Green Living: Leading by Example or Passive Aggressive Preaching?

Image credit: South Park/Comedy Central

As I noted in my post on The Art of the Eco-argument, we're often better off leading our own lives than telling others how to lead theirs. In fact, if eco-snobbery is left unchecked, it could lead to a major backlash against the environmental movement. But, having recently noted some negative reactions to folks who are very much just 'doing their own thing', another question bothers me. Can leading by example become a subtle but passive aggressive form of preaching? Can we, and should we, mitigate the way we communicate our own lifestyle changes, or should folks who get annoyed by our prius driving, bike riding, plastic bag eschewing ways just get a life? The strong negative reactions by some toward Mark Boyle's attempts to live without cash are a case in point. Sure, Mark goes out on a limb and suggests there are lessons to be learned for everyone by his experiment—but he's hardly forcing change on others. Yet the haters got their backs up, calling him a "self-righteous self-publicist with a Gandhi fetish." In fact, the attacks got so bad that none other than George Monbiot had to wade into the fray, pointing out that "some people seem to feel profoundly threatened by what Mark's doing." Similarly, my own post on the Selective Flush had one commenter "recoiling in disgust" at the stench they had "just been asked to live with. (I don't recall having invited them to move in.)

It seems obvious to me that if we are hoping our green lifestyle choices will awaken awareness in others and create a wider cultural shift, then it's also inevitable that with that awareness will sometimes also come denial and/or resistance. After all, recognizing the depths of unsustainability that our culture has gotten itself into is an uncomfortable, and sometimes frightening, experience. And every action we take toward sustainable living is likely to be taken by some as holding a mirror up to their own less-than-optimal choices.

Don't get me wrong, I know only too well that some greens can preach without preaching. There's only so many times you can wave your aluminum water bottle or organic eggs in someone's face before they intuit that a) you are trying to tell them something, b) you don't have the guts to come out and say it, and c) that a voice in their head is telling them to take said eco-item and batter you over the head with it.

So what are we to do? Nothing, I think. Beyond continuing to live our lives as best we can with joy and enthusiasm, enjoy ourselves, offer advice and encouragement generously when it is welcome, and avoid appearing too smug about the green choices we make. (Chances are that we all have our own eco-sins in our closet for others to judge anyway.)

And just because we quit preaching on a personal level does not mean we can't raise our voices in the political arena—in fact this is where most of our efforts should be going anyway. All the organic tofu in the world will not make the slightest bit of difference if we continue to live in a world where the US can pull the plug on climate talks a month before they start.

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