Morals Are Crucial to Environmentalism. Moralising is Not.

Angie Garrett/CC BY 2.0

When I wrote about Cinnaholic's gourmet vegan cinnamon rolls the other day, I ended up reading back over Matthew's piece on why dietary fundamentalism gets in the way of fighting factory farming.

While many of the comments on that piece were supportive, there were many others who argued strongly that their position was the right one, and anyone who continues to eat meat or dairy is culpable in horrific animal abuse. I'm not going to get into the rights and wrongs of that argument here (I've covered the moral issues of whether or not to eat meat plenty of times before, and at least one reader has recently chastised me for going over that territory at least once too often.)

What concerns me here is tactics and strategy.

Environmentalism is a Broad Church
Whether you are interested in animal rights, waste reduction, green transportation or cutting energy use, the chances are that as an environmentalist you have strong opinions about what each of us should or should not be doing to build a better world.

And that's OK.

Morality Matters. But Individual Virtue is a Distraction.
Despite my insistence that environmentalism is not a religion, there is a deep moral aspect to the quest for a sustainable culture. But, unlike religious ideologies that focus on individual virtue and personal salvation, the morality of environmentalism should be concerned primarily with collective success. That is to say, as I argued in my piece on why green lifestyle choices can't save us, the actions that matter are those that are most likely to lead us toward the end goal of a cleaner, more resilient, more rewarding and more compassionate society.

Sure, opinions may differ over what our priorities should be. Some may focus on animal rights (with various subsets ranging from veganism to "ethical" meat eaters). Others will concern themselves with fossil fuel use. Or clean water issues. And some of us will focus on personal lifestyle changes while others will be more concerned with political activism. It's helpful to debate and discuss what each of us should be doing to advance the collective cause, but we must be very, very wary of pointing fingers—even if we are sure that our personal stance is the right one.

Grievances May Be Justified. But That Doesn't Mean They Should Be Nurtured.
I truly get why vegans might call meat eaters murderers. I understand why hardcore energy efficiency folks might lament arm chair environmentalists who don't turn the lights out. And I am even somewhat tolerant of people who get mad because you forgot your reusable bags at home. But I would argue that we all need to judge very carefully when and if to speak up about our opinions about how others choose to live their lives.

Because finger pointing leads to dead ends and a divided movement. Environmentalism is not a pissing contest over who is greener. It is a cultural and political movement that is seeking to create the conditions where sane environmental choices are the norm, not the exception—and that requires us to build an astoundingly broad coalition of interests.

Divided We Fall
Should a vegan who drives to work judge a meat eater who works from home? Should a cyclist who eats meat and eschews flying judge a vegetarian who jets off to yoga retreats once a year? Should an avid energy efficiency freak spend their time lamenting a political activist who leaves his TV on standby? Many of us are doing an awful lot to make the world better. And most of us could do an awful lot more. But if we insist on perfection, we exclude a lot of voices. Each individual moral grievance with others' choices may be justified if we focus on personal morality—but as I argued before, personal morality should not be our primary concern.

It's not enough to be good. We have to win too. And to win, we need a lot of allies.

Tags: Activism | Animal Rights | Global Climate Change | Vegan | Vegetarian

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