stating a fact. But in that time, I’ve never taken up the role of Head Shamer in Charge™ (HSIC), someone constantly spouting how they’re clearly more concerned about the planet than others because they do x, y or z. 

Why? Because I recognize that one of the most unfortunate side effects of trying to paint yourself as “more environmentally conscious than thou” is that it doesn't actually push people to adopt a particular behavior or practice. Instead, it just makes others feel as if nothing they do matters because it’s not the “it” thing that everyone is talking about or trying to do at that moment. 

Back in the 1990s, plenty of people were happy to switch eating one brand of tuna for another because they learned that a specific brand went out of its way to make sure dolphins were freed from any fishing nets ships used when out at sea catching tuna. But often, an HSIC™ would then take the opportunity to shame everyone for eating fish in the first place and remind them of the detrimental impact of overfishing in our oceans. 

And after they finished their smugfest of derision, many folks simply gave up trying to support a more environmentally conscious company and kept eating whatever tuna they liked regardless of what the brand’s practices were. You see, the HSIC™ helped bring about change, but not change for the better. 

Leave No Trace by Florida Guidebook

Now don’t get me wrong. Some HSICs do manage to shame the easily manipulated into switching to fair-trade coffee brands, buying clothes from thrift stores, ThredUp and Depop, and marching with Greta Thunberg at the next UN summit. But I can only imagine how many more people would make small (or even large) lifestyle changes if some treehuggers cared less about trying to “out woke” each other and simply allowed their lifestyles to serve as an example of what is possible.

To borrow a concept from the Tao te Ching: influence by not-influencing. 

Not to say that I’m anyone’s role model, but I know others have purchased metal drinking straws because they’ve seen me use them in restaurants. I’ve had people tell me how they plan to recycle more because they’ve seen the special set-up in my home where I store my items before taking them out to the recycling bin. And I’ve managed to introduce people to vegan and vegetarian eateries that they may not have considered simply because I told them about a great dish I had there. 

Personally, I prefer this approach to influencing because 1) I’m not a fan of preaching to others on how to live their lives, and 2) I’m not exactly the poster child for all things green and sustainable. I still drive a gas-powered car, regularly use paper towels, and don’t obsess over eating organic food or shopping at farmers’ markets. So I don’t feel I’m in a position to shame anyone even if I wanted to.

I also understand why it’s important to cheer on the U.S. government’s new EPA restrictions on coal-fired power plants and Biden’s new $7 billion in grant funding for solar power projects, even though I know the HSIC™ will pipe up to say it’s not enough to offset the fact that the country is producing more oil than we ever have in recent history. 

Sustainability by Photo Boards

I believe it’s important to celebrate the wins just as much as remember that there is still a lot of work left to do. And we’re not going to see any progress on that work if we don’t spend less time trying to one-up each other and more time meeting people where they are, and that includes listening to and engaging communities where environmental discrimination results in the most harm.  

To be clear, I get how passion for an issue like environmental justice can lead to some folks feeling hypervigilant in their need to address significant disparities, and the constant reminder that the world seems to be on fire – literally and figuratively – more and more each year ain’t helping either. But if the goal is to create long-lasting, sustainable global change, we need to build bridges made of understanding, patience, and respect, not made of shame, mocking and derision.

So even though I may not be in a position to start my own beekeeping endeavor or have a backyard to grow wildflowers, maybe with a little more research, I could move forward on that apartment composting idea. It’s something that I’ve been considering for a while because, let’s be honest, I’m never going to go full vegetarian. But I’m aware that every small change helps the collective – both by reducing our personal environmental footprint and by “not-influencing” others. 

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