I Don't feel Bad For Eating Meat. So Why Do I Apologize For It?

confession photo

Image credit: Lori Greig, used under Creative Commons license.

When Treehugger descended on Atlanta recently, I found myself sitting opposite a vegetarian colleague at dinner. Without realizing it, as I ordered my lamb shank, I began explaining to the above mentioned herbivorous colleague how rarely I eat meat, despite the fact he never said a word. Could it be that I had a guilty conscience?Does Eco-Judgmentalism Change Behavior?
We've talked a lot about judgmentalism here on TreeHugger. From the assertion that locavores can be snobby to the counter-argument that we greens are often judged by those around us for stepping outside the norm, the general consensus seems to be that passing judgment on our friends and acquaintances for things they do or don't do for the environment is counter productive. (There is some evidence, however, to suggest that nagging girlfriends may be an effective agent of change.)

Self-Judgment is the Harshest of All
What interests me most, though, is that the harshest judgment is often the one we place on ourselves—and this judgment is often prompted by the behavior we see in others. The fact is that the lifestyle choices of others can often be perceived as a comment on our own behavior and values—whether that is their intention or not.

We See Ourselves in Others
I may be a strong believer in animal husbandry as an integral part of sustainable agriculture, for example, but sit me next to a vegetarian and I find it hard not to be on the defensive. We know, after all, that vegetarian diets could cut carbon emissions drastically and heck, even Anthony Bourdain says we should eat less meat. And I'd be lying to myself if I said every cut of meat I eat is as sustainable as it could be.

Similarly, while I have always tried to live my life by my own ethics, and avoid preaching to others—and while I have plenty of ungreen skeletons in my (FSC-certified) closet—there's many a time when friends or relatives have felt the need to explain to me why they don't compost, recycle or bike to work. I've usually felt very uncomfortable when put in this position, having neither asked nor intended to be positioned as an authority on anything but my own life. It seems that whatever we do, we judge our actions in comparison to those around us.

What the Eco-Confession Means for the Green Movement
Just what this tendency to compare and judge means for the green movement is hard to say. I've argued before that we must be aware of that thin line where leading by example becomes passive aggressive preaching, but if others are intent on viewing our actions as a judgment or statement then there is little we can do to stop it.

I guess the most encouraging lesson in all of this is that ethics are a shared, cultural phenomenon. If we find ourselves reflecting on our own environmental impact, based on the actions of those we see around us, and if they in turn find themselves doing the same, then we know that environmental ethics are becoming embedded in our culture.

Maybe we can change after all. Looking at my neighbor, I probably should...

More on Ethics, Environmentalism and Communication
Green Living: Leading By Example or Passive Aggressive Preaching?
To Be Effective, Environmentalism Cannot Be a Lifestyle Choice
Environmentalism: Movement, Philosophy, Ethic or What?

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