Calling someone an ‘environmental hypocrite’ is toxic and here’s why

~ This article was originally published in May 2018 on The Climate Lemon blog, and is republished on Medium with very minor edits, in September 2021.

Woman buying fresh fruit in a market. But look at those food miles! (Photo by Eddi Aguirre // Unsplash)

Have you ever noticed how often people that are trying to live a more ethical or sustainable lifestyle are accused of being an environmental hypocrite?

All the damn time!

And I’m so fed up with it.

Look, obviously it’s bad to be hypocritical, and it’s totally fair if people call you out on it.

But here’s the thing.

Most of the time it’s not actually hypocrisy, it’s just failing to be perfect. It’s for doing some good things and not doing everything. And to call someone a hypocrite for that is just BS. I think so anyway.

Others such as George Monbiot, blogger Felicia of Mind Tomorrow and Sami Grover on TreeHugger take the view that being an environmental hypocrite is just ‘irrelevant and inevitable’. I see what they’re getting at.

But I just think these criticisms often really stretch the meaning of hypocrisy.

Telling someone they can’t drive because of the pollution and then hopping in your car is hypocritical. Telling someone how bad it is to drive, while on your phone that was made from rare minerals and manufactured in a fossil fuel powered factory is not hypocritical, or at least not in a comparative way.

Here’s some examples of the kind of accusations I’ve come across, either online or to me or my friends and family:

  • You think you’re so ethical buying organic and natural products, but you drive a car!
  • If you’re vegan but use medication tested on animals you’re a hypocrite!
  • You’re a hypocrite if you say you’re vegan for the environment but have kids!
  • Buying local food is hypocritical if you’re buying high-street sweatshop clothes!
  • Criticising capitalism from your iPhone or laptop is the height of hypocrisy! (this one is very popular)
  • You can’t protest against Big Oil because you rely on roads!

There are so many more examples. Feel free to share your own in the comments. But you get the picture.

What annoys me so much about this is the implicit underlying assumptions that:

  • You think you’re a perfect faultless being and they are cleverly catching you out
  • As you can’t be perfect, there’s no point trying

I think both of these assumptions are toxic. Most people are acutely aware that they aren’t perfect, and don’t need to be reminded of this. And it’s incredibly obvious that lack of perfection is no excuse to just give up and do nothing.

There’s a common stereotype of environmentalists, vegans, and people that don’t fit a label but are just trying to live a more sustainable lifestyle, that they act all smug and superior and think they’re better than everyone else.

Now, I’m not saying there’s not people like that. Of course there are. But I don’t think they’re anywhere near as common as some proclaim.

You know what? I think this stereotype is mainly just a projection. Imagine this…

Someone sees you forgoing the beef because it’s so high carbon, and they start bitching about how it’s hypocritical because you eat other meat and you drive a car and you went on a plane last month and you use electricity and so on. You’ve never claimed to be zero carbon, you’re just trying to start somewhere.

Why do they feel the need to point out you’re ‘not perfect’ when you never claimed to be?

I think it’s because they suddenly feel insecure and guilty they aren’t making an effort like you are, and feel defensive that you or others are judging them and this defensiveness makes them lash out to try to bring you down so they don’t feel inferior compared to you. Even though you never suggested they were, it was just in their head.

That’s my hunch. What do you think?

Let’s be honest, making choices to live a more ethical or sustainable life take effort. It would be easier to just go with the flow. And going with the flow tends to mean high carbon, lots of plastic waste, lots of chemicals etc. Even if you try really hard and make this your priority, you still won’t be able to eliminate 100% of negative impact on the environment, animals or people.

This is because the global economic system is screwed up. It’s unsustainable and exploitative in a very systemic way. By just existing in this system, we can’t help but contribute to that to some extent. That’s why I always say fighting for systemic change is more important than lifestyle change.

But, and this is a huge but, that does not mean we should just not bother. Would you do that with anything else?

  • I’m not going to be a millionaire so I won’t even bother getting a job
  • I probably won’t get into Oxbridge or Harvard so I won’t bother applying for any university
  • I can’t have a mansion so might as well be homeless
  • I’m not a gourmet chef so guess I’ll only eat Pot Noodles

If you were that ‘all or nothing’ with any other aspect of life it would be absurd. So, don’t be like that with sustainable living.

Every small thing does make a difference. Okay it will be a small difference, but it is something, and it adds up when you do it a lot of times and lots of other people do it as well. Being thoughtful in our consumption is one of the key forms of power citizens have.

More importantly, if people are held to an impossible standard and think it’s either perfect or nothing, they will opt for nothing. Whereas if people are encouraged that everything counts, they will be more likely to do something, and that multiplied by a lot of people is huge.

E.g. if a thousand people significantly reduce their meat and dairy intake and choose more veggie and vegan options, this has more impact and is more achievable than say 100 people going vegan and then most of them lapsing and going back to their daily bacon burger habit.

Also, people’s circumstances and personalities mean that they find different things easier or harder. For example, I find it quite easy to be vegan. But I really struggle with reducing my waste. Somebody else might find it way easier to give up plastic than cheese.

If someone is making the effort to do even one good thing, don’t berate them for not doing another thing as well, or instead. Don’t say they’re doing it to be high and mighty. And don’t feel like it makes you a bad person by comparison.

And if you’re making an effort with something and getting hate for it, just ignore the negativity and do what you can. You’re contributing to a movement that will — someday — make sustainable living just normal and convenient and default.

So, being perfectly ethical and sustainable in this economy is impossible. And making any kind of positive changes to your lifestyle takes effort and thought — so it’s commendable.

We should not be judging ourselves or others for not being perfect, but applauding action every step of the way.

I occasionally write articles here. Interested in climate, sustainability, social justice, politics, economics, pop culture…