The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish
March 26, 2010

Green: Are Some Shades More Selfish Than Others?

I’ve been called “dark green” by some of the nicest people. I think what they mean is that because I refuse to buy new plastic and insist that manufacturers should disclose the ingredients in their products, I am somehow more virtuous than most. But you know what? I don’t buy it. I don’t believe there is a spectrum of greenness, but rather that we all have unique priorities. And whereas I might think plastic is the scourge of the earth, others might be more interested in cutting energy consumption or saving water or making sure their kids are consuming healthy foods.

So earlier this month, when the Market Place radio program aired a segment called “Buying green, but not for the planet,” I had to take issue with the implication that unless the reasons for our behavior changes are entirely altruistic, we are somehow selfish.

From the show:

ANDREA GARDNER: First, I have a confession. When I buy environmentally-friendly products, it isn’t for the planet. What I mean is I buy organic apple juice because I figure it’s healthier for my toddler. Energy-saving light bulbs help me save money. And I think non-toxic cleaning products are just safer. I asked around, and many of my friends admitted the same thing.

Why does Ms. Gardner need to confess in the first place? Why does she feel that the health of her family is somehow disconnected from that of the planet? Or that “saving the planet” is some kind of ideal to which she doesn’t aspire? I appreciate marketers’ recognition that persuading the non-treehugging public to go green might mean touting a product’s health or money-saving benefits over its low carbon footprint. But does it matter? Isn’t everything connected?

In my view, we are the planet. When we buy organic food for our families to protect their health, we keep toxic chemicals from running off into our waterways and from harming farm workers. When we buy less or reduce our energy consumption to save money, we help lower carbon emissions that contribute to climate change. And it works the other way around, too. My impetus for living a greener life was the urge to protect wild animals from plastic pollution. I didn’t realize at the time that giving up plastic to help the planet meant living a much healthier life myself. After all, how much junk and convenience food can you buy without plastic?

Maybe none of our reasons is perfectly selfish or selfless. I decided to poll other green bloggers to learn how they defined “green” and what was their initial motivation to start living more sustainably. Here is what a few of them said.

Protecting Animals

sea turtle eats plastic
Photo courtesty Alejandro Fallabrino via Seaturtle.org

As I mentioned, my initial reason for making green changes was to stop causing harm to animals. Lisa Frack from Enviroblog had a similar story. Since having a baby, she has become more concerned about human health. But her first movement towards environmentalism was all about the animals:

But at the real heart of it, I was a HUGE animal lover, and animal lovers also are habitat lovers, by definition. That’s what got me initially. The sense that they were powerless under humans’ habitat destruction. It had an inherent unfairness/imbalance of power in it that I didn’t (still don’t) like. Kind of like fishing from a helicopter, right? Just ‘off’ somehow.

For Deanna from Crunchy Chicken, her first foray into the green movement around 1991 was all about owls.

I think the green movement was really starting to hit on campus then because of the whole ‘spotted owl’ controversy going on in Washington and Oregon. So, I think I got into the green movement more from a conservation standpoint and it has since progressed to so much more. I think seeing these kinds of bumper stickers just ground my crackers: ‘Save a Logger – Eat an Owl’.

And Jenn from The Green Parent also wanted to protect animals.

I think it was back in the late 80’s when we got something from GreenPeace in the mail about saving the dolphins or whales or tigers…some such creature. I read through it quickly but it really stuck with me, and it bothered me that some of the things I was seeing in my little coal mining PA town (pollution, litter, over-consumption) were affecting other species on the planet besides humans.

Conserving Wild Places

Yosemite

While Diane MacEachern from Big Green Purse is motivated to protect the environment for health reasons, her early awareness of environmental issues stemmed from a love of nature instilled by her parents:

Being green goes way back for me. I don’t remember a time my parents didn’t say ‘Don’t waste.’ They also had a great appreciation of nature. One of my first memories is of my dad taking me to a field in southern Ontario to watch the Canada Geese migrate. My mother was a nature lover, too. We spent our summers in Nova Scotia, on Cape Breton Island, where there was no electricity and we lived close to the elements.

Similarly, Micaela Preston from Mindful Momma says that while her first priority these days is for her children, she was first motivated by learning about ecology in school and as a girlscout. She told me,

It was mostly about not littering back then…..”Give a hoot, don’t pollute”, the crying Indian commercial….you remember, right? (cause we’re about the same age! :) But I took it to heart, even at a young age!

Raising Healthy Children

children on the beach
Photo courtesty Amber Strocel from Strocel.com

Anna Hackman from Green Talk says:

I went green because of my children who have learning issues and allergies. I thought my best impact was in what we use in our homes since we live in them so much of our lives.

And Tiffany Washko from Nature Moms, whose first intro to green living was switching to cloth diapers, is also concerned about her family’s health:

My number #1 priority would be the the safety of my children and trying to reduce their exposure to environmental toxins. Frankly if I hadn’t become a mom I don’t know that I would have followed the green brick road so you can’t knock going green for health reasons… something Market Place should consider.

Saving Money

energy bill

Beany from The Middle Way does it for the money as well as the greater good:

Well for me, I became green for the literal green: money! I am semi-obsessed with retiring early and since I don’t have access to family connections, access (or luck to obtain) to high paying jobs or inheritances of any sort, I knew that in order to reach the goal of retiring early from the workplace I would change how I approached my goal. That meant living below my means and living a life that was rich and rewarding without sacrificing any values.

[...]

But now I can’t deny the importance I feel toward being good steward to planet Earth. I don’t feel that my individual actions contribute toward any greater good, but I cannot shop at any big box store because I cannot bear the thought that my purchases are a result of someone somewhere being exploited. I can’t bear the thought that my purchases is contributing to environmental degradation, lower quality of life and general shittiness all around. I don’t want to deny my human-ness. Living a life that is ethical, sustainable and kind to our planet is something I believe that shouldn’t just be a choice but a necessity.

And Katy Wolk-Stanley from the NonConsumer Advocate gets all “mathy” with her Venn diagram demonstrating how green values and frugality intersect.

Stewarding God’s Gifts

church window
Photo via Neil T on Flickr

Katie from Kitche Stewardship feels that taking care of the planet is her responsibility as a Christian.

I’ve always been a ‘conservative’ person, ‘green’ at heart if you will, and I’ve always had a strong faith, so I think understanding that God calls us to be good stewards of all our resources just came naturally and was part of my person as I matured and gained more adult responsibilities…. Since God is the giver of all these good gifts, my family’s health, the earth, my money and time to spend with my loved ones, taking good care of them all is my responsibility as a faithful person…. To be a good steward is to realize that nothing we have is ours, but it’s all on loan from our Creator. We need to only use what we need and try to leave the earth a better place for our children.

Lisa Sharp from Retro Housewife Goes Green feels the same way. A child of a hippie mom, she learned to recycle and buy food from the coop. Now, she feels her faith also plays a big role. “I believe the earth is a gift and we should take good care of it out of respect for God.”

So, are some green shades actually more selfish than others?

BlogHer CE Siel Ju from Green LA Girl has a pretty selfish reason for going green: human happiness.

Green living to me means happier living. Often, living with a smaller carbon footprint’s depicted as being a hard life of sacrifice — but for me, choosing not to fight daily traffic, not lug huge bags of trash to the dumpster on a near daily basis, and not pay gigantic water and power bills don’t exactly seem like sacrifices.

And blogger Isle Dance thinks all reasons are selfish reasons, and I couldn’t I couldn’t have put it more beautifully myself.

I do tend to consider myself driven by selfish/controlling reasons, when it comes to my desire to see us all living more naturally. Because I know how good it feels and I want others to know they can experience similar goodness, too. And because what another does affects my health (air, food, water). But of course, I truly care about said others and the nature at our toes, too. We are all such amazing, beautiful beings. Creations. Of nature.

A version of this post appears on BlogHer.com.

24 comments
Tan @ Trying to be a Granola Mom in a Fast-Food Wo
Tan @ Trying to be a Granola Mom in a Fast-Food Wo

This was a fantastic post for me to find - I am trying to be as green as I can for pretty much all those reasons listed (especially the kids one!). And I agree that it is all entwined - health, God, animals, kids... I also can identify with Peggy (first comment on this post) - that I still feel like a baby even though others look at me as totally "granola." I have such a long way to go even though green living really isn't hard or costly - it just takes some mindfulness. Some days that is just harder to muster than others! This post has definitely helped bring me some mindfulness today.

Marie Snyder
Marie Snyder

This is an excellent collection. I don't remember my initial motivation for becoming green because I inherited it. My parents were eco-conscious from living through the depression and war. We wasted nothing. But I continue to be motivated to write and be out there about it all because I'm fascinated with human behaviour. Most people seem to have a hard time measuring long term destruction against short term gain, and we make ridiculous choices over and over - like everyone having disposable coffee cups at an Earth Hour festival I attended. That it's too much for people to remember a travel mug (or buy one in the first place), is incredible to me. I wonder if education and mentoring help. I can only hope.

Lisa @Retro Housewife Goes Green
Lisa @Retro Housewife Goes Green

Great story Beth! You are right we all have different reasons and since they get us to the same place I don't think it really matters. :) .-= Lisa @Retro Housewife Goes Green´s last blog ..What's In That Sippy Cup? =-.

Emily
Emily

Great post - fun to read everyones stories. I have always been into recycling and not interested in buying lots of 'stuff'. However, it wasn't until the last 3 years or so that I really took the time to learn about what a landfill is really, and what is plasic made from. Sounds silly in retrospect... I mean what did I think it was made out of, right? Also, I must seriously say that the problems we are having with the middle east motivate me to cut as much petrolium out of my life as possible. I am into organics because of the pollution problems and wildlife problems from 'conventional farming'. I really hardcore decided to buy all organic when I realized the treatment of commercial chickens... I'll explain (o; It hit me that the market perversely goes where we point it with our wallets. So, if we decide to only pay $1.20 for eggs, then the market is going to meet that demand at the expense of the poor chickens. I realized that I need to vote with my wallet - spend a little more on eggs that were raised correctly. Spend a little more on sustainable farming. We are not rich either, I find that I can get by on a modest grocery budget by avoiding processed foods. Finally, I am afraid for the world that I am sending my young kids into, what is it going to be like when they are having kids? I want to make a positive difference for them. Okay, well that's my story. Em

farmer girl
farmer girl

Growing up on a small farm and being taught at a very early age that every living thing has a purpose and a reason for existing is fundamental to how I see the world. We had to make the most of the resources that we were fortunate enough to have. We heated with wood, canned our vegis, grew our own meat, and hauled our own water. When what you consume is a direct result of your own efforts, you do not waste. My folks worked so hard to provide for us and we were expected to contribute also. My Dad was delighted the first morning he woke up and the furnace came on, No getting out of bed to feed the stove! I remember being embarased to wear clothes my Mom sewed. I went to church camp and another girl had on shorts made of the same fabric. She was so proud that her mother had made them for her. I learned to see my Mom's sewing, not as an expression of our poverty but as a symbol of her love for me. It helped ease the embarasement. I now see that I was very fortunate to grow up with parents that love me and grandparents near by. My homeplace has sustained my family for 3 generations and I want to live and work in a way that passes it on. The farm is part of me, my memories are tied to every part of it. It is my legacy and I can feel the guiding influence of my Grandpa and my Dad teaching me how to love and care for it. The food I grow is sold to people I have known all of my life. I eat what I grow. It has to be healthy, I couldn't look people in the eye if it was phoney or fake. I have to buy local in hopes that my nephew will grow up in a place that is vibrant and healthy where he can live as an adult (if he chooses). I am tired of my family leaving for the city. The best and brightest from my school days have left as well. Bright flight and brain drain bum me out! I do it for myself, my community, my family, and my land. Every plant and animal has a place and a purpose, as do I.

Dee
Dee

My initial motivation was just to be a 'lite green'. Do a little and then assuage some of the guilt that comes with not doing anything. But then as my kids were born, one of them having allergies and eczema, and reading about the bottom line of unchecked chemical use in our daily life, I started to make more of an effort. As problems grow in our society as a result from our collective over use of chemicals, from physical to mental and learning issues, I feel even more moved to make a difference. When my children ask me why I care so much, I tell them it is in part because I wish for them to be able to conceive children easily and not have to be worried about what will be wrong with their babies. What a battle we have ahead...

Lara S.
Lara S.

Great post. I think that person on the radio hadn't really thought of the subject before talking. Either that, or he/she's very narrow-minded... The issue of the selfishness is ridiculous, it's as if protecting the earth had to be painful, unhealthy and expensive... Just today I was riding my bike and saw there was a sale of used clothes and other things, organized by Caritas. I found 2 used cotton bags to use as tote bags, 2 cotton handkerchiefs (very pretty!), and I also bought a new cotton tote bag made by unemployed women (with the Caritas logo). :) And I spent very little money. The problem of disconnection to our planet is, in my opinion, the core of the environmental crisis we are causing. The idea that we are not a part of nature has allowed us to recklessly destroy our environment, forgetting we depend on it. We need to learn to think ourselves as simply another element in the network of our planet.

Robbe
Robbe

Great post. Reminds me of a conversation we had in a book study last weekend - whether we are part of the God's universe or a part from it. In the end, the reasons for doing what we do don't matter, it's the results. .-= Robbe´s last blog ..GPB: Sweet Sixteen =-.

Goo
Goo

For me being Green really started with having children and the fear that we would quite literally leave them with nothing. Up until that point although I loved dabbling in the garden and going on nature walks, I think my greeness was pretty much in all honesty about how I viewed myself - a lifestyle choice if you like. Children make you think more urgently about the immediate future but also the future in which you are no longer present. .-= Goo´s last blog ..Earth Hour, Solemnities and Festivities =-.

Whiskas
Whiskas

I am working on eliminating plastic bc I am a sun-worshipping beach baby. I don't want anything to hurt my beautiful beaches and I want other people to be able to enjoy pristine beaches, free of plastic debris. I don't know about you, but I don't like putting my beach chair down in plastic waste that has washed up on shore. I love swimming in clean water! I also love all the creatures in the sea. They deserve a happy, healthy home free of plastic. The ocean is rad and I don't want humans to fuck it up! Oh total aside! My boyfriend recently came to visit me in Brooklyn. He lives in a pristine spot deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains. As we took an elevated train to Coney Island, he was shocked by the plastic trash under the tracks and the plastic bag "ghosts" blown into the tops of trees. I used this as a plastic bag/plastic waste teaching moment. He was also shocked by the lady in Fujianese Chinatown cutting up intestines in front of him while I happily slurped my dumplings, but that's a story for another day.

Sharon
Sharon

I'm with you. We are the planet.

Laura
Laura

I like hearing other people's reasons for going green and some of their actions because many times it's things I never thought of doing, but for them it made sense. Like I met a person who only buys wine made in the US instead of internationally - his logic was all about lowering his carbon footprint. I never would have thought of that! You can also say that buying US made wines help US economy, so everything really can be seen from different view points.

Amber
Amber

Thanks so much for this, Beth. I think that sometimes we feel the need to discount our own efforts, and that's unfortunate. It's as if what we are doing doesn't matter somehow, because we're not doing as much or in exactly the same way as others. And I think that's just not the case. We are all coming from different places, and making different choices, but we're also pretty much all doing our best. Beating ourselves up just doesn't help, I say. .-= Amber´s last blog ..Why I’m Participating in Earth Hour =-.

Courtney
Courtney

Great post, Beth! It's so important to focus on our commonalities rather than our differences--in all of life, not just in how we go green. .-= Courtney´s last blog ..This Moment: Signs of Spring =-.

Fate
Fate

Crossovers are always interesting to me. I don't really identify well with the "environmentalist" movement, but I do follow and do a lot of "environmentalist" things. My real start came purely for selfish reasons. I lived in an apartment next to a grocery store. It was more convenient to walk across the parking lot than get in the car and drive. Then, it was more convenient to get reusable grocery bags than carry plastic sacks. Then, I realized I was actually embarrassed about using reusable grocery bags. Realizing where that embarrassment came from got me mad. I don't think I'm alone in becoming an environmentalist for practical reasons.

Erika
Erika

I'm with you! I've had this conversation with a couple of people. One of them chose to live a green lifestyle because she's super-religious, and didn't want to "waste God's work." Another was a mother who bought organic eggs because she was concerned about the chemicals being fed to her child; she said "I don't care two shakes of a delicious lamb's tail about the chickens' welfare." In both cases they were making the right choice, and I decided that I didn't really care about the underlying reasons. (And that sometimes maybe it's better not to ask.) .-= Erika´s last blog ..Scarves I Have Known =-.

Carlie Madsen
Carlie Madsen

I agree with your unique priorities. I think my journey to greenness is aided by many of these reasons your fellow blogger mentioned. I'm mastering my self-marketing skills. On days that my cloth diapers have leaked through 3 outfits ...I take a deep breath and remind myself how much money I'm saving. On days that I would really rather buy the less expensive cat liter, I remind myself that I would rather pay more for products that don't hurt the environment. Any way, I could go on. I also like learning about what inspires other people because that deepens my commitment to live sustainably. .-= Carlie Madsen´s last blog ..Private Blog =-.

A Green Spell
A Green Spell

What a fun and beautifully-written post! .-= A Green Spell´s last blog ..Moving the Compost Bin: Day 2 =-.

Jen
Jen

I think that when I refer to shades of green I am meaning within myself. I know I can continue to be better in our own actions. As we "improve" and reduce our impact we get "greener". We don't measure ourselves to anyone else just how far we have come as a family.

Peggy
Peggy

See, I think it's that kind of separation (green vs. greener) that would keep most people from being mindful of their own situations. For a long, long time, my mom would scoff at the "treehuggers" and I learned how to think that way too. She thinks I've gone "over the edge" with my green-ness (even though I think I'm a baby conservationist) but we can relate on the stewardship issue. When she built her house, I was able to guide her toward "greener" choices because they were very often less expensive to install or maintain. But I learned not to mention that the choices she made were better for the environment because that statement would make her reconsider the purchase! (Yes, she's just THAT stubborn.) .-= Peggy´s last blog ..Important Nanotech Update! =-.

Erika
Erika

I'm with you! I've had this conversation with a couple of people. One of them chose to live a green lifestyle because she's super-religious, and didn't want to "waste God's work."

Another was a mother who bought organic eggs because she was concerned about the chemicals being fed to her child; she said "I don't care two shakes of a delicious lamb's tail about the chickens' welfare."

In both cases they were making the right choice, and I decided that I didn't really care about the underlying reasons. (And that sometimes maybe it's better not to ask.)

.-= Erika´s last blog ..Scarves I Have Known =-.

A Green Spell
A Green Spell

What a fun and beautifully-written post!

.-= A Green Spell´s last blog ..Moving the Compost Bin: Day 2 =-.

Peggy
Peggy

See, I think it's that kind of separation (green vs. greener) that would keep most people from being mindful of their own situations. For a long, long time, my mom would scoff at the "treehuggers" and I learned how to think that way too. She thinks I've gone "over the edge" with my green-ness (even though I think I'm a baby conservationist) but we can relate on the stewardship issue. When she built her house, I was able to guide her toward "greener" choices because they were very often less expensive to install or maintain. But I learned not to mention that the choices she made were better for the environment because that statement would make her reconsider the purchase! (Yes, she's just THAT stubborn.)

.-= Peggy´s last blog ..Important Nanotech Update! =-.